Sports Illustrated's 'empowering' Swimsuit Issue is holding women back

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue is making headlines after a recent Vanity Fair article declared the sultry issue as “The First Swimsuit Issue for the #MeToo Era.”  

In addition to the sexy beach photos that have become synonymous with annual swimsuit issue, this year’s magazine includes a nude photospread called “In Her Words.” Captured by female photographer Taylor Ballantyne and an all female production crew, the shoot features models posing with words such as “Mother,” “Natural” and “More” written across their naked bodies.

The misalignment of a social movement focusing on raising awareness for sexual assault and a magazine which helped define the narrative of the female body as a commodity is both laughable and infuriating. To believe nudity and block text over a slender thigh would somehow spark an epiphany from a man who two pages ago was ogling a model in a bikini is not only ridiculous, but in direct conflict with the ethos of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

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MJ Day, editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated, says her goal with the magazine is to use the images synonymous with the SI brand to change how women are viewed. Unless the swimsuit issue is cancelled or all the models will be featured fully clothed, her efforts seem futile.


In an age before internet pornography, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was accessible fuel for male desire that could be carried out of a convenience store without shame. It was the one edition of Sports Illustrated that pandered to its straight, male audience by dedicating an entire issue to photos of busty supermodels frolicking on sandy beaches in teeny-tiny bikinis. It wasn’t blatantly masturbatory as Playboy or any other men’s magazines – it was an annual reward for the man who spends the other 11 months of the year reading about his favourite sports teams and athletes.

 


Over the past few years, Sports Illustrated has celebrated its “evolution” from only showcasing models with flat stomachs, thigh gaps and full breasts to include female athletes, women of colour and plus size models such as Ashley Graham, who graced the SI Swimsuit cover in 2016. While racial and body diversity in media is definite progress, in a medium such as Sports Illustrated, women are unknowingly getting caught in the trap of objectification under the guise of inclusiveness and body acceptance. Inclusion in male magazines is a Band-Aid. Sexual objectification of women is the wound.

Appearing in Sports Illustrated or men’s magazines is sold to women as a celebration of the female body, an act of empowerment and to some extent, it is. The feelings someone feels for seeing themselves represented in the media are real and should not be discredited. However, there is a big difference in representing body diversity in a campaign targeted to women to sell clothing or underwear. For Sports Illustrated, the intended audience is always male, and always selling the same idea: All female bodies are to be desired. All are objects.

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Unfortunately, Sports Illustrated’s team shows no sign of making real progress in changing its representation of women. The agenda of selling sex and desire is alive and well. “These are sexy photos,” Day says in her interview with Vanity Fair. “At the end of the day, we’re always going to be sexy, no matter what is happening. We’re Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. The ideal is to create something artful, to create a beautiful image that both the subject and the team is proud of and collaborates on together.”


When discussing Sports Illustrated’s creative direction, many people have been quick to point out that the team behind the swimsuit issue is predominantly female, as though this somehow serves as a stamp of approval by all women for men to see them as sexual objects, wanting to be desired, wanting to be gazed upon. The exploitation of women runs deep. There are walls that are put up to ensure women are held as objects that have been so ingrained in our culture we are meant to see women who participate in producing content such as Sports Illustrated as liberated and empowered. The illusion makes too much money to be shattered, maintains power dynamics in favour of men and perpetuates the female form as a source of entertainment and pleasure.

On the road to revolution there are bound to be missteps and opportunities for change. In 2017 we declared #MeToo and Time’s Up for sexual assault to remain unreported and unpunished. In the grand scheme of the social movement, Sports Illustrated’s misguided swimsuit issue is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the true meaning of the #MeToo and TIme’s Up movement, the real change we need to see in society and to dissect and dismantle systems that keep power balances in place. 2018 is when we are called upon to use our voices, not our bodies.

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