Home Social Construct Re-Examining – And Re-Defining – The Athlete’s Body

Re-Examining – And Re-Defining – The Athlete’s Body

by Erika Nicole Kendall

No more annoying – to me – is the idea that, at 5AM, I’m foolish enough to believe that placing an order for a pill will turn me into this amazingly cut blonde white woman with washboard abs.

Um, y’all don’t make pills strong enough for all that. I might be close on the abs… but the rest? C’mon.

The dieting industry has made it a total draw to “get this ‘athletic’ body!!!!! without work!!!!!!!!!! take our pill!!!!! exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I get it. We always want results with little work. That’s…. cute? It’s cute because it’s naive… and I always associate naive with children. And really, children are always cute.

The reality, here, is that again we’ve allowed industry to romanticize something that – with even a moderate amount of digging beneath the surface, we could learn – simply isn’t true.

Don’t sell me on “this pill could help you achieve an athlete’s body,” and then rush to define “athlete’s body” as this person with almost dangerously low body fat because “society thinks this looks good, even though American society has more body fat than it can stand to admit to itself.” It simply isn’t true.

Enter Howard Schatz.

Within the pages of their 2002 photobook aptly titled Athlete, you will find the following:


I see you, Lisa Leslie!

Do you see what I see?

Let me tell you what I see. I see a multitude of bodies – obviously athletic bodies, lest they be unsuccessful in their sports – in various shapes and sizes. I see bodies that don’t feel required to fit into whatever mold the “un-fit masses” have tried to fit them in. Why? They’re too busy committing themselves to their craft.

From the description of the book:

With a seamless blend of art and precision, Schatz shows us the awesome upper-body power of Olympic wrestling champions, discus throwers, and football players; the lissome graces of high jumpers and rhythmic gymnasts, the shock-absorbing legs of downhill skiers, the sculptural perfection of NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens and sprinter Shawn Crawford; the compact muscularity of gymnasts Tasha Schwikert and Sean Townsend; the Giacometti-like slenderness of marathoners Tegla Loroupe and American marathon champion Deena Drossin; as well as 125 other athletes at the top of their games. In serene portraits and intricately dissected motion photographs, Schatz gives us an unprecedented celebration of the body as divine machine, and manages at the same time to present a collective view of the human spirit at its most intense.

What is my point, here? My point, really, is three-fold.

First, don’t get suckered into defining something as broad as “athlete” – especially when “athlete” can refer to everything from gymnastics to sumo wrestling – by marketing that never even mentions a sport. It’s disrespectful to and discounts those who don’t fit that visual description – it excludes them from their rightfully earned title of “athlete” because they don’t look the way an uninformed public says an “athlete” should look – and doesn’t give them the credit they deserve.

Second, these are extremely – extremely – successful athletes. There are Olympians in this photo set. If they’ve got what you consider to be amazing bodies? Guess what – they’re not taking pills to get them. They’re putting in work. The only people who believe you can get “something” for “nothing” are those who have nothing. In fitness, you have to work. You want that body? Let’s see several hours a week – maybe even several hours a day – of commitment toward achieving it.

Lastly, if you can see how foolish society’s standards are for fitness…. then the logical question must be “where does this standard come from?” If you can’t answer that question immediately, and be satisfied with your answer… perhaps you should question why you hold yourself to such a standard in the first place.

Just a thought.

Scans from Athlete found here.

Click to purchase Athlete.

Y’all can thank Ngozi for this beauty.

You may also like


JoAnna March 25, 2011 - 11:38 AM

Well stated. Extremely well stated! I once had a karate instructor who was about 5’8″ tall and weighed maybe 165lbs. He warmed up throwing around 6’+, 200+lbs black belts just to show to us that size and bulk doesn’t matter. He also told us that for martials arts, the body must be limber and quick, as well as strong and healthy.

We once had a basketball game against another school and our sensei couldn’t even throw the ball towards the basket. Over the basket, under the basket, to the right of the basket, anywhere but near it! There was some good-natured ribbing later and he reminded us that we all visualize what we want our bodies to do and train to get there.

I wish the media would showcase some of those larger Olympic athletes because one size doesn’t fit all. You can’t be tiny and a sumo wrestler. You definitely can’t be 5’5″ and a pro-basketball player! And a large bulky physique is not gonna run sprints or marathons. Diversity is just bred in us.

Ben Hyrman March 25, 2011 - 1:42 PM

Aww c’mon, you’re forgetting Spud Webb (ok, technically he was 5′ 7″) and Muggsy Bogues!

Of course, the exception proves the rule I suppose. Still, they put in tons of work and were great on the court… no pills involved for them either!

