Sports Illustrated & Its Swimsuit Issue: Body Positive Or Not?

When I heard that Sports Illustrated was including a number of plus-size models and an older model in its latest swimsuit issue, my initial reaction was to celebrate. Finally, more women who don’t fit the conventional ideas of beauty would see themselves reflected within the pages of this iconic issue. Beauty, after all, comes in all shapes and sizes. Now, here was Sports Illustrated embracing that message. But, is the magazine’s decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty? Or does it squeeze more of us into the narrowed lens of approval that comes from sexual objectification?

Ashley Graham, who is a size 16, and appeared in last year’s swimsuit issue in a Swimsuits for All ad, is one of three models selected as a cover girl for this year’s issue. Also joining her with their own covers are UFC wrestler Ronda Rousey, whose physique is more athletic than what we’ve come to expect of conventional swimsuit models, and Hailey Clauson, a blonde, slender, blue-eyed model who fits the traditional mold.

And there is also this: Graham is the first plus-size model to get on a cover of the swimsuit issue. This is considered an even bigger honor than making it into the magazine. In a Facebook post, Graham wrote, “This cover is for every woman who felt like she wasn’t beautiful enough because of her size.” (It bears noting that the “plus-size” label is deceptive. The CDC says that the average US woman weighs 166.2 pounds and has a 37.5-inch waist circumference. Yet many in the fashion industry consider women who are smaller than that a “plus-size,” meaning supposedly larger than the average sized-woman.)

The sexualized images of females depicted in the media does affect the way women and girls relate to their own bodies. It is through this one-dimensional, distorted lens of perception that we learn to see (and judge) ourselves and each other.

Even though the world is filled with women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, it’s typically the younger, thinner, taller, and until recently, fairer-skinned models that appear in fashion and beauty ads. No wonder so many women and girls think that they don’t measure up to society’s manufactured standards of beauty—or, that they’ll lose their appeal once they reach a certain age.

This is why Sports Illustrated’s decision to include 56-year-old Nicola Griffin in the issue in a Swimsuits for All ad is being hailed as another revolutionary move. Griffin, who didn’t start modeling until after her kids went to college, is the oldest model to ever be featured in a SI Swimsuit issue. In the ad, she is posing in a metallic gold bikini, her head crowned in all its gray-haired glory.

However, the same problem remains: The 2016 swimsuit issue, like every other one that has come before it, continues to perpetuate a particular way of seeing. It is a perspective that takes women’s bodies and sexually objectifies them for the gratification of its audience while bestowing “approval” in the process.

The thinking goes like this: If Sports Illustrated is allowing “plus-size” and older females into its swimsuit issue, then they really must be hot. (In reality, women like Graham and Griffin have always been beautiful and sexy. It’s society’s outdated beauty standards that have been slow to catch on.) That Sports Illustrated’s editorial choices are considered such a big deal shows how much value society continues to place on what straight men presumably consider sexually attractive when it comes to defining feminine beauty and who gets to fit that bill.

It’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, the swimsuit issue’s main objective isn’t to promote body positivity. It’s here to sell magazines. It does this by turning the female body into a visual commodity and making millions of dollars every year in the process.

Some of you might be saying, “It’s just photographs of beautiful women in bathing suits, what’s the big deal?”

Any kind of objectification of the female body is harmful.

Female objectification invites men to see women as sex objects rather than individuals. It has been connected to eating disorders, body shame, low-self esteem, depression, and other health issues in girls. On the extreme end, female objectification has been linked to incidents of domestic violence, physical violence, and sexual violence against women and girls.

Rather than try to fit more women and girls into the stifling and disempowering lens through which we continue to be portrayed in so much of the media, we need to dismantle this particular filter. As a society, let’s do more celebrating of women and girls as they are in real living color—not merely captured to maximum sexiness on the page—but as human beings who are so much more than what is pleasing to the eye: Complex. Raw. Intelligent. Passionate. Sexual. Strong. Emotional. Creative. Untamed. Opinionated. Unique. Original.

