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decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty?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