Laurie Toby Edison

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The Unexpected Body

Debbie says:

When two different regular readers refer us to the same link (and a third to the source material), they’re probably on to something. It’s exciting enough that Prince Fielder (is that the best name ever for a baseball player?) was the cover model for ESPN Magazine’s “The Body” issue.

Fielder posed naked, in his tattooed glory, in a pose designed to showcase, rather than downplay, his pot belly. The issue features many other interesting (including some nonstandard) sports bodies.

Better still is Leigh Cowart’s analysis at The Concourse. First of all, she gave me the term “The Unexpected Body,” which I feel like I should have heard before, but is new to me. Cowart says,

The unexpected body is one that looks out of place in a sport, the grown-up version of the kid who always heard they had ‘a good heart, but the body’s just not there.’ They defy society’s narrow expectations; they make everyone eat their words. …

People expect certain kinds of bodies from certain kinds of athletes, with each little pocket of competition tending toward a preferred morphotype. Opposite Balanchine’s ideal ballerinas, with their small heads and sloped shoulders and long feet tacked onto their whisper-light frames, football likes men who are broad and tall and thickly draped in muscle, the largeness of the frame superseded only by the voracious nature of the appetite required to maintain—never mind bulk-up—such a massive organism. Basketball, on the other hand, has a known affinity for an ultra-tall, ultra-lean body. …

But baseball is somewhat more relaxed in the body department, thanks in part to the diversity of positions. There are durable, muscular catchers; shortstops with those fast-twitch, spring-loaded legs; third baseman who are sturdily built yet lean enough to snap and twist at the waist. Who would look at Babe Ruth, Ichiro Suzuki, Greg Maddux, Barry Bonds, Yu Darvish, and Yasiel Puig, and assume they were all professional athletes at the highest level of the same sport?

As a small-time, not especially knowledgeable, baseball fan, I find this fascinating. I have seen vast differences in height, leg length, stockiness, etc. on the baseball field, in a very different way than one sees it in soccer or basketball, and never given it a second thought.

Cowart goes on to talk about Fielder:

There’s an audacity to Fielder’s athleticism. That he could be so unusually large for the game and yet still play it well, combined with the fact that he appears to give not a single fuck about the former, make him an easy favorite. He’s an 162-day-a-year reminder that cultural body norms are almost always short-sighted and lacking, at the very least. With his exceptional mass, his sloppy but enthusiastic running, his swing that spans wide and arching, and his frantic mid-run dives, Prince Fielder embodies so much of what’s great about the game. He’s our ultimate fat baseball player.

I’ll stop quoting now, but the third part of Cowart’s article talks about the social media reaction to the picture. Unsurprisingly (if you’re a body-image activist), at least some people in social media lost their shit when they saw Fielder’s belly. Despite the man’s remarkable track record, many people can’t see him as an athlete and see his pot belly at the same time. One of my “favorite” tweets is:

How am I going to explain Prince Fielder’s Body Issue cover to my children

— Matt Collins (@RedSox_Thoughts) July 8, 2014

Well, Mr. Collins, I would suggest, “Doesn’t he look wonderful?” Someone at the link suggested, “Children this is what confidence and normalcy look like. May you always feel comfortable in the skin you’re in,” which works for me too.

The unexpected body, it seems, is not just unexpected but incomprehensible. As a nation, we are so convinced that fat is antithetical to athleticism and good shape that we don’t even know what to do with the combination when it is shown in unmistakable glory.

Kudos to ESPN for using Fielder’s photo. I just hope every fat kid who wants to be a baseball player sees this picture (and doesn’t have a father who can’t figure out what to tell their kid about an athlete’s pot belly).

Also thanks to Lizzie Fox and Lynn Kendall for the pointer to Cowart, and Steven Schwartz for the pointer to the ESPN issue.

One Response to “The Unexpected Body”

  1. D. Says:

    I think it was John Kruk (Phillies) who said “I’m not an athlete, I’m a baseball player.”

    How many of the social media cranks play ball at the professional level again?

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