Body Issue highlights athletes on, off the field

I have a rule: When the Victoria's Secret catalog inevitably lands in my mailbox every fourth day, I do not page through it, debating the merits of push-up and demi bras. I do not dog-ear pages and casually leave them around the house, hoping my husband will surprise me with an airplane stewardess-themed boudoir kit. I do not even allow myself to cast a glance toward the cover. No, the instant my retina scans that first "V," I turn toward the recycling bin and drop it like it's hot.

The reason is simple: All those perfect bodies make me feel crappy about myself. It doesn't matter that I've written a book on body image, or that I know every image we see in modern society has been airbrushed within an inch of its life. Over the years, VS has instilled in me a Pavlovian response, and that response is unpleasant at best, dangerous at worst.

So how is it that I look forward to reading ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue? It, too, is chock full of seemingly unattainable bodies, all sinew and muscle and six packs and luscious booties. I'm especially in love with the current issue because our writers have tackled the monster issue of body image. Millions of women struggle on a day-to-day -- if not minute-to-minute -- basis with their feelings about their body, and these honest interviews show us we are not alone:

• USA goalkeeper Hope Solo has had issues with feeling feminine and used to try to get out of lifting weights in college because she didn't want her arms and shoulders to bulk up more.

• Olympic and X Games snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler used to feel badly about her "bigger" legs and butt.

• Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles was teased for her height, called "She Woman," "Green Giant" and even "Shaq."

• U.S. Track & Field sprinter Natasha Hastings was self-conscious of her lean runner's physique, which featured a flatter chest.

Even athletes who spend the bulk of their day in teeny bathing suits (surfer Steph Gilmore) or wedgie-threatening leotards (Team USA gymnast Alicia Sacramone) confess to moments of distress. "You're often standing in front of the mirror right before competition thinking, 'God, I hope I don't look fat in this,'" Sacramone admits. Truly, nobody is immune.

Unlike other shall-remain-nameless sports magazines that annually feature (for no apparent reason) naked or near-naked non-athlete women posing in g-strings and body paint, the Body Issue showcases athletes themselves. The images highlight their accomplishments on and off the field and capture their strength in a beautiful, respectful way. A diverse rainbow of body types are featured, from 5-foot-1 Sacramone to 6-foot-1 Fowles. (Men are featured, too, so one could argue it's -- at the very least -- equal-opportunity exploitation.)

Personally, as a 5-foot-10 woman, I always love to hear from other tall ladies who have embraced their height, and the Body Issue is full of them. But you needn't be semi-Amazonian to relate to these stars -- or to appreciate how they've transformed emotionally and physically over the course of their careers. Those "big" thighs on Bleiler? They help her flip 12 feet above an icy halfpipe. Gilmore's height (she's also 5-10) powers her paddling and helps her to push up through her oceanic maneuvers. Solo's solid build delivers the power, agility and speed necessary to hurl herself in front of a penalty kick. As USA Hockey forward Julie Chu puts it, "The sports world gave me the confidence and self-awareness to be proud of what I look like."

I love how Fowles -- who, some would argue, faces the most daunting challenge, considering she towers over 99 percent of all men -- sums it up the best:

"You'll think I'm cocky, but I'm totally infatuated with my legs now. They are just big, healthy and toned. My mom tells me I have a problem. She thinks I like my body too much because I'm always walking around in little shorts and a sports bra at home. But if you see my mom you'd know where the confidence comes from: She's got big hips, a big booty and a small waist. She thinks she is the sexiest thing ever!"

espnW columnist Leslie Goldman is a die-hard workout junkie who covers health and fitness for many popular women's magazines and is the author of "Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-imagining the 'Perfect' Body." Full disclosure: Her high school athletic experience was limited to sophomore-year color guard.

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