Now that’s hot.

61 Comments on “Sports Illustrated & Its Swimsuit Issue: Body Positive Or Not?”

  1. Jean says:

    I like that –disempowering lens..just to get someone else’s approval.

    YOu know, I never look at Sports Illustrated. I tend to look at Outside, Running or a bicycling magazine. So all the swimsuite furor was lost on me for past few decades.

    • diahannreyes says:

      LOL. Lucky you- maybe you should right a post about how the images on magazines like that are not about objectification- that’s one I haven’t read and I think it’s an important point to note. Esp. as it probably has a positive impact… pictures sans objectification.

  2. katherinejlegry says:

    YOU MUST KNOW It’s a ridiculous sham, for men and not pro-women. Why question marketing on this level?

    Objectification for all, is all we as women have earned. We are equally Fuckable. Women who endorse this plus size campaign have low self esteem, nothing more.

    • diahannreyes says:

      hi Katherine! I hope you are doing well.

      Yes, I do. So that’s why I was surprised at my initial reaction- although I shouldn’t be- as that’s the conditioning that happens from living in a culture where women are objectified.

      At the same time, I understand why it’s a big deal for the women who are included in this issue and didn’t want to generalize. Sounds like Griffin and Graham found the shoots personally empowering for specific reasons- so even with the clear cut-ness of what this is and what this isn’t, there are still nuances.

      • katherinejlegry says:

        I don’t think there are nuances at all for Griffin and Graham. I think they are status quo marketing targets. It’s the wrong road to loving ones body image by appeasing the male gaze… no matter what size underpants we wear. Men never had a problem with these women. That’s the lie. The designers for fashion are mostly gay men and they wanted hangers not personalities. Now that plus size is in demand for politically correct reasons, department store not high end will represent. That’s just business. Women are pawns in this. Willing pawns it seems.

        I have no problem with loving all shapes and do not need this to be sold to me repeatedly in the guise of female empowerment.

        Thanks so much for the dialogue! I’m not arguing with you. Just stating my firm opinion. Ultimately it’s up to each woman how she wants to dress and make her money and I support that.

        • diahannreyes says:

          Likewise. I always appreciate your strong voice and firm opinions here and it’s good to go into dialogue and break things down- there is no way to get all of that into a post sometimes. And ask for clarification. And disagree. And agree. Etc. Also, I agree that the reason magazines are getting on the bandwagon of opening up their beauty standards is that the world is less willing to put up with the old limiting standards and it is good marketing for them- once again, commodifying women’s bodies. And regarding the nuances- I agree with you in terms of what you mean by nuances – the magazine is objectification clear cut. I just meant I was wanting to write the piece in a way that made space for the contradictions that can fly along with what’s clear cut– like my own feelings about the matter and how the models feel about being included. I think all of these contradictions can exist simultaneously.

          • katherinejlegry says:

            I agree we live with the contradictions that can all exist simultaneously.

            These women aren’t truly being “included” tho. And I want them to be included on a genuinely human-evolutionary level because the easiest way to get women into competition with one another , so that men can retain dominance in marketing/business/ government/religion/ sexuality/ education/ history etc. is to attack her body image and turn her into his “possession” (usually bending over and wet in some capacity) adding to the female myth (whether beauty industry/fashion industry status quo or being literally raped out of the jobs/ military/university/investigative journalism etc.) and then sell to her what it is she should be doing that makes her sexy to men as opposed to other women. We have to cut out the skinny europeans to hail the plus size women of color. Mind you, no woman is making equal pay to a man. And we are being divided and pitted against one another in competition for magazine covers that do not celebrate us as people at all. Sports Illustrated should focus on the women in sports and stop their beauty pageants, if they care about women. We’ve placed too much emphasis on “sexy.” as if to be sexy to all men matters.

