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decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty?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.


A Night at the Movies, Part II: The Female Body On and Off Screen

The day after watching Cinderella (A Night at the Movies, Part I),  I went to see another film.  The Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz. This wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed in terms of plot, but the acting by all three women is wonderful work. (For a review from someone who did like the flick, click here.)

I especially couldn’t stop watching Binoche. Not only because her performances are always a master class in acting but it was so refreshing to see a female movie star past ingénue age looking so comfortable baring her body on the big screen. That’s not a sight one gets to witness often, especially in American cinema.

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2452254/

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra
Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2452254/

Binoche didn’t look like she’d toned up at the gym first before letting us see her naked in all her 51-year-old softness.I doubt she was any less beautiful or sensual than if she’d been all muscle.

There is a much needed healing of an old wound that happens when I see images of women that are more expansive than the limited ideas of beauty that I grew up with and surround me still—just like it feels like a balm for me when I see people of color playing significant parts on the big screen or as lead characters in literature. But it wasn’t just how Binoche looked. As I said, she would have been just as beautiful if she’d been all sculpted too. It was more that I felt coming from her body a sense of pleasure and shamelessness in fully inhabiting her own skin… much the way she fully embodies the parts she plays.

I used to think that I was at my best-looking, sexiest self when I managed to get my stomach to go flatter or the number on the scale went down. People’s reactions to me would affirm that—“You look so good! You lost weight!”

Lately, I can’t help but think that their responses were not necessarily because of how I looked but more because those were the times when I’d give myself permission to enjoy being in my body. The way I would carry myself, walk into a room, and interact with people changed, reflecting my own pleasure.

In her blog, Londin Angel Winters, the creator of Metaphysical Fitness and the Mindful Sculpt workout series writes, “Confidence, elegance, sexiness, grace, playfulness… these are all energies that any of us can embody in any moment we choose. Nothing needs to change about our bodies except that we need to stop dragging them behind us like forgotten luggage… we “come home” to them and a world of expression and beauty opens up to us immediately.”

There is a lot that has been written, by myself included, about how the unrealistic standards of beauty thrust at us by society, not to mention the barrage of photoshopped images in the media, make it hard to love our bodies or the way we look. But I doubt that these standards and images are going to go away until we make like Gandhi and “be the change that {we} wish to see in the world.”

Several years ago a friend of mine and I talked about starting a belly revolution. We were going to set up a website calling on women, including ourselves, to love the female belly in all its shapes and forms—round, lean, sculpted, stretch marked…. For me, my challenge has always been learning to love my stomach in its natural round shape and not just when its muscles are toned. (The latter has  happened once for six months in 44 years.) Yet the next day, while browsing through a bookstore, I bought a book on how to lose tummy fat.

I called my friend to back out of our new venture. There was no way I could lead any kind of body revolution unless I learned to love my own first. ” I think I’ll just wait until the rest of the world is on board and then join up,” I told her. “Maybe Madonna will start their own belly loving movement!”

There are definitely plenty of reasons to cheer when female celebrities act as role models by refusing to succumb to the pressures imposed by made up standards of female beauty. I too was inspired when, a few weeks ago, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink refused to let negative comments about their weight get them down.  I loved it when singer Janelle Monae told a fan, who had Tweeted that she needed to focus more on being sexy, less on being soulful: “I’m not for male consumption.” 

Yet ultimately, liberating ourselves from culture’s limiting standards is an inside job. I can find inspiration, courage even in others’ examples. But what I do with my body and how I choose to feel in it, show up in it out in the world, is up to me.


Baring the Female Breasts: Beyond Objectification

There is so much more to a woman’s relationship to her breasts than meets the naked eye. In this post, I am thrilled to have two of my favorite bloggers, KS of Kosher Adobo and Jennifer Berney of Goodnight Already, joining me as we pay homage to this most famous of feminine body parts.

Two Tahitian Women by Paul Gauguin http://tinyurl.com/ocvkvkc (Wikimedia Commons)

CHERRY

I am a junior in boarding school. Behind me is a “Save Sex” poster and a perfume ad: “Femme Fatale: When the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” It’s the night before the first day of school. I am tugging on the neck of my shirt, admiring my bra strap. Every bra I owned just a year before was white or beige, looking more like bandages for my then AA breasts. But this 36B brassiere, red and lined with lace, which I bought with my mom, was bold, and I want to show it off. In a girls’ dorm after lights out was the safest place to share my joy. Check out my new bra, I say, lifting my shirt for N., who took me to Victoria’s Secret for the first time.  N. owns silky negligees and has more experience than I, but she delights with me, anyway. Having grown up with sisters, these female friendships are as natural as breathing. Beautiful, she says.

I loved the curves of my changing body.  It was expanding, taking up room, and it was exciting. I wanted to make out with the world – but I didn’t want anyone to put his hand up my flannel shirt. (Or maybe I did but I hadn’t fallen in love, yet, much less kissed a boy.)

Though I couldn’t express it, then, that first red brassiere became one of my earliest lessons in femininity and self-acceptance. When I think about who I was at sixteen, I imagine a woman, who would be ready for love and men someday, but, until then, she could keep whatever it was – her breasts, her secrets – her own. She would find beauty in her own reflection and in other women’s eyes.

KS is a textbook TCK who was born in the Philippines, raised in Saudi Arabia, and has lived in New England, USA, for the last twenty years. She writes about her intercultural marriage, diversity, and reproductive health on her blog Kosher Adobo.

 

THE USEFUL BREAST  

Once, at a crowded farmers market, an acquaintance of mine broke from our conversation to pull one of her breasts out of the top of her sundress and nurse her infant daughter. Though I tried not to react, I could not hide my alarm. I approved of public breastfeeding, but did she have to make it a spectacle?

