The Vacation’s Over: Rethinking the Swimsuit Issue

Guest blogger Paul Gilbert, now a father of two teenagers, details how his personal perspective on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition has changed over time…

The arrival of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has generated some serious turbulence in our household climate, and depending which side of the beach you’re on, it’s either pleasantly mild or way too hot.

My wife, Wendi, is greatly offended by this year’s cover photo, featuring a 19 year-old model, wearing a bikini that looks like she was stuffed into a top two sizes too small and a bottom barely bigger than a microchip. My reply to her intense reaction was somewhat blasé, as the Swimsuit Issue and I go back many decades; like old friends who see each other once a year. And since this isn’t the first time we’ve reviewed its line-up of scantily clad women, my response was, “we’ve been there, seen this before, what’s the big deal?”

My better half does not consider herself a prude or conservative, in fact, she’s extremely open-minded and accepting. So why does this cover upset her so much? Because out of thousands of photos to choose from, many of them incredibly exquisite shots, SI selected one that she feels makes a blatant in-your-face statement. She wants to know why their world-renowned cover shot feels more like soft-core porn than artistry.

Of course, 99.99 % of the women on this planet don’t look like SI swimsuit models, who are as close to physical perfection (at least, under the traditional bombshell measurement), as humanly possible. Most of the photos are masterpieces of colors, settings and mood and there is no expense spared or shortage of talent in this creative endeavor. Being on the cover is considered the Holy Grail for a model; it debuts on a giant billboard overlooking Times Square on The Late Show with David Letterman. Got to be #1 on some marketing exec’s Top Ten List.

While I agreed with her that the cover shot was a bit over the top (no pun intended), it wasn’t until I watched the documentary, Miss Representation, that my perspective shifted. The film documents how mainstream media sends out the message to young girls that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality and that this continuous objectifying of women promotes gender stereotypes that affect our society in profoundly disturbing ways. And the Swimsuit Issue’s position as a cultural icon makes it extremely potent and damaging. It may be tastefully done, but in the bigger picture, it can also leave a bad taste. When does sensual become sexual and sexual become sexist?

When it comes to sexism in the highest echelons of power in this country, the numbers don’t lie. While women make up 51% of the population in this country, only 17% are members of Congress and just 2.5% are CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. And of the 84 seats on the Board of Directors of the world’s most influential media companies, Time Warner, Viacom, GE/NBC, Walt Disney, CBS and Fox, merely 15 belong to women. That means the entities that have the ultimate say over how women are defined in mass media are 82% male. Talk about a glass ceiling, that’s more like titanium.

Since these companies control such a vast spectrum of content, how much respect can we expect woman to be given when their print publications, television programming, movies, web sites, and music, have not only bought into the “sex sells” model, but are massively invested in it? And that doesn’t even take into account advertisers, who are desperately looking for eyeballs. Ever wonder why so much media content seems demeaning or even misogynist? Listen to rap lyrics, watch a beer commercial, check out the cleavage on the female anchors of news shows, view a prime time comedy or try to figure out how a buffoon named Snooki became a TV star.

Miss Representation features prominent, astute women in politics, news and entertainment, such as Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Condeleeza Rice, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem. Yet for many men, that A-List isn’t anywhere near as impressive or memorable as Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Elle McPherson, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Brooklyn Decker, SI’s Swimsuit Hall of Fame. That’s not to say none of the latter group aren’t talented or intelligent, but they became international luminaries strictly for their looks, not brains, personality or aptitude.

Despite its pretenses of fashion, the swimsuit cover shot and some of the more titillating inside photos featuring models clad in only a bikini bottom (always partly shielded, so not technically topless), or a wet see-through shirt, are not exactly normal beach attire. Neither is body painting a suit on, which may require tremendous artistic skill, but is actually clothing optional. Yes, in today’s digital world, where you can find anything and everything of a sexual nature on the web, women in skimpy bathing suits are hardly shocking. If you want to graphically ogle, all you have to do is Google.