            Modeling clothing can be helpful to the artists who design clothing and who in turn create all of our illusions/ fantasies of the “uniformed” world. We glean “class” from what people wear. Like who has money and who is working class, I mean. The gender roles/ gender play and stereotypes come out of fashion and film, obviously… So I get longwinded about our participation in these fads.

            I actually want to design my own fabric patterns and fashions to dominate the world order too. So… ya know… it’s all relative. 🙂

            Thank you so much for this conversation, Diahann. I think as usual with your posts you are tapping into what is currently facing women in an expanding marketing and beauty industry and I hope women designers of all backgrounds and body shape take over what is beauty for themselves.

            • diahannreyes says:

              A lot said here, Kate, that needed to be said, so thank you for that. I would love for your designs to take over the world, too. I do think it’s important that women designers take part in the revolution of change that we’re talking about here- the real revolution of change, not what just seems like a revolution but is just more of the same.

              • katherinejlegry says:

                Ha, thanks for saying that Diahann. 🙂

                I’m going to risk sounding redundant… As long as we use the current patriarchal-view as what we measure ourselves by, we will be objects and supporting characters in his stories.

                Here’s short “somewhat related” (not about swimsuits) PBS interview with Beth Ann Hardison you might be interested in regarding changing the fashion world to represent women and diversity for real:

                Have a good day! Thanks for your time and discussion and post!

  3. katherinejlegry says:

    Btw, hello Diahann! Come visit my blog. I finally have my girl soda atlas up and running and you should follow me anew. I am dallying around with the inferior posts of yesterday. My Goddess/mother-nature/oracle deck is finally happening. I owe you much for the be true to yourself inspirations!

    And I love you writing about/ and posting this… because Sports Illustrated just plain sucks for women and always will. Lets not cater to the patriarchy so easily. I mean Ashely is gorgeous. So what?

    Where are the brains?

  4. awellthoughoutchoice says:

    Last year Last Week tonight did a segment on the SI swimsuit issue during it’s How Is This Still a Thing. The SI issue serves no true purpose and is an excuse for males in the media to act like idiots.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes. I am thinking this year I am not going to bother spending time on glancing at any images that objectify women when I run into them in magazines or wherever. I’m going to do a visual vast on all that. Jean commented above on how she reads magazines like Outside and Running so the images she encounters are very different.

  5. katherinejlegry says:

    I mean I am NOT dallying around with the inferior posts of yesterday! So sorry for my typo! 🙂
    peace and love to you.

  6. Tony Single says:

    I’m conflicted about this. I have never seen anyone who truly represents my body image in media of any kind unless it’s in a very negative light. I’ve had severe body image issues my whole life, and I often find it distressing to see images of anybody (woman or male) presented as the “ideal” (or, at the very least, another “ideal” to live up to).

    Now, my face is in no way as deformed as John Merrick’s was, but I feel like I need to see a John Merrick on the cover of a well known magazine such as the one you’ve mentioned in order for me to become more comfortable with my own appearance. How sad is that? It’s like you say, is this the only filter through which one can be validated? I still can’t walk around in public without feeling horribly self conscious. I wish that weren’t so.

    I don’t know what it’s like for women to be objectified (and thus stripped of their very humanness) so what I go through is in no way comparable. I do hope, however, that it potentially makes me more empathetic about what they go through. Plus-size or small, thin or tall, skin colour, and whatever other aesthetics we could poke a stick at… why should it matter? Why should it matter that my face is asymmetrical? Why am I ashamed of that? Why are we ashamed of ourselves? Our bodies? Of who we actually are?