As I prepared to welcome a baby, my own approach to public breastfeeding was to conceal as much as possible. I ordered nursing tank tops, nursing shirts, and a hand-made nursing cover—a small curtain that ties around a mother’s neck, designed to hide both her breasts and her baby. Why wouldn’t everyone use these? I wondered.

My son arrived, and our early days together included meandering walks where he would nap against me and wake up, hungry, the moment I settled down at a café. As it turned out, the nursing cover wasn’t so helpful; I actually needed to see my nipple to align it with my newborn’s mouth. And once he had latched I did not want to cover him with fabric. I wanted to see his eyes and his soft whorl of hair. The café was a friendly place, but still, I overheard strangers refer to me as “that woman over there who is breastfeeding.” It didn’t matter that my breast was hidden by my shirt—I was still a spectacle.

I wish that we could learn to recognize the utility of a breast in the same way we recognize the utility of a hand.  Bared in the bedroom, or half hidden beneath lace, of course breasts hold erotic allure. But just as I must sometimes remove my gloves to find my keys or write a check, I must sometimes lift my shirt and unhook my bra to perform the serious task of feeding my child.

Jennifer Berney lives in Olympia, Washington with her partner and two sons. She blogs at Goodnight Already

 

LOVING MY BREASTS

If my breasts could talk, they would tell me that they like it when I show a little cleavage. Give us a bit of sunlight, let that heat tickle our skin! I’m tenderer with my breasts than I used to be—unwilling to use them to be objectified; more eager to self-savor the sight of them, ripened and full as they peek over t-shirts or hang naked before the mirror. And underwire… my breasts love underwire!

At my last medical appointment, the doctor asked if I knew whether the breast cancer gene runs in the family—we do have a history. No, I replied. Well, maybe you should find out, she said.

My first thought was Angelina Jolie and her mastectomy, reconstruction—two procedures that, even with insurance, I cannot afford. But would I want to if I knew the odds were stacked against me? To lose my breasts, whether by choice or because I must, would be devastating. I’ll take my chances, I tell the doctor. Then again, maybe if I had children, like Angelina, I too would choose differently.

My breasts aren’t that sensitive when it comes to physical sensation—at least not like what you read in romance novels where a suck, a flick, a lick can elicit moans of ecstasy. When I was younger I would pretend all that, worried about what it might say about me if I didn’t make some noise.

These days, my breasts will settle for nothing less than real pleasure even if it means sometimes feeling nothing. Because my breasts, like the rest of me, are no longer afraid to demand tenderness… a little roughness…whatever they need. My breasts know that their worth doesn’t depend on looking good or putting on a show.

My breasts, with their ability to feed a life, are their own kind of superpower.

Diahann Reyes is a freelance writer and performer. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at Stories from the Belly: A Blog About the Female Body and Its Appetites.

 


Turning My Sensuality On

Lately, I’ve been feeling disconnected from my own sensuality and needing a way to plug back into that part of myself. I figured what better way to re-spark that inner connection than to take a sensual movement class.

I didn’t tell my boyfriend that I was going because I needed this experience to be just for me. We’ve been living together for a few months now, and while I love him truly, madly, and deeply, I suspect that being with him is the reason that I’ve shut down my connection to my sensuality.

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Mirror, Mirror on The Wall

There was a time when I wanted to be famous. I felt that if I could just see myself under bright lights, on the big screen, or the front page, I would finally feel like I mattered. In the last several years, I’ve stopped craving stardom. Maybe it’s in part because fame seems to be an easier feat to accomplish these days. Do or say something super provocative or heartwarming, post it online, watch it go viral, and—Voila! —for at least fifteen minutes everyone knows your name. But does fame even mean anything anymore now that it is so much more achievable? Then again, did it ever?

I’d like to think that the reason for the change in me goes deeper—that it is because I no longer need other people to look at me first before I am able to see myself or know that I have value. I’ve begun owning that I matter, cultivating this understanding from the inside out, rather than looking for that validation from the outside in.

For the longest time, none of this was the case at all. I let culture and the male gaze, especially, tell me who I was and how much I was worth. Often, that worthiness was tied to whether or not men found me desirable.

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Saturating in Feminine Beauty


When women come together
Their bodies can reverberate
Creating a rich stew
Of yummy nourishment
And sisterhood

La Dance by Matisse http://tinyurl.com/o754yzv (wikimedia commons)

I’m floating in a warm pool surrounded by women. Eyes are closed. Hands gently lap the water. Movements are languid, barely making ripples. One woman sits underwater, as if suspended. Above the surface, her breath rises, forming bubbles.

We look like we are hibernating, which in a way we are. This is, after all, a retreat.

It’s just us ladies, so no pressure to pull in one’s tummy to create the illusion of flatness. No need to wear oversize t-shirts to hide soft upper arms or round thighs or skinny hips. No need to walk sexy or look hot. Each of us is resting, saturating in what it feels like to fully inhabit our own skin. We are hiding nothing.

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I Look At My Feet

I used to look at my feet and see big… long..ugly. At least that’s what some of my relatives told me they saw when I was growing up . So I stopped taking care of my feet.

In college I walked around the Berkeley campus for four years in Nordstrom style loafers. I bought them in all the different colors: Blue. Black. Beige. And red. When I’d wear out a pair, I’d buy another pair. I’d take the BART across the bay to San Francisco on a Saturday.

Once, when I went home for summer vacation, my aunt looked down and said, “What have you done to your feet? They look like you’ve been plowing the rice fields [in the Philippines]!” Oops. Then again, how would she know?

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