These photos by Howard Schatz, from his 2002 book, Athlete, have been making the rounds lately. Sam gave a shout-out to Schatz’s photos in her popular post, “Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI?”
People–myself included–can’t stop looking at them. They are all pictures of professional athletes ready for game day, that is, they’re in peak physical condition.
What’s so absorbing about them is the range of body sizes and shapes depicted? The human body is for sure a thing of fascination and beauty. And there’s something awe-inspiring about a body that can perform the way the bodies of professional athletes can. So that’s one reason these images catch our attention.
Their real power, I think, is in the impact of the group shot. We know there’s diversity among human bodies–different shapes, sizes, proportions, colors and abilities. But though it’s obvious that a gymnast will, for obvious reasons, have a different body from a speed skater, and that a boxer needs a different body than a long-distance runner, it’s somehow not something we think about much.
Most of us default to a standard stereotype of “the female athlete.” But what that mental picture usually amounts to is an image of a fitness model–slender with visible muscles and a six-pack.
The range of bodies depicted in the series is a great reminder of the range of types even among professional athletes. There’s no one shape that is “athletic.” Schatz doesn’t just photograph women, either. We see an amazing range and contrast when men and women are pictured side-by-side.
Another point worth noting is that the fascinating bodies of these athletes are by-products of athletic achievement, not the goal in-itself (except perhaps for the body-builders). Olympic swimmers, for example, don’t get into swimming because they want the body of a swimmer. Intense focus on what the body can do ultimately yields a body that does those things.
You don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from that message. As we’ve said before on the blog, a focus on what the body can do, on athletic rather than aesthetic values, and on things that you enjoy rather than things that will help you look a certain way will make for an all around more satisfying experience of activity that is likely to improve your quality of life on many levels.
The only criticism I have of the series (and I confess that I have not seen the whole book, so maybe it’s just a criticism of what has been reprinted on the internet) is that there are no disabled athletes included. Athletes who compete in the para-Olympics are amazing examples of outstanding physical achievement as well. Many of them can easily outperform most nondisabled people in their sport. Including their bodies alongside these other athletes would have given us a more accurate glimpse at a fuller range of elite athleticism.
Though Schatz represents an amazing range and that carries a powerful message, there is room for still more diversity in our representation of athleticism and the athletic body.