    The mind can be a prison, and perhaps the images we surround ourselves with are what help to keep those bars strong. You’ve given me food for thought yet again, Diahann.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Tony, you make some great points here. And also, thanks for pointing out that men are also subject to body image stuff -maybe not to the same degree as women, but it’s there nonetheless and not talked about very often. You also bring up the great point that there is so much shame tied to the human body in general and that is something that definitely warrants more examination. As for this “The mind can be a prison, and perhaps the images we surround ourselves with are what help to keep those bars strong.” – I really am thinking of going on an image cleanse to get the kinds of images that are damaging in their own ways away from my nervous system. Great to have you here, as always 🙂

  7. I love your closing sentences. They made me smile. And I love how you made space in this post for all of your complex responses. I relate to all of them.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Jenn. I am happy to know that came through. I really do think it’s important to make space for the contradictions and complexities that a person can feel about an issue- I used to beat myself up about this, but realized that it’s not productive and doesn’t empower me or anyone else for that matter. Letting the complexities have room to breathe, even just inside me, makes it easier for me to be responsive rather than reactive– most of the time, at least 🙂

  8. There lies a difference indeed between true appreciation and objectification. The race never ends be in any part or corner of the world. Unless we ourselves realise what we hold in whichever form we are and accept that life in itself is a beauty and miracle though the disgraceful approach will stay as its mere commoditisation and for the purpose of minting money. The last para nailed it and am so impressed with this piece.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you. and well said. It is such an important distinction- appreciation vs. objectification- and it can be a fine line. But it exists. Appreciation is honoring and objectification is harmful and doesn’t honor the female body. And I agree, its up to us to change our orientation- the industries that make money from the old ways have no impetus to be different unless it affects their bottom line.

  9. BroadBlogs says:

    You make a good point. In some ways it is revolutionary. But in others it is the status quo. So I have mixed emotions. Because I do appreciate any breaking out of the old mold in terms of body image. But at the same time women feel under constant pressure to look a particular way and to be the object of a gaze. Which is pretty screwed up.

  10. “Any kind of objectification of the female body is harmful”.

    I couldn’t agree with this statement more. Another blogger of standing just posted a statement that women who buy into the notion that posing is an expression of their freedom, are not free, but rather victims of brainwashing. I applauded her too.

    It’s really not that difficult of a concept, but oh the obfuscation that comes into play to continue the subjugation of women in any form, especially this one.

    Ahem…I think you’ve hit on a passionate note in my psyche. LOL. Great post, as usual.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Robyn. Yeah- it’s so interesting how something that can feel like empowerment is really more of the same- like some weird puzzle/mind/trap- which shows just how insidious all this can go. It also reminds me that empathy and compassion is so important for women all around regardless of where they are in their own journeys in relationship to their bodies. Getting out of that trap is not easy, sometimes even with our best efforts.

  11. eliang says:

    I agree with Blog Woman!!! above, who beat me to the punch by quoting “Any kind of objectification of the female body is harmful.” Thank you for that sentence and this post, Diahann!

  12. reocochran says:

    I think progress in acceptance in so many areas of life today is a major problem. I have to say the swimsuit issue of SI having wider variety of ethnicity awhile back was nice, having age and size change would be helpful on a lot of magazine’s front covers. I think Victoria Secret and tv commercials need to change. . .
    The political atmosphere is full of vitriol, my coworkers are 90 to 95% “closet” bigots.
    I guess changing the “face” of a magazine is the least of our problems, sadly.
    By the way, I still like looking at “hot” men and appreciated Amy Schumer making Bill Hader, a nerd, into a hot man! 🙂 She also took brains over brawn, in “Trainwreck.”
    I think poor Melissa McCarthy needs to stick to smart comedy or semi-serious films like, “Spy” and “St. Vincent,” instead of very low brow comedies which essentially make fun of fat people and how dumb they are. . .

    • diahannreyes says:

      I appreciated that about Trainwreck (among other things) as well. McCarthy seems to be opening to new opportunities so hopefully that will become more and more the case. I am with you-great we are seeing the media acknowledge that there are more diverse kinds of women out there than the usual suspects-now they just need to stop objectifying. Thanks for your thoughts!

      • reocochran says:

        Yes, objectifying across the board. Pretty faces and muscular bodies on men also have to be included. Women ogle and can be quite crude in this regard. Good discussion here with many supporting writers/commenters, Diahann.

