The Swimsuit Edition, Where Sexism Knows No Size

Apparently we’re all supposed to celebrate the fact that an average-sized woman will appear in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

I’m told it’s some kind of triumph that, of the many women pointlessly objectified on the pages of a magazine that’s supposed to be about sports, one will be somewhat heavier than all the others. Sexism is so deeply woven into the fabric of sports in America that this, incredibly, is meant to represent progress.

Never mind that this year’s cover model, in addition to being exactly the size you’d expect her to be, is also waxed to within an inch of her life. Never mind that only average-sized model in the magazine appears not as part of an editorial layout but in an ad. Never mind that both women appear to have been liberally airbrushed, unless you believe neither of their bodies has a single stray hair, birthmark, stretch mark, hint of cellulite or uncommon feature of any kind.

Seriously, never mind any of that. Because those details only serve to distract from the real problem, which is that the swimsuit edition exists at all.

It. shouldn’t. exist. It never should have existed in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t continue to exist in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet it continues to roll off the press every year because SI refuses to depart from the grand sporting tradition of presenting¬†women as props for men to ogle.

Soft-core porn has its place in the world (as does hard-core porn, for the record). Actually, it has thousands of places. You can’t surf the web for 10 minutes without stumbling across at least a few pictures of young women in various states of undress, and that’s without even trying. Prefer to go lower tech? There are plenty of books, movies, television shows and live venues serving up every kind of sex you can imagine and more than a few kinds you probably can’t. And of course there are magazines – so, so many magazines – devoted entirely to the purpose of aiding in male masturbation.

Sports Illustrated is not supposed to be one of those magazines. You can tell because it isn’t called “Playboy” or “Hustler” or “Juggs” or “Barely Legal” or “Men Only” or “SCREW,” but is rather called “Sports Illustrated,” indicating an editorial focus on sports. I don’t know a whole lot about Juggs, but I’d guess that if each year one edition of Juggs broke from the usual format to focus on, say, interior design, Juggs subscribers might not be entirely delighted. If they wanted to read about interior design, after all, they could subscribe to House Beautiful; they subscribe to Juggs because they want to look at pictures of breasts. That’s how it works: Juggs for breasts, House Beautiful for interior design, Sports Illustrated for sports. Simple.

Still, Sports Illustrated ditches sports once a year to proudly present a semi-sanitized version of Juggs. At this point, the powers that be at SI know better. They’ve heard from frustrated readers who want to read about sports – and only sports – in a sports magazine, and from those who are angry about the message the swimsuit edition sends: Namely that women, for all our progress as athletes and fans and journalists and full-fledged members of the sports world in nearly every area, are still primarily viewed as objects in that world rather than as people.

I suspect that even within the Sports Illustrated power structure there are those who would like to ax their annual glossy tribute to sexism, but lord knows every time the matter comes up in public there’s a very vocal gang of bros and would-be bros who shout and whine and all but rend their garments at the thought. SI doesn’t want to lose subscribers, and when the goal is retention then it’s always safer to maintain the status quo. So instead of angering what it perceives to be its base, arguably the nation’s most prominent sports magazine pauses once a year to print up a jerk rag and promote it as some kind of sacred tradition.

Worst of all, bunches of other media outlets buy into it. Newspapers and magazines profile the newly-minted cover model, TV shows offer behind-the-scenes looks at swimsuit edition photo shoots and, of course, we get breathless exclamations across the internet of “it’s about time!” when an average-size woman finally gets to be seen and not heard right along with her skinnier sistren.

It’s got to go, along with all the¬†other “traditions” in sports that dehumanize women. The swimsuit edition, pro cheerleaders, ice girls, ring girls: Every time a team, league or media outlet uses women’s bodies to sell otherwise unrelated products, the message goes out that straight men are preferred customers and everyone else is just lucky to be allowed in.

To say that including an average-size model in the swimsuit edition ‘isn’t enough’ would be to dangerously miscast the situation. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a step in the right direction; on the contrary, if it tricks people into thinking the swimsuit edition is becoming progressive (and, unbelievably, it seems to be having that effect on some) then it will do far more harm than it could possibly do good. Want to see real progress? Find a way to make men understand that leering at women, regardless of size or shape, is not a sport.