Is *anything* having to do with the SI swimsuit issue a “breath of fresh air”?

Last week we talked about the way the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue included 63 year old Christie Brinkley. See “Because if Christie Brinkley can pull it off, so can anyone, right?”. That one generated a lot of intense feelings on both sides. But by far the most frequent response was a lament that the swimsuit issue is still a thing. One of the more striking comments, I thought, was a reader who said that “When I saw this on TV, I couldn’t help but to think that a 63-year-old mother ought to have weightier values to pass on to her daughters than posing in bikinis for a famous magazine.”

This sums it up for me too. Aren’t there other values we want to be passing on to the next generation? Well, the swimsuit issue has been back in the news in recent days on two fronts.

First, take “Hunter McGrady is a breath of fresh air in the in SI’s Swimsuit Edition.”

This color image shows swimsuit model Hunter McGrady, a white
Image dscription: This color image shows swimsuit model Hunter McGrady, a white “plus-sized” woman with long blond, wet hair, lying on her side on a white sandy beach, propped up on her right arm with her left arm in front for further support. She wears a colorful one-piece swimsuit that is painted onto her body, showing ample breasts, curvy hips, and glistening skin. the words “Sports Illustrated” appear in the lower right corner of the image. Photo Credit: Josephine Clough, Sports Illustrated

What’s the story here? Hunter McGrady is a gorgeous woman with curves. Her photo shoot for the issue has her posing on a beach in a body paint swimsuit. Yes, she looks stunning and sexy and comfortable in her skin. And yes she defies most of our expectations about who “deserves” (I use this word cautiously) to be featured in this edition of the magazine.

Like Brinkley who wanted to send a message to older women everywhere, McGrady has a larger public service in mind. She says: “My main goal is to get across to women that you are able to love your body at any size and that you’re sexy and beautiful at any size. Beauty is not a size and I’m really happy that the industry is accepting body diversity.”

Next is Serena Williams. She is by all accounts one of the most formidable female athletes of our time and the top tennis player of all-time (maybe Roger Federer is close).

In this colour picture tennis star Serene Wiliams, a black woman with long dark hair, poses on a beach in a one piece ocean blue swimsuit. She is standing with her head thrown back, muscular arms up over her chest, back slightly arched. There is white sand, calm surf, turquoise water, and blue sky with a few white clouds on this sunny day. Some greenery in the distance. The words
Image description: In this colour picture tennis star Serene Wiliams, a black woman with long dark hair, poses on a beach in a one piece ocean blue swimsuit. She is standing with her head thrown back, muscular arms up over her chest, back slightly arched. There is white sand, calm surf, turquoise water, and blue sky with a few white clouds on this sunny day. Some greenery in the distance. The words “Sports Illustrated” appear in the lower right corner of the image.

So while it’s heartening to read “Holy Moly, Serena Williams Is a Goddess in Sports Illustrated” in the sense that she defies type with her  athletic body and dark skin, I can’t say I was thrilled to see her reduced to a sex object.

On Facebook, my first reaction to the McGrady news was this:

I’m also torn about this. Similar to including Christie Brinkley at 63 (which we blogged about last week…/because-if-christie…/) it’s tough to think of it anything having to do with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition as a huge win for women. It’s so very heteronormative and objectifying. Yes, the depictions are beautiful, but in an extremely “male gaze-y” sort of way. It’s great to see diversity because it makes it clear that (perhaps) there are a range of sexy body types that straight men (mostly) will “accept.” But we are more than that. Having said that, I love the body paint and I love that she feels good in her body, and it’s okay to feel and be sexy. Hence: torn.

Others jumped in with similar comments. For example (quoting from our Facebook page comments):

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be valued for more than what we look like on the cover of a magazine that is known to objectify women? Is it great she’s outside of the acceptable size for this magazine? Sure, but the intent is still the same.”

“One can celebrate their body and not be reduced to an object.”

“Yes we can, but these photos are clearly meant to be sexual.”

“Equal opportunity objectification.”

“she’s gorgeous.”

As you can see, there is a range of opinion here. But the idea of “equal opportunity objectification” rings loudly to me.

Let’s be clear about one thing: there is nothing wrong with being sexy or sexual. It’s neither demeaning nor wrong. But the one-dimensional representation of amazing women for men’s visual pleasure seems awfully outdated to me, even if it’s in some sense heartening that a wider range of body types are “making the cut.”

