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Is 50 Years Enough? Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

  |   By Elisabeth Dale

The cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue took me by surprise. It wasn’t the typical upper torso, tiny string bikini boob shot.

Instead of the usual tits, the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue honored its 50th year with the nearly naked asses of three topless super models. The tagline beneath the picture hails it as the “Past, Present, & Future.” The issue takes a look back at past swimsuit models, current bathing beauties, and their new crop of young female “rookies.”

1964-si-swimsuit-babette-march-single-image-cutFIXBabette March, Sports Illustrated 1964

Back in 1964, when the swimsuit feature was conceived as a way to retain readership during a break between sports seasons, the photos were tame and had a “girl next door” quality. But a certain pattern has emerged over the last five decades. The magazine celebrates female beauty, but in a very narrowly defined way:

Homogeneous.  The standard of beauty portrayed is almost always that of a tall, white, thin, young, female body. Despite the references to these women as “healthy,” they aren’t athletes but fashion models. There’s little diversity, except in where they were born. Only two women of color, Tyra Banks and Beyoncé, have appeared on the cover of the SI Swimsuit issue.

Sports Illustrated SwimsuitKate Upton, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2013

Heterosexual. Every model’s pose is directed at the stereotypical straight, male gaze. “Sexy” is defined by arched backs, pouting lips, and manes of bedhead hair. The photos take on a porn-like quality with women tugging at bathing suit bottoms or with hands holding onto tops about to fall off.  The “body paint” segment of the photo spread allows SI to show even more flesh under the ridiculous guise of painted-on swimwear.

Old-School Sexist. It’s not unusual to see women’s bodies objectified in advertising and other media. It is strange to see these images institutionalized by a mainstream publication that claims to cover modern sports news and provides commentary on the broader sports world.  What about the girls and women who are athletes or simply follow professional sports? In what way does the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue empower them, speak to their aspirations, or value them beyond sexual eye candy? This myopic view ignores and alienates potential readers of both sexes.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the beauty of the female form. But it doesn’t have to be in some tired, old-fashioned way (not unlike the recent photos of Russian female Winter Olympic athletes in skimpy lingerie). ESPN’s Body Issue bares the naked bodies of sports figures of both sexes. It’s just hard to find progress toward real sexual and racial equality in the pages of the 2014 SI Swimsuit issue.

What do you think of the Sports Illustrated Swimwear issue? Does it matter?

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