By Carly Priest
Like Wonder bread and NASCAR, Baloney and Budweiser Beer, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition seems quintessentially “American.” Every February, like clockwork since 1964, the Swimsuit Edition features the likes of Cindy Crawford and Beyoncé, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum. It’s worth noting that in the fifty-three years of publication, only a few of the cover models were professional athletes— ironic, given athletics are the focus of the magazine. Almost comically, only one  of the professional athletes to grace the cover of the Swimsuit Edition even swam—Amanda Beard. Throughout her storied career, Beard competed in four Olympic games, won eight USA Swimming National Titles, held world records for her 200-meter breaststroke, and collected seven Olympic medals— three of which she took home at the age of fourteen. I’ll double check, but I’m almost positive Beard wore a tech suit, not a bikini, to compete. I’ll admit I sound facetious— but the irony of a sports magazine marketing an annual Swimsuit Edition with only one professional swimmer in the history of its covers is too good. I mean, really?
In 2017, the impact of the Swimsuit Edition seems all the more culturally entrenched, and one would be hard-pressed to go about their days without ever seeing a copy. I joke, but at the end of the day I do not think there’s anything all that funny about the Swimsuit Edition. Do not mischaracterize me: from bikini to burkini, women should wear whatever they please. However, today more than ever, rape culture narrative makes a bizarre conflation of female liberation and bikinis. Concurrently, the myth of “female distraction,” abounds, with real societal repercussions: the arbitrary standard of “modesty or else.” I don’t buy that brand of liberation theology. Real danger lies in the practical application of this myth surrounding modesty Canon: as the dictate of dress codes, protectorate of catcalls, and diplomat for sexual violence prevail, myth collapses into misogyny.
When we allow women the basic freedom of wearing whatever they please without consequence, we generate an avenue for liberation. Concurrently, when we allow the Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated platform to objectify women, commodify women, and market womankind as something to ogle, we incite a societal digression, not progression, towards meaningful equality. When we sexualize nameless women through pin-ups and posters, calendars and magazine covers, we make acceptable the power dynamics that encourage catcalls, glass ceilings, and eating disorders. Moreover, we collectively inundate an entire culture with damaging expectations as to what “woman” looks like. She is thin, blonde, tan, busty, shaved to look like a pre-pubescent child. For thirty-three straight years, she is white (the first black woman, Tyra Banks graced the cover in 1997). She is young, wrinkle-free, freckle-free, scar-free. She straddles sand dunes silently, frozen in perfect pose. She sits airbrushed and flecked with water, seemingly without a thought in her head or a name to her face— in her bikini, she just sits.
What does she sit for? Does she sit for a body-positive culture that celebrates female diversity—queens of all ages, races, femininity and sizes? Does she sit to instill confidence in young girls, to send a message of their inherent agency, strength, and ownership? To inspire our daughters into sports, dance, music, politics and research? Does she sit as an exemplar of 20th-century warriors, and 21st-century progress? Or, does she sit to sell magazine subscriptions— or even worse, the random products featured within the folds of magazine pages? Does she sit so 20-year-old men can pin up her calendar on their dorm room walls? Ask yourself: does she lie on the beaches of full equality, or the sand of domesticity and docility?
Since its creation, many talented women— and cultural icons— appeared (and will appear) on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. I neither contest the strength of these women, nor their wisdom. Women must have liberty to wear what they want, anywhere they want: we must teach our children to love their bodies and their strength. Rather, I question the routine and normative objectification of women in mainstream publications. I descry a culture that so obviously sexualizes the female body to sell product, rendering her an inanimate object to hang on a mini-fridge. At best, the argument that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition reveals the fullest extension of female equality offers a flippant masquerade of intellect—at worse, a photoshopped misogyny.
Photograph Credits: Us Weekly