Any feminist will tell you that hetero-normative femininity has been and continues to be used as a tool of oppression. The other day I talked about “letting yourself be” instead of “letting yourself go,” because the narrative of letting ourselves go implicitly suggests that we are only socially acceptable if we fit into the narrow mold that is expected of us. Some may choose not to conform, but others may not have a body type that can get there (if the expectation is slender, white, young, lean, etc.). That’s why diversity can seem like a good thing, even in the swimsuit issue.

But the larger question of “why in the heck is the swimsuit issue still a thing at all?” wants an answer too. And that answer is kind of depressing. There is nothing sporty about the swimsuit issue. There is no covert, progressive agenda. It’s still the same as it always was, designed to appeal to straight male sexual desire, presenting the women as sexual objects for men’s consumption.

I don’t want to sound grumpy about something that does have its positive side of promoting body positivity and sex positivity. But when I think of “sex positive,” I guess I think of something more progressive that involves bashing stereotypes more than galvanizing their social power.

What’s your reaction to these new efforts to make the swimsuit edition more inclusive?

8 thoughts on “Is *anything* having to do with the SI swimsuit issue a “breath of fresh air”?

  1. There are some men who rarely/never pay attention to Sports Illustrated but they undertake a favourite exercise, sport, etc. They don’t even pick it up a the magazine stand. They might go online out of curiosity and then get bored.

    These same men don’t even watch football and may have occasional interest in NHL hockey game or basketball game. My partner is one of these guys. He is a cyclist as transportation by choice, for fitness and never liked Lance Armstrong because he hated his ego dominating personality before the drug doping scandal even broke.

    I’m saying this because Sports Illustrated just might be struggling to retain their core base readers and keeps flogging that swimsuit cover old-generation ways of attracting readers.

    What is very important is what values we pass on to the next generatioh of girls and young women. It does begin with the parent (s) and other significant adults. So to have a mother like Christine Brinkley is for certain a choice for her daughters on whether or not they consciously need to beautify themselves constantly to please society/men.

    I was disappointed that Serena Williams modelled for that issue. She is a rich woman. She didn’t need that money. Great she looks sexy and powerfully strong..I haven’t learned anything about her athletic prowess since I don’t know about tennis.


  2. I hope there is room to hold both attitudes, anger that this is a thing, the SI swimsuit issue, and “wow, they’re gorgeous.” Given that it’s a thing, I’m very glad the range of bodies, shapes, and sizes has expanded.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I must respectfully disagree that this SI issue represents female objectification. The women mentioned agreed to pose and I’m assuming they had a say in the swimsuit and pose selection. And certainly none of them needed the money.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with women wanting to look sexy any more than men do. Wanting to look good, including to the opposite sex, is part of who we are as humans. If this were their *primary* focus on their self-image, I’d agree there was a problem. But these women are so much more than that, and we all know it.


    1. You’re no doubt totally right that the women who pose for SI do so willingly, but I think it’s risky to assume too much beyond that. Film, tv, and media production like this are complicated, and even powerful celebrity models usually have to conform to a director’s agenda. We can assume McGrady and Williams got paid and also had a hand in the intention behind their posing, but at the end of the day SI is a brand and the images it produces feed that brand first. All this to say here that agency is tricky when public media representation is involved, and models like these can be both subjects and objects at the same time.


  4. For what it is worth, I’ve got to hand it to Serena for posing for a spread like this. For her entire career, whether she has liked it or not, she has been subject to a vicious racial, and often heteronormative male gaze. Judging from history, I’m willing to bet not all the comments regarding this spread are going to be positive, and I’m pretty sure she knows that as well. If at least some of her motivation was to show black women you can be both powerful and sexy, I can appreciate that motivation or other motivations that might stem from her particular experiences as a black woman or a black athlete. And if she took that to the most visible platform she could for loads of other black women to see–the SI swimsuit edition–I can appreciate that effort as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, Tracy. I’m with Sam: there is an inherent contradiction for feminists here, and I think we might have to live in the positive potential of being torn about it. It’s both necessary for SI to pass into history, and also for those who still look at it to be exposed to beautiful larger women, beautiful women of different skin colours, beautiful diversity. I agree with Charissa that serena Williams has obviously made a provocative and likely political choice to pose; I really support and applaud it too. Though I’m grossed out by SI, I also think it’s essential to talk about these changes in a way that holds open the difficulties it’s continued existence represents, if that makes sense. Your post asks us all to look with nuance, at a time when nuance is in short supply. That in itself is a great, body- and sex- positive message.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your “inherent contradiction” point is just so perfect. It also captures how I feel about Victorias secret, Instagram models and so on. On the one hand it is giving women some power and we have to use the power we get in this system but on the other hand yes it is just gross.


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