A day before the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue dropped, the official SI Swimsuit Twitter account posted a photo with the caption “One day” above a photo of a woman’s midsection, cutting off her head and her feet. It felt almost too on the nose ― an image of a woman’s body meant to tease an audience, erasing the parts of her that allow her to communicate and move about in the world.
That’s the image to remember as you look over the issue, “the First Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue of the #MeToo Era,” as a Vanity Fair article put it. In it you’ll find a set of images of gymnast and Larry Nassar survivor Aly Raisman, posed nude with words like “Every voice matters,” “Survivor,” and “Abuse is never OK” written on her body.
The shoot is affecting and powerful, in its way. It also exists alongside the sort of photos suggested by the teaser tweet, photos closer to what SI managing editor André Laguerre had in mind, in 1964, when he asked fashion reporter Jule Campbell, “How would you like to go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover?”
A beautiful place and a pretty girl. The swimsuit issue may have evolved over the years, shifting with the cultural winds. The models may have gotten (ever so slightly) browner and blacker and occasionally bigger while the swimsuits got smaller; the presentation may have moved away from the blithe Lycra colonialism of its older shoots. But even with these new trappings of wokeness, the issue is still ultimately about those two things: beautiful places, and pretty girls who don’t talk or move, who are ultimately present for the pleasure of men.
Once a cultural juggernaut and a launchpad for models from Kathy Ireland to Kate Upton, the swimsuit issue has become somewhat of an anachronism, albeit still a highly profitable one. Best known for its just barely SFW titillation, SI has successfully packaged and monetized the male gaze for more than five decades.
As of 2013, the issue made up about 10 percent of Sports Illustrated’s yearly revenue.
In 2018, its editors decided the magazine needed an update ― to, as Vanity Fair’s Erin Vanderhoof wrote, “make a magazine where models were as much participants as objects.” The cover of the issue is still as conventionally sexy and tropical as ever, featuring model Danielle Herrington, the third black woman to land a solo swimsuit issue cover, posing in a hot pink bikini in Aruba. But the magazine also includes a nude spread titled “In Her Own Words” in which models chose descriptors like “Truth,” “Progressive,” “Artist,” “Strong,” “Woman” and “Nurturer” to be written on their bodies. “In Her Own Words” was shot by a woman photographer, Taylor Ballantyne, with an all-woman crew ― a first for the swimsuit issue.
The women featured in the series include models Paulina Porizkova, Robyn Lawley, Hunter McGrady, Ebonee Davis, Myla Dalbesio, Georgia Gibbs, Kate Wasley, Olivia Culpo and Sailor Brinkley Cook (daughter of Christie Brinkley), as well as Raisman. The photos are paired with in-depth, honest essays written by Porizkova, Lawley, Brinkley Cook and McGrady. (However, online readers looking for those essays might had a hard time on Tuesday. The link was not featured on SI Swimsuit’s front page, nor was it tweeted out by the brand’s account by mid-afternoon.)
Taken on its own, the “In Her Own Words” spread is good. The photos are pretty and the words are nice ― the magazine equivalent of a friend’s unobjectionable but ultimately forgettable new significant other. But SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day seems intent on positioning the issue as something that means more.
“It’s about allowing women to exist in the world without being harassed or judged regardless of how they like to present themselves,” Day told Vanity Fair. “That’s an underlying thread that exists throughout the Swimsuit Issue.”
Indeed, no woman should fear being harassed (or worse) for the way she presents herself. But in the world of the swimsuit issue, the answer to a very real problem ― that women, no matter how they present themselves, do have to worry about being harassed, belittled, overlooked and assaulted ― is to photograph scantily clad, mostly white, almost exclusively thin women and sell those images to hordes of straight men. The 2016 nod to body positivity was to put plus-size model Ashley Graham on one of three covers. The 2017 nod to sex positivity was a sexy photo of model Nina Agdal, wearing bikini bottoms and a very cropped tank top which read “A woman doesn’t have to be modest to be respected.” The 2018 nod to an international reckoning is to give a woman the camera and her subjects four to 10 phrases.
In Vanity Fair, Day comes off as almost comically self-congratulatory about the project. She laments that the media still propagates the idea “that there’s just one type of person that’s worthy of being celebrated,” and that “no one ever gives models a real opportunity to be who they are” — the implication being that the 2018 SI swimsuit issue represents strides in both arenas.