  13. Diane Lansing says:

    Another deep and thought provoking blog! All the comments have me thinking. I agree for the most part. But I’m one of those people that see it as a step in the right direction. Appreciating a woman’s beauty is something I do. I like to sculpt woman’s bodies. I think the lines are inspiring to me as an artist. Sometimes I will see a curvy photo and get inspired. Often it’s very athletic figures because the muscles are so clear. Am I objectifying? I’m asking this honestly, for others perspectives. I also feel like an older model and a curvy model might give a more open mind and attitude for the men that love this kind of thing. And since that most likely won’t change, isn’t it better to open minds ever so slowly? Rather than shutting it all down (which you’re not going to do) my mind is open. I’m just working it all,out.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Diane! I don’t think you are objectifying- at least not in the sense of where you are reducing a woman to her body parts and sexualizing her for consumption. (It sounds to me like you are rendering real life onto the page as opposed to photoshopping or posing into unrealistic ideals.)

      I also don’t think there is anything wrong with appreciating physical beauty- IMHO physical beauty that’s not manipulated blows the manipulated stuff out of the water.

      I agree with you that change even if slow is a step in the right direction. In my opinion,though, there needs to be more urgency about it because the harm that continues to be perpetuated.

      I love the points you bring up. Thanks for adding them here to this discussion. I am curious to hear what else folk have to say about this.

  14. I wasn’t familiar with Sports Illustrated but having just had a look at some of the images, I’m not impressed! For a while, it seemed as though we were moving away somewhat from this type of objectification, but I think in the last 20 years or so it has gotten worse again, with all types of media sexualising women, young women expected to look like porn starts, etc. But even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of outcry about it in the way that there was in the 70s / 80s and in many ways it seems women have bought into it (for lots of complex reasons, of course).

    • diahannreyes says:

      hi Andrea, I think that marketers have gotten craftier about using what women are calling for “body positivity” etc. to sell their products- Barbie Dolls, swimsuit issues etc. – in the name of “body positivity” when it’s really more of the same in terms of using the female body to make money. And, like you said, there are lots more complex reasons (that could fill a book)!

  15. Have seen that swimsuit issue of SI. Objectification of female body, I think, it would never cease. For the one simple reason: it sells! However, I think we women need to change our mindset as the male mindset about female bodies is difficult to change. We should count more on our abilities and intelligence. If one feels good at size 16, that should be given a priority over everything else.

    Great post, Diahann…. 🙂

    • diahannreyes says:

      hi Maniparna! I agree. In many ways it’s up to us because the industries that make money off objectification don’t have a real impetus to change. If all of us collectively made the decision not to buy into the lies that continue to be thrust upon us about our bodies and what they need to look like, etc. – there wouldn’t be a market for that kind of manipulation and companies would have to figure out a new way to make money.

  16. I love your final list of what you consider hot! 🙂
    Your post was very thought provoking, Diahann.

  17. I almost jumped up shouting, “AMEN!!” Great close, D.

    That IS cool that they are expanding the visual spectrum but given this is visual, you are absolutely right, that they magz perpetuates a particular way of seeing. They are not a charity but a business and are about the bottom line. I didn’t realize Ronda posed. Huh. We started junior issues – all meaty sports articles – sent to T for some reason (not even 9)…and they sent one with the plus models. THAT one dripped sensuality. I was so mad.

    • diahannreyes says:

      They sent a swimsuit issue to him at age 9?! That’s outrageous.

      Thanks, D! Got your email too and will respond more offline. Been thinking about you and wondering what you’ve been up to?

  18. SirenaTales says:

    Dear Diahann, Sorry for the delay in commenting. I’m not in Blogland much of late and, wonderfully, your work always demands rumination for me before I weigh in.

    I really appreciate your insightful, incisive analysis here–in the post and your comments. As you note, the victory here seems like a Pyrrhic one, although when I read that some less conventional models participated, I was initially pleased, er, duped.

