Monday, February 18, 2013

The Morality of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

Talking about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue often launches a spirited conversation. I try to maintain a healthy sense of humor about it, because being negative and a "nay-sayer" isn't any fun.  It's not.  But I have to raise questions about the morality and purpose of it.  Perhaps you have too.  I decided to look for some answers.  

My search began with the issue.  After reading the Editor's Letter, however, I was left with more questions.  In addition to featuring Kate Upton as the female lead for the second time, the 2013 issue was purported as "special" because it involved shooting on all seven continents in seven months.  MJ Day, swimsuit editor wrote, "I'm a big believer in pushing the envelope, challenging myself and taking the road less traveled."  I came to learn how the swimsuit staff tackled the logistics of traveling over 90,000 miles, surviving sunburn as well as subzero wind chills.  

This report seemed odd to me.  A road less traveled in an athletic context makes me think Dick Fosbury, an American high jumper who invented the "back-first" technique. I know during the height of his career, Andre Agassi traveled nearly 100,000 miles a year.  And athletes in the Olympic Winter Games face similar weather conditions, but a swimsuit model?  I was confused.  
I decided that I would run my impressions of the issue against the mission statement of Sports Illustrated.  Its website reports the following
Sports Illustrated is the most respected sports brand in the world. Each week, the magazine covers the people, passions and issues of numerous sports with the journalistic integrity that has made it the conscience of all sport. It is surprising, engaging and informative, and always with a point of view that puts its readers "in the game."
This mission statement speaks to my experience as a reader, one of the 23%.  I am sure the other 77% of its readers who are men would agree that we typically encounter a weekly magazine with talented writers, thorough and compelling stories and fantastic photography.  I am challenged by the views of some authors and the attention some sports get over others, but I genuinely look forward to sharing my thoughts with my friends, colleagues and students.

I simply cannot say this is true about one issue a year.  I think the only thing I respect about Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue is that as a subscriber, I am free to opt out.  So here's why I feel the way I do.
The women that Sports Illustrated features in the swimsuit issue are not athletes. They are models (and I realize the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).  Their appearance runs counter to the spirit of the magazine and borders on near pornographic (calling a spade a spade here).  The positions that women maintain do not speak to dignity of a woman's body, but are hyper-sexualized.  My guess is that 35% of the swimsuits are appropriate for a most women, let alone swimming.  I mean seriously--body paint?!

I was also told in the "Editor's Letter" that "The issue also contains another first: a mini-zine filled with fashion and style tips aimed at our female readers."   I could not find this section. Was it the listing of where I could purchase the fishnet see-through suit?  
What I simply do not understand is why this issue does not celebrate the beauty of the human body with a sense of dignity.  Athletes have incredible bodies--they reflect the goodness of God's creation.  We can say that comfortably and openly about stars like Lolo Jones, Lindsey Vaughn or Candace Parker.  And why limit this to just women?  Could SI cater to the 23% by featuring the magnificence of the human body is Michael Phelps, LeBrong James or Usain Bolt?

One could make the claim that they do feature female athletes and this year was no exception as it celebrated two members of the Olympic Dutch Hockey team, who we saw in plain view "from behind."  Last year, readers met Natalie Coughlin, Alex Morgan and Natalie Gulbis in body paint swimsuits.  Feminization need not be sexualization.  A woman can be both beautiful, athletic and graceful.  I wish this was the subject of but one issue.
One year, the swimsuit issue featured male athletes with their wives.  Again, most of their wives were near models--not athletes.  However the spirit of that shoot was much different than the rest of the issue.  It reflected a small insight into what the annual swimsuit issue could be.

And there is my question--what could this issue be?  Rather than a money making venture, or a publication where the "subject moves to object," why can't the subject reveal the mission and intention of the corporation that has hired her.

I wonder what percentage of that 23% opts out. I also wonder what percentage of the 77% does as well.  Unless the purpose of the issue is made clear to me and the morality of it changes, I will.

Photo Credits
Kate Upton Cover

7 Continents
Near Pornographic
Body Paint
Dutch Hockey Players

1 comment:

  1. Anne, have you checked out ESPN the magazine? They feature an annual "body" issue ( I subscribed years ago and always found that issue to be surprising in ways I didn't expect. Example: revealing pictures of disabled athletes that were artfully composed. Other pictures chucked softness out the window and were composed to simply show you the raw nature of the athlete.

    It's an interesting exercise - what single picture can give you a unique glimpse into a world class athlete? I think the Body issue is more in line with what you like about sports. Joe Bob says check it out.