One of our awesome readers, Muriel Minnie Mae, sent in the March 23, 2009 issue of ESPN magazine. Literally sent in, as in mailed. Those of you who send us images by email? Slackers.

Anyway, the cover story is about Candace Parker, a WNBA player:

What’s interesting, and annoying, is that throughout the article, Parker’s physical appearance is highlighted and her pregnancy is talked about as a bit of a problem. Here are the pages from the article; I provide the text that is highlighted in yellow (and commentary) below each image so it’s easier to read:

Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts…She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She’s nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.

…unprecedented combination of game, generosity and gorgeous…6’4″ stunner…perfect, white teeth…

…a more accomplished Danica Patrick. Patrick is nowhere near the best in her field, but she doesn’t need to be, because she is hot enough to pose for Maxim. While that works for her, Parker wants more.

[Regarding her pregnancy] “I was lucky…I didn’t start to show until after my commercials were shot.”

Likability. Sex appeal. Parker, says her team, is the total package, an advertiser’s dream: attractive yet benign enough to reflect any fantasy projected upon her. Like Jordan before her, Parker is a cipher of sorts, nothing outsize or off-putting. Nothing edgy.

A hip male greets her with a simple “Candace,” as if she were one of the guys, albeit with flat-ironed hair and pink lipstick.

Yes, okay, we get it. She has C cups! And flawless skin! Notice also the emphasis on how she successfully meets several of the requirements of femininity in the U.S., aside from looks: she’s “sweet,” kind to children and animals, and puts others before herself. She’s a “saint,” even. She wants more than to be a sex symbol  like Danica Patrick (who, clearly, doesn’t need to have talent ’cause she’s pretty). And OMG we know she’s cool because men call her by her first name! As opposed to…what? “Hey pregnant lady”? “Woman”? My male coworkers call me by my first name all the time; now I know this is a sign that they really accept and respect me.

There is nothing crass or needy about her, nothing vulgar.

[Her agent] went on the offensive, asking what sort of message it would send if Candace were penalized for her biology. “Male athletes don’t get dropped when they father kids,” he says. True enough, but they also don’t lose precious game time and visibility or spark Internet blog wars about the definition of feminism…[Her agent] says he is thrilled for his client, but then he threatens under his breath to kill Shelden [her husband]. “You know, because I can’t kill her.” He laughs a small, hard laugh. “Seriously, though, it’s all good.”

The important thing, everyone agrees, is to get the basketball player back on the court. “No C-section, that’s the biggest thing,” Parker says…she’s training hard, prepping to play as soon as July, two months after her due date. The dedication pleases Team Parker very much.

“The baby will be along for the ride, with me on trips, at the court.” She sighs. “You don’t hear about male players doing that, do you? Women, we just have to balance more things. It’s harder for us. That’s just the way it is.” She offers a weary smile before adding, “For now.”

So the most important thing is that she get back to work as soon as possible? ‘Cause I would have maybe thought being healthy and having a healthy baby were awfully important, too. Notice how her pregnancy is clearly perceived as a potential problem; she has to prove her “dedication” by not letting her team down by taking more than two months to recover.

Yes, there have been plenty of women before her. Other history-makers and path-forgers. But none like Parker. Because Parker is competing with the boys. Not on the basketball court…but in the arena that really counts in American sport: making bank. And so far she has been able to do it by selling her game, not her body.

“For Candace, it is going to be very difficult,” says Tom George, Octagon’s senior VP of athlete and property marketing.

“I’d take Candace,” George concedes reluctantly. “But only because she was an Olympian.”

Notice how success is defined by a woman’s ability to do what men do. It’s not about how great of an athlete she is in and of itself; it’s about whether she can do what “the boys” do, whether it’s on the court or making money. All those earlier female athletes? Their achievements are insignificant.

“…And she’s pretty, which helps.”

“Serena and Venus have moved beyond tennis,” [ former head of CBS Sports] says, “but they are African-American in a popular, mostly white sport. Candace doesn’t have that advantage.”

[Quote from Marj Snyder of the Women’s Sports Foundation] “If Candace is doing the same ads as the male players, that elevates her. An audience is built.”

There are other avenues available to women athletes, avenues that involve waxing. “Women athletes are more likely to be marketed as sexy than as competent…”

Time was, women athletes were seen as class acts. Stateswomen and achievers. Type A girls you’d want to bring home to meet Mom and Dad. Now there are Olympians in Playboy, nuding it up. Something (mercifully) you don’t see Phelps or Yao doing.

…all-American money comes to the athletes people love, not the athletes people want to sleep with…Parker is just not that kind of girl. “Candace is wholesome,” says Snyder. “I can’t see her showing up in Playboy.

Every few minutes a fan–grown men, mostly–approached. They sought not autographs but photos. Parker cheerfully obliged, posing by their side as if she were at a prom.

“Nuding it up”? Really? So again we see the virgin/whore dichotomy here: Candace Parker is a good girl–she would never pose nude or try to trade on her appearance to get attention. It’s interesting that the article both emphasizes how pretty she is and implies that female athletes who portray themselves as sexy (or sex objects) are ruining their careers, since they’re the type of girls you’d want to have sex with, not marry (or “bring home to meet Mom and Dad”). There’s a delicate balance here: the fact that she’s pretty “helps” her get advertising spots, but she has to be careful not to look sexy or she’s gone too far. But as many female athletes over the years have learned, if they don’t try to be pretty at all, they’re accused of being lesbians.

I went through all the articles on male athletes in the issue. I found one reference to a Dominican baseball player being “slender and tall, with legs as sturdy as steel bridge cables…dark skin…” and another Dominican player referred to as “…compact, dark-skinned…” (both on p. 68). I found no other references to male athletes’ physical appearance.

Also check out Lisa’s video about the portrayal of men and women in Transworld Surf Magazine.

Excellent find, MMM!