But Sports Illustrated isn’t just perused by men (and young boys, including my 13 year-old son), but by many women and young girls, too. What message comes across to both audiences when sport is directly tied to provocative sexual images? The Swimsuit Issue may not only pressure female readers to think they should look like a thin, voluptuous model, but also implies that admiring (leering at?) young women is just another good old American pastime, like watching baseball, basketball or football. After all, it says SPORTS right above the teenager in the minuscule bikini on the cover.

As the father of a 16 year-old daughter, I know that during their formative years, adolescent girls gradually develop an idea of who they really are. This equation of femininity with sexuality sabotages a young woman’s perception of herself as a fully developed human being, undermining self-image and personal power, undervaluing being strong, healthy and active. What’s the future hold for our daughters in a society where the underlying premise is that a woman’s physical attractiveness trumps her intellect, spirit and ambition? I feel fortunate that after looking over the magazine, our daughter said she’s not interested in being a model. These are swimsuit models, not role models.

Hope Solo
Hope Solo was the only female athlete to appear on the cover of SI in 2011.

Outside of the Swimsuit Issue, women’s sports have always been treated like a distant cousin in SI’s weekly publication, and only three women appeared on the magazine’s cover in 2011; U.S. soccer star Hope Solo, college basketball coach Pat Summitt (who shared a December cover with Mike Krzyzewski) and model Irina Shayk. Title IX clearly doesn’t apply to the private sector and while there is undoubtedly market research that shows women’s sports don’t sell well to male fans, it’s also a case of the chicken and the ball. Is there an inherent lack of interest or does the absence of exposure (other than in a swimsuit) further the notion that women’s sports are a second-class experience?

Interestingly, the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, which debuted in 1964 as a five-page supplement, was designed to increase readership during the winter lull between popular sports seasons. Over the decades to follow there was a balance between the photographs and feature length articles from SI’s top writers about the history and flavor of the far-flung locations where the shoots took place. Once the issue moved into its own Special Edition status in 1997, that equilibrium gradually shifted, as the pictures got more salacious and the writing less prominent. Now, the written word is confined to one-page sidebars; in this instance, high quality journalism isn’t as sexy or profitable.

The fact is the Swimsuit Issue is about money. It’s the single best-selling issue in Time Inc.’s magazine franchise, generating 7% of Sports Illustrated‘s annual revenue. It sells more than 1 million copies on newsstands (10-15 times as much as a regular issue) at $6.99, and secondary products such as calendars, videos, TV specials, trading cards, cell phone screen savers, etc., contribute an additional $10 million. The newest bonanza is online, as this year’s issue is offered on four digital platforms, including a tablet edition and free iPhone app, which has already been downloaded a half-million times (it’s not really free, you have to pay $6.99 to fully view it). Videos are the bulk of the content and once 3D becomes mainstream technology, the issue might as well be shot at Fort Knox.

It’s no great secret that sex and money have always gone hand in hand, and we are talking tens of millions of dollars here. What makes the Swimsuit Issue such a rare cultural and financial phenomenon, as well as a controversial paradox, is that corporate riches are flowing into a global media enterprise under the banner of sports and fashion, when the product should also be branded as Erotica PG-13.

I’m stuck in a quandary here. Sports Illustrated is my favorite sports magazine and to me, it’s the superstar of sports journalism. And the Swimsuit Issue has simply seemed like a short timeout, signaled with a wink and a smile. Plus, I’m so inundated every day by sensationalist images of “sexy” women under the guise of advertising, news and entertainment, that it now feels like just another frivolous distraction. That is until I start thinking like a conscientious father of two teenagers and then, it’s not so frivolous.

So I’m going to update my subscription to make sure it doesn’t include the Swimsuit Issue anymore; to send Time Inc. the message that this publication simply doesn’t feel appropriate and I won’t support it. While it’s always nice to go on an exotic tropical retreat, there are just too many harmful, hidden costs to SI’s little fun in the sun.

This vacation is hereby canceled.

Paul Gilbert has a background in broadcast journalism, professional sports and corporate communications. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek and Psychology Today.

The views expressed in guest blogs are not necessarily those of