On Nakedness

Last month, ESPN The Magazine‘s annual Body issue came out. I didn’t know ESPN The Magazine had an annual Body issue (I was only vaguely aware there was an ESPN The Magazine), but I heard about this one weeks in advance. Every year, the Body issue features tasteful, artistically nude photographs of athletes from a variety of sports, most of them people I’ve never heard of. But this year, among them, is Michael Phelps:

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.
Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

I’m enthusiastic about the Body issue; it seems to me that it is the perfect response to the decades-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which is all about sex and not at all about sports. While SI features models in swimsuits, ESPN features athletes without them. These are not photos of women as objects; these images portray people, male and female, who use their bodies to do amazing things.

In addition, any positive media portrayal of Michael Phelps is good for American swimming. Swimming in the United States gets very little attention in between Olympic games. USA Swimming and US Masters Swimming are trying to attract more people to the sport with a new campaign called SwimToday (slogan: The Funnest Sport), and when Phelps talks, as he does at the end of this ESPN video (lots more nude Phelps there), about how much fun it is to swim, it’s good for all of us.

And yet, when I learned that Michael Phelps was being featured tastefully nude in ESPN The Magazine, my first thought was, Why? Is there any athlete we need naked photos of less than Michael Phelps? We all know what Phelps looks like almost naked. The difference between Michael Phelps in a swimsuit and Michael Phelps with no clothes is very very small: if you squint at any of the ESPN images, you can imagine that he’s posing in a little white speedo.

(If you follow British news, you could argue that we need photos of a naked Tom Daley even less than a naked Michael Phelps. I’m really amused by this Daily Mail article about Daley “posing topless.” He’s topless all the time. He lives his life topless. He’s a diver: they don’t wear clothes.)

My point is, while we might see something new when we see an athlete like Venus Williams or Prince Fielder with no clothes, the swimmer is already naked. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from David McGlynn’s “Skin,” an essay about bodies and nakedness and what it means to be a swimmer:

[In swimming] there are no shoes, no pads or bats, no accoutrements except for the goggles–nothing, in other words but the body. The swimmer symbolizes an essential athletic truth, that every physical contest begins this way, with the body, and one sport separates from another by the equipment and apparel it heaps onto the arms and legs, the shoulders and back and head. Bareness also keeps swimming obscure. Without jerseys or ball caps to sell in the mall, it’s hard for kids to imitate professional swimmers by dressing like them. The only way to do that is to exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer, in other words, is actually to swim. (267-68)

Swimming requires very little equipment and almost no clothes; it is sport stripped down. McGlynn states that the nakedness of swimming paradoxically keeps it hidden: you can’t put on an outfit and pose as a swimmer. On Sundays in the fall, I see whole families shopping at Costco kitted out in the uniforms of their favorite players, men, women, and children in varying sizes of the same jersey, “Roethlisberger” or another famous name written across their narrow shoulders. But you can’t put on a swimmer’s uniform. A swimmer has no uniform. A swimmer has a body.

The photos of Michael Phelps in the nude are beautiful, but they are hardly revelatory. Phelps takes off his clothes to swim, each day, every day. That is what swimmers do: not just the top swimmers, but all of us. You “exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer . . . is actually to swim.”

McGlynn, David. “Skin.” Southwest Review 95 (2010): 262-75.

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