    I kind of have an ongoing cleanse, like the image cleanse you mention above. Or maybe it’s “curation” :). Partly as a way to be selective about what I consume and partly as a protest. So, I haven’t seen this particular SI issue, and probably won’t add another tick to the column of “views.”

    I agree with your other fans–love, LOVE your paragraph about the true, boundless sources of women’s “hotness.” Thank you for doing the heavy lifting, Diahann. Rock on. xx

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Chloe! I think it’s great that you have an ongoing curating/cleanse when it comes to images. And I do think there is something to that- esp. in a world where we are surrounded online by clickbait opportunities.

      Ps. I’ve been away more than usual too, so I totally get it (if you notice, I often do marathon catch up reads when I do finally make it onto the blogosphere.) 🙂 Always wonderful to connect with you.

      • SirenaTales says:

        Thanks, Diahann. On a related note, I wonder if you will be writing about belly dancing? Would love to hear about it in general, but also specifically in the context of the issues raised here. xo

        • diahannreyes says:

          Hi Chloe! thank you for asking. (Sorry for the delay in responding- I seem to be in endless transition these days and haven’t gotten back into my old rhythms, esp. when it comes to the blogosphere… perhaps it’s time to find new ones.) I have a piece I started working on last month that I haven’t finished but definitely want to write about it. it was very life changing 🙂 Your prompt reminded me that it’s time to go back to the piece while it’s still fresh.

  19. livelytwist says:

    That Sports Illustrated’s editorial choices are considered such a big deal shows how much value society continues to place on what straight (white) men presumably consider sexually attractive when it comes to defining feminine beauty and who gets to fit that bill.

    Well said. I added “white”

    Are we making progress? Judging by your blog post and the comments that follow, yes, slowly …

    • diahannreyes says:

      Good point and thanks for adding that particular bit of specificity. And yes- I agree with you, slowly but surely making progress (Sorry for the delay in response- as I told Chloe above, I have been out of rhythm in terms of being as active in the blog world as I used to be. Need to get back to it!)

  20. milamh says:

    Very true, but I wouldn’t know how to get out of it. Even men are being objectify now a days. I see ads of man in underwear in every magazine I open nowadays, but I do know one thing, I wouldn’t want my kids to be part of this.

    • diahannreyes says:

      I definitely think it is a challenge to keep kids from being impacted by these old paradigms that continue to play out. I would imagine it would be a lot of work abut worth it, Milamh!

  21. Aquileana says:

    Hello there dear Diahann….

    you are quite right when you state that `Any kind of objectification of the female body is harmful… Female objectification invites men to see women as sex objects rather than individuals´…
    many magazines seem to depict women just as sexual objects… But what I can tell you is that most of them, enjoy it… At least here in Argentina, models who were on playboy are proud of that … I could see that almost everyday… our gossip industry on TV is garbage, Lol.
    Great post… love and best wishes. Aquileana ⭐️

  22. Jay says:

    I think every woman gets to choose for herself, and I choose to not look to magazines for self worth.

  23. Lani says:

    2016 and this is happening. Geez. I guess we’ll have to wait for another 10 years before an Asian model (or other under-represented “minorities”) graces the covers of these kinds of magazines – and then it will be ‘revolutionary’ all over again…

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Lani! Just coming back to my blog after a bit of a break. Hence the delay in responding to you. It is quite telling these “firsts” that should have happened ages ago.

  24. candidkay says:

    Amen. I’m tired of feeling either like an object of attention (when I put effort in) or completely overlooked as a middle-aged woman (when I don’t). I don’t think men feel this way–because they don’t have to. It’s a filter we’ve become unaware of as a society . . .

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes! And I am becoming more convinced thAt it is up to us to create these more empowered and embodied representAtions in real life. I agree w u that men don’t have that same conditioning.

  25. You have a great blog. Would you like to share your story on “What You Blog About”
    what motivated you to start this blog ?

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