athletes · body image

The Shape of an Athlete

HS 1These 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.


12 thoughts on “The Shape of an Athlete

  1. thanks for this post…I have found my shape changing as I have become more into weight lifting and struggle with it a little. I’m not as thin as I was before I started and need my mind to catch up to the fact that this new shape is good too–I shouldn’t be looking for the skinny one to come back…

    1. Seeing the body change can be difficult, but as you can see, there are lots of body shapes and sizes and they’re all pretty awesome! Thin is not the only ideal worth embracing.

  2. I stare at these photos so hard every time I come around that I’m thinking I should probably just buy the book already.

    Also, regarding athletes with disabilities: Aimee Mullins is one of the athletes included in this as well. Her photo is here:

    Of course, there could be so many more, which is why I think an updated book would be awesome. Can you imagine Tatyana McFadden in this book? Her upper body is incredible.

  3. Before the last Olympics, the Guardian newspaper (or perhaps the Observer) has a series of photos of GB Olympians and paralympians too. Well worth looking out in response to your criticism of this book.

  4. The depiction of athletic physique in this picture is great! There are all shapes and forms of athleticism with no specific form being the ultimate example. As a collegiate athlete I am greatly interested in fitness and the diversity around it. Your blog is very interesting and well rounded in description and information relating to the topic. Thank you for the interesting read!

  5. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    For today’s #tbt I’m reposting an oldie but goodie from the early days of the blog (when I wasn’t even yet into photography!). Howard Schatz’s amazing work debunking the idea of “one look” for athletes has helped us in countless ways as we do our best to be a voice for fit bodies of all shapes and sizes. If anyone doubts that athletic capacity is not all about being tall, thin and lean (though some of these athletes are that, yes), you need look no further than Schatz’s work in The Shape of an Athlete. Enjoy!

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