Athletes' bodies are on display constantly. Whether they're running, climbing, jumping, throwing, skating, hitting or engaging in any other motion, we're watching them. But how often do we stop to think about how varied those bodies are?
That is exactly what ESPN The Magazine set out to do with its Body Issue. The annual issue is meant to celebrate athletes from across the sporting world and across gender, from the superfamous to the less well-known, in carefully composed nude photographs.
Athletes including Serena Williams, Hope Solo, Prince Fielder, Gus Kenworthy, the U.S. women's national hockey team, the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive line and many other fan favorites have graced the multiple covers that each issue features. Along with the images showcasing all different types of athleticism, the magazine has included interviews with athletes talking about body image, discussing their struggles with it and portraying that many body types are capable of athletic feats.
This special feature has been a highlight for the past decade, but last week ESPN published its final print edition of the magazine after 21 years. ESPN announced in April that the September issue of the magazine would be its last. In a statement, the company said the work and features by journalists for the magazine would not end, but that based on consumer trends, the content would move entirely to the digital platform.
The company is expected to launch ESPN Cover Story this fall, bringing many of the "high-concept franchises born in ESPN The Magazine" to a monthly digital presentation that showcases features on athletes.
To mark the moment and get a sense of how the idea for The Body Issue came to creation, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with the magazine's editor-in-chief, Alison Overholt, on All Things Considered.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On where the idea for The Body Issue came from
There were some conversations that came actually out of the action sports and X Games world, where some of the athletes had done an art project where they took nude photos. And they are actually very beautiful. I mean, you started to get a sense that body types were very different depending on the sport.
Then there was sort of perpetual conversation around training and fitness. And, you know, body has never actually gone so explicitly into that space. But this felt like a way for us to begin to talk about what do athletes do in order to make their bodies into the machines that they are?
On getting athletes to sign on at the beginning
My first year was crazy. We openly had conversation about how this might be completely impossible. We also knew that it would hinge on one or two influential people saying yes and that making other people feel safe. And it actually hinged on Serena Williams. Our editor-in-chief at the time approached her on the red carpet at the ESPYs and asked her if she would do this and had an elevator pitch ready and explained to her what he thought it could accomplish. She was a star, of course, but she was building her public image and her reach with fans beyond tennis.
She looked at him and, you know, asked him a couple of questions and then said, "Would you put me on the cover?" And he said yes. And she said, "I'm in." She was our first Body cover. For her to do that made other athletes say, "You know, all right. This is something."
On sensitivity and working conditions during photo shoots
We take a lot of special steps. One of the earliest conversations that we had specifically about Body was the need to bring it, you know, into focus around a mission statement that we developed that's very simply "Everybody has a story."
So every single piece that we did, every time we approached an athlete, we wanted to know, first, what's your body story? You know, what is the story that they want to tell? Then we work with them to figure out what would be the creative expression visually of that story. And based on that, we're pairing people with photographers who can bring that vision to life.
We're talking to them about, you know, do you feel more comfortable with an open set or a closed set? Do you want to bring people with you who are going to make you feel more comfortable? They're looking at images on-screen as they're coming through, which is something that, you know, we don't do at every single shoot. But for something like this, you need to be comfortable with the material.
On a special story in the last issue
There's a young woman in the issue named Scout Bassett. And she is a Paralympic track and field athlete. She was born in China, and she was abandoned and an orphan and was actually caught in a terrible house fire at a very, very young age. As a result, she lost her leg. She wasn't adopted by her American family until she was, you know, probably middle elementary school and didn't begin running until she was into her teens. And she became an incredibly accomplished track and field athlete.
When she decided she wanted to do The Body Issue, she was very specific with us and said, "I want to make sure people can see my scars because I want them to understand that scars are part of what makes you who you are. And, you can have strength and beauty and power even after overcoming an experience like what I went through."
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, says Scout Bassett competes at UCLA. In fact, she is no longer a college athlete.