Carmel March 25, 2011 - 11:59 AM

I do love this post. It leads me into serious thought about the standards I should hold myself too. See, I’ve been overweight since I was 14 and I have been trying since then to lose it without much success. However, I’ve always been limber, full of endurance. I have the makings of a great athlete. In what I have no clue. I have no guidance and I can’t afford trying the things I would like to take part in. By the time I was in college, the teams were comprised with those who played the sport already. Now, I just don’t know where to go to get started. Either way, I am seeing that My Body will be build for whatever purpose I gear it towards. It feels better to work towards a purpose than the hope of looking like Beyonce. It’s a realization that I garnered from reading many of your articles. Thank you.

Melissa March 25, 2011 - 1:19 PM

Absolutely love this!! Thank you!

Daphne March 25, 2011 - 2:18 PM

This is why the often-used “a certain weight = health/fit” concept is a fallacy. What most people are fixated on, including myself once upon a time, is body shape and size, maybe even dress size (especially women).

Society’s standards have little to nothing to do with fitness – it’s about a certain “look.” Which, okay, but stop conflating thin or slim with fit/athletic. I feel like with the rise of “health consciousness,” there has been this push to get the athletic/fit ideal to coincide with the “thin” ideal (very close to the rhythmic gymnasts shown above). And they can be synonymous, but they don’t HAVE to be. Of course, it can also be noted that very few of the athletes shown are significantly overweight (disproportionate to their height and body type, that is).

Speaking of society’s standards, this is also why I give the side-eye to, “Men like their women fit” mantra, as a way to motivate women to “get healthy.” That’s BS. They may like them slim, thin, etc, but I don’t think the average man cares about athleticism or fitness in a woman.

linda March 25, 2011 - 4:23 PM


Long time reader, first time commenter.

One interesting thing that you may not realize….the wrestler, Rulon Gardner,(first picture, far right) is on the current season’s BIGGEST LOSER….

Erika Nicole Kendall March 25, 2011 - 4:29 PM



(Oh, and don’t be a stranger!)

Kait March 25, 2011 - 5:04 PM

I was JUST going to pass that tidbit along…He’s doing really well actually BUT working with the new trainers who are all about MMA (which would be right up his alley as a wrestler). As much as I hate to admit that I even watch the show, I got sucked in (your description of it as a form of porn is so accurate).

Nat March 30, 2011 - 3:43 PM

I was JUST about to make the same comment about Rulan. Not that O’m dogging him out or anything because I’m not. Most of us know what it is like to be (or have been) overweight and all of the mental stuff that goes along with it. What I love about the show is that they are exploring that with him (all of the how’s and why’s). Hopefully someone else will find it helpful.

This is my 1st year watching a full season of BL. I am a Jilliam Michaels FANATIC and when I heard this was going to be her last season I had to watch. I love that woman… I wish I had her training me!

Nannette Wade March 26, 2011 - 10:50 AM

Athletes develop their bodies based on their sport and position. My son is an athlete and I just watched him completely transform his already fit body in two months of training with professionals 6 times a week, twice a day. He gained 13 pounds with just 2 pounds of fat. He has 7% body fat. I am so amazed just watching him and his friends that I have increased my intensity. The human body is amazing. I can see changes on my 54 year old roly poly self. Takes intense dedication, hard work and pain though. I spent years sitting on the couch with a fried chicken wing in my hand waiting for the magic pill, now I know there isn’t one. Now I “go hard”.

Vivian June 27, 2013 - 1:54 PM

Nanette, I too am 54 and decided to commit to becoming lean. I am amazed at how my body has changed in 3 months. I am stronger and have great endurance. While I don’t think I will ever be a tennis pro or track star, I know I can be lean and fit even if others look at me and see fat.

Norn May 3, 2011 - 12:28 PM

I went home to visit recently & everyone was sayin’, “WOW!!! You look GREAT!!!! What’s your SECRET?!?!?!” & as soon as I said, “Exercise”, you could SEE the interest fade from their faces…
That wasn’t what they wanted to hear; they wanted me to say, “It’s a magic PILL!!!”

Leah May 22, 2011 - 3:52 PM

“The only people who believe you can get “something” for “nothing” are those who have nothing.” Can I use this quote?

Erika Nicole Kendall May 22, 2011 - 5:05 PM

Yep. 🙂

Marion@affectionforfitness May 25, 2011 - 9:43 PM

I used to really hate my large bone structure when I was a teenager. Those who say there is no such thing as a large bone structure are kidding themselves.

Anyway, I started to love my large bone structure as I got older. Wide shoulders have helped me be a better weightlifter. And I have a good posture with that big strong body.

Learn to love the body you have. You are great just the way you’re made. Enjoy your uniqueness instead of being mad that you’re not a typical boring magazine girl who looks just like the next magazine girl.

