Nice Try, Sports Illustrated

AMY MROTEK | OPINION COLUMNIST

Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition has always elicited a polarized response – and not just from suburban mothers traumatized from what they discovered in their teenage son’s sock drawer while folding laundry last week.

Feminist media critiques have criticized the publication as the zenith of male gaze since its first printing back in 1964. Their reasons are justified: a layout of bikini-clad bombshells sprawled page after page lines up with the historical problem entertainment mediums have in creating content for male viewers. Sports Illustrated, some say, expands this when they channel women as a product for male consumption, puppeteering the drooling gaze into profit.

Indeed, the question of who’s the viewer and who’s the viewed is crucial here. On one hand, it’s statistically inarguable that sports, and by natural extension sports-related media, are still male-centered. According to ESPN’s own surveys, female viewership has been on the steady rise for the past two decades, but not enough to nullify its own traditionally male demographic.

The formula is so simple it verges on cliché. You’re a publication whose subscribers are overwhelmingly male, and heterosexual ones at that. Heterosexual males like to look at women. So let’s give them something to look at.

Now before this sputters and dies in a pool of ranting judgment, let me just say I’m not too concerned right now in spray-painting morality in people’s minds. Whether you find the swimsuit edition a clear and brutal example of female objectification is one warranted take. Likewise, a fair amount of third-wave feminists have come to its defense, lauding the sort of agency many of these cover models exert in their interviews and related publicity events. They own their bodies and sexuality when they agree to the shoot. There is something unapologetically important in this act.

Or maybe you think swimsuits are a funny thing for a sports publication to cover. Any range you find your current cognitions, let’s leap one step further.

The 2016 issue marked a first for SI when they decided to include Ashley Graham in the cohort of esteemed cover slots, the first plus-sized model ever to be featured on its front page.

The Internet had itself a pixelated party upon print. Finally, yes, finally the magazine had pushed boundaries to include what we like to collectively call a “real” women—those size 14 and up who don’t have the figure SI usually endorses, i.e. chopsticks wearing a two-piece. This representation of average physique comes at a time when the body positivity movement has started to gain main-stage momentum, encouraging men and women everywhere to embrace a healthy attitude toward their bodies regardless of cultural beauty standards.

But let’s be real. Aside from the ascribed numerical size of her waist, there isn’t a whole lot that’s “average” about Graham.

The woman is still a freakin’ supermodel. This means she has built a life and career in an industry that doesn’t simply applaud beauty and aesthetics but holds them sacred. Graham has worked in this world since she was 12, crafting a body brand she herself dubs “curvasexilicious.”

I don’t believe this was an altruistic statement on SI’s part, one where their creative directors all sat down and had a change of advertorial heart. When selecting someone like Graham, they picked an extraordinarily good-looking woman, one whose triple-D bra size is more than on par with what an “average”guy would probably fantasize about seeing in a bikini on the beach. Not to mention her body’s positioning, her hair, makeup, lighting, coloration, retouching and all other visual manipulations that went into nabbing that perfect cover shot were strategically done for maximum sales.

Graham is straight-up gorgeous. We would all look at her cover photo and agree she isn’t your average-looking woman touting average credentials. Sure, we want to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve accepted beauty standards shift, for how much we want everyone to love and respect their bodies. The fact remains, though, that “curvasexilicious” isn’t breaking many molds. There’s not a whole lot earth shattering about timeless mantra that “sex sells.”    Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 3.40.24 PM.png

Ashley Graham | Getty Images

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