The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: Empowerment Or Sexual Objectification?
Originally published on Huffington Post.
It’s February again, and of course that means it’s time to ogle women in barely-there bikinis in the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
While men around the country eagerly await this publication, I find it increasingly difficult to accept the societal narrative surrounding it. That’s because the unspoken truth is that Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue is not a triumph of female athleticism, agency, or empowerment. Instead, it is a descent into sexual objectification.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the men who buy these magazines are not leering at the exposed glossy bodies and ruminating on them as inspiring culminations of Seneca Falls and the suffragette movement.
They are consuming the images of these women as sexual, inanimate objects.
Sexual objectification has patent cultural effects.
Research shows that when someone is being objectified the objectifier is viewing them as if they do not possess a real, individual mind and as if they are less deserving of moral treatment.
In a society that’s constantly reeling with fresh scandals of sexual assault—from college campuses to media empires—the potential consequences for viewing women as mere plastic playthings are immediately apparent.
Objectification theory gives us a framework for understanding the experiences that many (if not most—if not all) women have: being perceived or treated as an object that is valued for its use by others. This typically occurs when a woman’s body, or body parts, are exaggerated or isolated from her personhood in order to serve the male sexual desire. Some claim that these experiences are “likely to contribute to mental health problems that disproportionately affect women (i.e., eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction) via two main paths. The first path is direct and overt and involves [sexual objectification] experiences. The second path is indirect and subtle and involves women’s internalization of [sexual objectification] experiences or self-objectification.”
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue exists at the intersection of these two pathways for sexual objectification.
It overtly sexualizes women, something that cannot be denied though the publication attempts to envelope its raw sexual appeal in the veneer of ‘empowerment’ and ‘athleticism’—hence its recruitment of Olympic gymnasts, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. But photographs of models that feature one woman’s pubic area, nearly bare due to an untied bikini bottom, have nothing to do with athleticism.
Perhaps more insidiously, Sports Illustrated capitalizes on the omnipresent trend of self-objectification in pop culture. An example of this from the 2017 issue is easily found in Christie Brinkley’s photoshoot. Brinkley returned to SI Swimsuit Issue for the 9th time, but this time she brought her two daughters into the shoot as well, citing her maternal pride in their confidence to strip before the cameras. But shouldn’t we inspire confidence in our daughters that stems from inherent worth and cultivated talents, rather than their fleeting youthful appeal to men’s sexual interest?
The key about self-objectification is that once the cultural tone has been set, and women have received the message that they’re products on a shelf, they begin to internalize this concept. Submissive practices of displaying their bodies as sexual specimens for men that were once imposed on women, such as in slave-based harems, are now espoused by women as a legitimization of their courage and autonomy. Of course, this is without regard for the plight of countless women in their immediate vicinity, and around the world, who still experience the consequences of cultures that consider women’s bodies fair game for public consumption.
The Orwellian double-speak surrounding publications like Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, and sexual objectification in general, is as shallow as it is pervasive. Confidence or agency based on another’s approval or desire is not true empowerment—it is in fact an abdication of power.
The SI Swimsuit Issue is merely one drop in the ocean of toxic entitlement to the female body in our culture. Every provocative commercial, every pornographic film, sends the same message of objectification.
But it’s time to start sending a different message.
Women of all shapes, sizes, and ages deserve more than being reduced to body parts for another’s sexual desire.
Women have more to offer than their bodies, and women who have achieved remarkable feats like participating in the Olympics do not deserve to be put back into the box of male sexual accessibility in order to promote body positivity.
The female body is a beautiful thing, but the objectification of women for sexual or commercial gain is ugly.