🙂 Marion

Greta May 26, 2011 - 8:53 AM

OK this is why I adore you. This is amazing!!!!! I think the NY Times had something like this recently as well, but with fewer athletes.

So cool! I’m tweeting and facebooking the crap out of this!!

Momof2girls August 10, 2011 - 6:54 AM

I recently took my daughters (ages 12 & 10) for a physical. Before the doctor could ask how they are doing in school, adjusting to life or any if the other questions that could be asked, the doctor went straight into how much my 12 year old had gained. I am 5’9″ 180 lbs. My 12 ur old is 5’6″, 180 lbs. She’s rock solid, plays softball, rides her bike and enjoys time with friends. Looking at her no one would consider her obese. If I had to compare her to anyone, I would Serena Williams. Same booty and boobs :-). I gently informed the doctor that my daughter is nothing outside of healthy. Our family is active and we eat well. She let off, but the conversation ended there. Years ago when the same daughter was about 4 a different doctor told me during one if her physicals, “mom, don’t ever let anyone tell her she’s fat. She’s all muscle. Believe it or not these doctors are in the same practice. Our medical community needs to get it together and quick.

Athletemom November 12, 2011 - 3:19 PM

Also remember that for most of the athletes (body builders & figure competitors being the exception) their physical appearance is not what drives them to train. It’s a by-product of training to excel in their sport.

Christi April 15, 2012 - 8:19 PM

I love your posts…thanks especially for this one. When I was very young, I wanted to be a ballerina. I’m not even sure why, perhaps because my aunt was a ballerina and I loved her toe shoes? Regardless, I do not have a ballerina body. I was tiny and lithe and so muscly that I looked like a miniature body builder. So I became a gymnast instead. Much better fit. But years of emotional eating and a slowly declining level of activity took their toll. It felt like I tried everything, but the truth is I tried everything that was quick and easy. Now, I’m taking an alpine mountaineering class and, at 51, I’m working twice as hard as my classmates for whom the median age is probably 30. Do I mind? Not one bit. I’m finding muscles I haven’t used in years. I run, dance, lift weights, hike, and climb. It takes commitment and time and there are plenty of evenings when I’d rather go home and flop down on the couch. Couch flopping will not get me to the tops of those mountains. I’m still schlepping around more body fat than I need or want, but it’s coming off. And for the first time in YEARS, I feel like an athlete again. Thanks for all your posts…they’re an inspiration for all of us.

Natasha Harris June 5, 2012 - 8:48 PM

Thank you so much for this beautiful display of the human body.Im 40 yrs old I workout five days a week.Im 240 pounds.I feel strong and fit even though society considers me morbidly obese.I will continue to workout hard and challenge my body and see myself transform.

Keke October 30, 2012 - 1:41 PM

Yesss!!! I remember having a conversation with this guy near my office and he goes, “Serena and Venus?! They’re so fat!” I was shocked. I mean they didn’t look like Anna Kournikova, but they shouldn’t have to. Their bodies were finely tune instruments they used to WIN. Slamming 90 mph sets needed a bit of muscle and strength and just because they had that didn’t make them fat, it made them ATHLETES. But he was blinded by the kool-aid. He was convinced that an athlete just had to be skinny. *smh*

Most of the athletes I’ve known were muscular and fit, and looked nothing like what you’d see on the cover of “Shape,” magazine. That’s because when you’re serious about a sport, you don’t have time to cater to narrow minded views about your body, because you’re in it to win.

Rooo January 20, 2013 - 10:22 PM

Meanwhile, silly little Anna Kournikova is out of the sport and ReRe and Vee are in the AO doubles quarterfinals right this very minute, with ReRe also stomping toward that singles title just like she hadn’t rolled her ankle in the first round and had to recover.


Janine December 17, 2012 - 11:16 AM

Hmm. I read this post when it was first written and loved it then. And I just stumbled across it again today and re-read it… and STILL loved it, but just got a totally different message. I’ve been upping my running/yoga in the past few months, with the goal of running a half-marathon in the spring. (Nowhere near what these gorgeous olympians do, but hey- baby steps!) But anyway, I have recently been stressed about my body. Are my arms ‘too muscular?’ what about my butt, is it still ‘too droopy?’ and my quads, are they getting ‘too thick’? Never mind that now I feel confident that I can run for an hour straight. Never mind that I can actually support myself in a tripod headstand for a few seconds (this is big for me!). I was worried about not fitting the mold of what women are supposed to be. Screw that, man. I’m glad I found this post again, and reminded myself about what actually matters!!

Durkia December 17, 2012 - 2:46 PM

<3 <3 <3 this post!!!!!!

Comments are closed.