Think Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is Empowering to Women? That Requires Mental Acrobatics.
February is here, which means that men all across America will soon be able to feast their eyes on a new crop of one-dimensional, static, nearly-nude images of women they have never and will never meet or dialogue with in person thanks to the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. This will be a huge step forward in the effort to promote the dignity and equality of women, right?
With knife-like precision, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue’s hypersexualized images will separate the surface of a woman’s body from everything else that makes a woman a woman—her ambitions, empathy, personality, intellect.
Those uniquely human attributes have no place in SI’s Swimsuit Issue. There’s really only one box for women on those pages, and quite frankly, in the minds of the men who consume this content—the “sex object” box. My colleague Haley Halverson’s insightful analysis makes this point painfully clear:
“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.”
Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue contributes greatly to a culture that tells women and even young girls: your value ultimately lies in your sexuality—not your athleticism or anything else.
Now, there are several iterations of feminism, but Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue advances none of them. Whether a person formally considers him or herself a feminist or not, every moral and rational person should agree: all women are worthy of respect, and all women have equal dignity and value with men.
That is not the message Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue sends.
Yet, a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model penned a column in 2017 attempting and failing to convince her readers that the SI Swimsuit Issue is “feminist.” Her proof? She praised Sports Illustrated for making structural changes to acknowledge that women are comprised of more than their body parts:
“The entire structure of the magazine is changing, putting more emphasis on the featured models as multi-dimensional people – promoting their outside interests, giving them a voice and a platform.”
In the author’s attempt to characterize her own and other women’s objectification by this magazine as “feminist” and “empowering,” she inadvertently recognized the irrevocable, fundamental problem with SI Swimsuit Issue in the first place.
The men who excitedly go out to purchase this magazine are not interested in her interests, or her voice, or her having a platform from which to express herself. They are interested in one thing: consuming nearly nude images of women.
No amount of mixing that objectification with interviews or spotlights on these women’s interests will change the male experience of visually consuming her as a one-dimensional product. You can’t humanize something that is fundamentally dehumanizing.
The model/author continued:
“It feels insulting, implying that I am somehow being taken advantage of, that I am not empowered in my own decisions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I embrace my body and celebrate it, and for me that is what this issue represents. When I strip down and roll around in the sand, I’m not doing it for men, I’m doing it for me.”
In reality, the fact that a woman feels empowered subjectively “by stripping down” does nothing —I repeat nothing—to change the objective reality that men all around the world are now viewing that woman as a sex object.
Now, an authentic, worthwhile structural change by Sports Illustrated would be to cut the Swimsuit Issue altogether. Instead, sell a women-focused issue with just text interviews of the models about their professional and intellectual pursuits, their interests, and their voice. Include only photos of these models clothed.
Try that structural change in 2019, Sports Illustrated. I dare you.