The 2017 issue of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue was released on 14 February. This year there’s a category for athletes. Tennis stars Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard are included, as well as Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.
Serena Williams in the SI Swimsuit issue:
Ashley Graham was the first ‘plus-sized’ model to be on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover in 2016. Following Ashley’s appearance, ‘plus-sized’ models Hunter Grady and Robyn Lawley are also in the campaign this year.
Their inclusion is a sign that SI is attempting to be more diverse in the choice of the bodies that are included. The editor has hailed this as their ‘most inclusive issue ever’, and commentators have celebrated the improved representation. It’s obviously important to push for better representation, including athletic, women, full-figured women, and more women of colour in what is held up as sexy. And it’s laudable that the issue includes Ashley Graham’s SwimsuitsForAll campaign, and that the SI Swimsuit editor is running a parallel social media campaign promoting body positivity.
BUT: as the saying goes, is there any point in throwing good after bad?
(In this scenario Serena and Ashley are the good, and SI Swimsuit is the bad, to be clear.)
Sports Illustrated is technically a magazine about sports; the target market is men. The women in swimsuits are for the viewing pleasure of the men, and although they are given some voice in their bios and the accompanying videos, the star of the show in the SI images is undeniably tits and ass. No amount of inclusivity or parallel body-positivity messaging will change that, and the core SI Swimsuit content makes that very obvious. This is just the SFW stuff on Instagram:
The teaser campaign was the worst – cutting off the heads of the models (because it’s ‘secret’) into a slider of boobs and bums: objectification.
This is not to make the argument that says empowered women cannot be sexy, and all sexiness is automatically a victory for the patriarchy. That argument surrenders female sexuality and our expressions of it to the patriarchy too, ultimately, because it says sexiness is always going to be for men.
Empowered women can be sexy. They can own, enjoy, and express their sexualities through their bodies in ways that are familiarly ‘sexy’ by western standards (e.g. tiny bikini), or completely different.
But Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is not it. Their gaze into the camera, the way that their bodies are contorted and presented as playthings is a celebration of the female form that is aimed at pleasing the male viewer.
Including women like Serena Williams and Ashley Graham is a sophisticated kind of window-dressing that detracts attention to the fact that SI Swimsuit issue is an issue, period.