August 23, 2008

"Phelps's exceptionally long and hairless torso seems to go on and on until the photo is abruptly, thankfully cropped."

"Instinctively, you know your eyes shouldn't slide any lower, but all warning signs have been waxed away."

Robin Givhan scrutinizes
"the supremely unflattering Sports Illustrated cover" of Michael Phelps. What's so bad about it? Click over. First impression: He's wearing a weird spangly halter top. Second: Oh... those are his medals. Ha ha. Third: Get those crappy Chinese tapestries off him and let me see the torso.

Givhan compares the Phelps photo to the iconic Mark Spitz photo, where the medals hung on chains that remind Givhan of a whole 70s picture:
Spitz's medals are hanging from thin metal chains, a detail that gives the photo a kind of 1970s cool. You could imagine him in some fern bar wearing those medals with a pair of bell-bottoms and a polyester shirt with a collar the size of elephant ears. The photograph captures a particular '70s sexy aesthetic a la Burt Reynolds in the Playgirl centerfold.
And all the gay guys in Greenwich Village back then! (I lived there 1976-1981.)

Givhan also frets about Phelps's lack of "the kind of pumped up, six-pack Hollywood torso typically found on the cover of Men's Fitness and that has come to define today's sexy man." She calls the Phelps torso "a 1970s torso" and says: "To understand its power, it needs to be seen in action barreling through the water like a torpedo."

As long as we're developing our understanding, why don't we look at those Men's Fitness models and rethink whether they represent power? Their muscles come not from doing something admirable and powerful, but from doing what they've figured out will make them look like that. Shouldn't function underlie power? Their function is to model. Phelps's body is what real power looks like.


robert_m_sykes said...

Good point. The beefed up muscle guys and gals actually look unhealthy. Once upon a time, baseball players avoided weight lifting because they thought it slowed down their bat swings.

Guesst said...

Robin writes:
The photograph treats Phelps like a pinup, like beefcake, like a babe.

Givhan spends a million words ignoring the most obvious conclusion:

Maybe the photographer just wanted a clean, simple image.

Pogo said...

Nice post.

Phelps sings the body electric, dividing the transparent green-shine, rolling silently in the turns, slicing through the heave of the water, then resting on its shoals, victorious.

Men's Fitness models: real, or implants? Sit-ups, or steroids? Sexy or freakish?

Meh. The best six-packs are in the fridge.

jdeeripper said...

It's an ugly cover. Poorly lighted, obvious and unappealing China Red background.

Phelps looks like a fish out of water.

I'll bet the pudgy sports dorks at SI hate Phelps and swimmers. They're probably groupies to "real" men who play football, baseball and basketball.

Maybe this cover is their revenge.

Here's ultimate real man Larry Csonka on SI getting his own form of revenge.

bearbee said...

If Wapo plans undergoing layoffs ala NYT, consider a color-coordinated slip to the writer of this wasted space.

Pogo said...

For the Chinese, Michael Phelps is called "Maikeer Feierpusi", pronounced 'my kuh are fay are poo suh.

Nooooo comment.

peter hoh said...

Wait a second. Men's magazines presenting unrealistic images of male perfection, warping our perception of what real men look like?

The mind spins. Must be entering some sort of vortex.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I agree with Givhan that the cover photo is derivative and too reminiscent of the Spitz photo. In that match-up, Spitz, even with his pornstache has a more lovely face. I believe a creative, clever photographer could have done the subject more justice. The next time this record is broken, they're gonna' have to do another shot like the Spitz-Phelps cover and become, well, a broken record.

My brother's first SI photo assignment had him photographing now deceased football player Pat Tillman. Here's the story of how a clever, creative photographer goes double truck in SI.

Beth said...

Shouldn't function underlie power?

One of the many, many reasons not to care what fashion critics have to say about anything, ever.

Zach said...

That's a really great Tillman photograph.

The rippled six-pack is kind of misleading (notice that Spitz doesn't have one, either). The direction of the bulge is in -- people with really strong trunks perversely don't have six packs, because there are muscles in the way.

somefeller said...

Robin Givhan is a waste of time and pixels.

Holly said...

Re: phelps looking like a fish out of water.

I remember reading about Phelps the first time four years ago - what was that, Sydney? - I don't follow any sport closely, but I like swimming so I pay attention when the O's approach. And the NYT magazine did a really interesting story on Phelps - he wasn't all that well known yet, IIRC - and the writer was talking about how uncomfortable, kind of clumsy or awkward, Phelps appeared out of water. Like - he really was supposed to be in water all the time because when he was on land, he was such a geek. The writer said that Phelps had even had problems with mounting the block - he frequently stumbled when climbing up onto it. I found the whole image very touching - the kid was born with an extremely rare talent, his body is perfectly made to suit just that talent, he had the drive and the discipline to pursue the talent and he had a coach who saw the talent. It's a wonderful story and what I like about Phelps is that, unlike Spitz, he isn't natural beefcake material and he is certainly not a cool jock. He really is Dolphin Boy.

I'm kind of sexist (I'm a chick) and male vanity bothers me in a way that female vanity does not. Male body builders seem to be the equivalent of women who spend all their time botoxing and shaving and waxing and massaging and all that crap.

Anthony said...

Male body builders seem to be the equivalent of women who spend all their time botoxing and shaving and waxing and massaging and all that crap.

Actually, they spend 4-6 hours a day in the gym sculpting their musculature to the form needed to succeed in their particular sport (if you can call it that).

Swimmers develop different physiques from bodybuilders from shotputters from gymnasts from sumo wrestlers from fitness models, etc. There's no ideal form, but at this level of competition it really is all functional within the athlete's own specific context.

Holly said...


You're right, of course. Body building is considered a sport. But I've never understood why. I mean, nowadays there's even such thing as professional fitness competitors. I think it's great - discipline, hard work, etc. etc. - but I don't consider it a sport.

And at some point it becomes aesthetically unappealing. IMHO.

Chip Ahoy said...

* looks up 'double truck' *

ricpic said...

Too much chin. When a facial feature is that outsized cosmetic surgery is in order.

somefeller said...

Anthony has it right. Different horses for different courses. And of course, a shallow twit like Robin Givhan wouldn't be able to think through such distinctions, or write about them.

vbspurs said...

Jdeeripper wrote:

Phelps looks like a fish out of water.

HAH! Awesome remark.

Like almost everyone on earth, the first moment I saw the cover I thought he was wearing a halter top.

It's a horrible cover, but what can you expect -- I heard the photo shoot took all of 10 minutes.

That it would've mimicked the Spitz photo was a given, but they could've done a more professional version.


PatCA said...

Phelps is a popular hero; therefore, Robin must mock him.

Let's see your abs, Robin.

Uncle Jimbo said...

good gravy,

Who gives a rats ass what the NYT's sill yotch in residence thinks about a stud?

She never interacts with them because there are no real men or athletes in her orbit.

I know you like to read what Ms. Givhan writes because occasionally she says something entertaining, but she shows her lack of touch with reality by flapping about this and sounding stupid, yes simply stupid.

Style is worthy of comment Ann but Givhan, like the Times, is not capable of stepping outside of Manhattan salon lameness. YAWN.


Uncle J