After all, Sports Illustrated gifted these beautiful, accomplished women the ability to speak ― via words inked onto their naked bodies. How magnanimous! The messaging just falls a bit flat when those photos are sandwiched between more sexy photos of all those pretty girls in those beautiful places who have yet to be given the commercial chance “to be who they are.”
Just weeks ago, the world watched as Raisman stood in a room in front of cameras. Her clothes were on, but she was stripped down. She looked her abuser in the eye. “This group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing,” she said, in her own words. Millions heard her.
This is not to dismiss the individual “empowerment” (a word used so blithely and frequently that it has almost lost all meaning) that the women who participated in this or any other Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot may feel. Brinkley Cook told E! News that the project made her feel “sexy,” but also “more emotional.”“It helped me accept myself,” she said. Raisman had similar praise for the project. “For me, ‘In Her Own Words’ serves as a reminder that we are all humans, we are all battling something, and it is OK to not be OK,” she said. “We are not alone and we need each other.”
The production of “In Her Own Words” may very well have been a powerful, even life-altering, experience for those involved with it. That’s beautiful and special. The fact that it happened within the context of an exploitative and demeaning project isn’t a contradiction; that’s basically the American story in a nutshell. But to conflate an individual’s positive feelings with an “empowering” end product is counterproductive and shameless, even by the standards of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
As Jill Filipovic put it in a piece for Cosmopolitan in March 2016, “feeling good is criminally underrated, and making a bunch of money sounds cool — but feeling ‘empowered’ is not the same as real, actual power.” Actual power means economic, political and social access. It means your words will be heard, even if they aren’t splashed across your naked body.
The 2018 SI swimsuit issue seems to have made the women in it feel really good, and certainly made a handful of people a bunch of money, but did it bestow any “real, actual power” on women as a whole? Absolutely not.
Women learn early on that their greatest and primary value lies in their appearance, and whether that appearance is deemed desirable enough by men. The #MeToo movement is, in part, about exposing the ways in which women’s bodies are objectified and then weaponized against them. SI has spent decades making big money off of that objectification, and a handful of artful nudes and big block letters does nothing to counteract that. As the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz put it, Sports Illustrated is simply “fighting fire with fire.”
But this is a tightrope the brand has always been comfortable walking, delighting in its own naughtiness, begging its critics to expose themselves as prigs while also winking about its own chauvinism. Either way, people are talking. Either way, the money rolls in.
From its inception, the swimsuit issue has courted and basked in its own controversy ― both real and imagined. After the original swimsuit issue ran in February 1964, the magazine published a letter from W. Frank Caston, of Columbia, South Carolina. “I most certainly do not want such pictures coming into my home for my young teen-age son to ogle,” wrote Caston, “much less myself.”
According to a 1989 Sports Illustrated history of the swimsuit issue, this reaction “amused” Laguerre.This kicked off a decadeslong tradition of publishing letters to the editor from people who were prudishly “scandalized” by SI Swimsuit.
The magazine largely treated feminist critiques of the issue with similar mockery and disdain. In that same 1989 piece, SI reporter Frank Deford argued that “today … some zealots paint anything sensual with the broad brush of sexism,” before using a purported increase in breast augmentation surgeries to prove that if the swimsuit issue became a relic or disappeared altogether, it would only be because women had parroted its aesthetic.
“The real threat to the swimsuit issue may not be that women’s protests will bring it down,” he wrote. “No, the threat is that women will co-opt it. Instead of taking offense at the swimsuit models, women may have become more inclined to identify with them and to look like them. … More than 400 women a day get breast enlargements, lifts or reductions, and according to Self they tell plastic surgeons that the desire to change — to look more like an SI model — is their own, not some man’s, idea.”
In 2018, things are working in reverse. The swimsuit issue is trying to co-opt those aforementioned women’s protests, not the other way around.
On Tuesday morning, the official SI Swimsuit account tweeted about Raisman’s inclusion in the issue. The tweet contained no words, just a “praise hands” emoji, paired with a link to a gallery of images and a featured photo of Raisman laying out on a sandy beach in a black swimsuit.
Another pretty girl in a beautiful place.
HuffPost reporter Emma Gray’s book, A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance: A Feminist Handbook on Fighting for Good, is out Feb. 27, 2018.