By Tracy Isaacs, Professor (Philosophy), Western University
The last two weeks of May generated a flurry of celebratory media commentary about the diversity of models in the 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It was praised for “breaking barriers,” “empowering women” and “trailblazing.”
This year’s firsts included: Ashley Callingbull (the first Indigenous model), Yumi Nu (the first Asian American curve model to appear on the cover), Maye Musk (the first woman in her 70s), Kelly Hughes (the first swimsuit model to show her C-section scars) and Katrina Scott (the first visibly pregnant model).
In recent years the magazine has highlighted more diversity, including Halima Aden in a burkini, more athletes, trans models like Leyna Bloom and Valentina Sampaio and more curve models like Hunter McGrady.
But most of the models are still stereotypically young, thin and white.
With the celebration of firsts, an important question falls by the wayside: Is including a broader range of women in the pages of a magazine issue whose sole commercial purpose is to present them as sexual objects for a mostly straight male readership a good thing?
I am a feminist philosopher who works on responsibility in oppressive social contexts and co-founder of the blog Fit Is a Feminist Issue. In society, where sexist structures and attitudes are abound, women’s value — and by extension, range of opportunities — is frequently determined by their attractiveness and sexual desirability to straight men. So I question whether expanding the field of women who are sufficiently sexy and, to borrow the words of philosopher Sandra Bartky, “properly feminine” to “merit” inclusion in the swimsuit issue, constitutes overall meaningful progress for women.
Granted, there is something to be said for challenging the stereotypical esthetic ideals of normative femininity with diverse models. And even though model Kate Upton expressed discomfort about the public scrutiny and discussion of her body, others, including Yumi Nu, describe appearing in the swimsuit issue as a validating experience.
Yet the swimsuit issue continues to promote sexual attractiveness as women’s main currency. As women fight to be taken seriously, repeating this message is harmful.
Sex does sell
When I wrote a blog post about this, readers on the blog’s Facebook page mostly agreed with me in comments writing: “yay, now us fat girls can be objectified too” and “even in `inclusivity’ the goal of the swimsuit issues is still policing feminine bodies.”
But some said “sex sells: get over it” and “where’s the harm?” Others argued my view throws a wet blanket over a beach party where finally (finally!) women of diverse shapes and sizes are not just welcome but considered sexy and beautiful.
Sex does sell and it’s too bad that the sexualization of women is a multi-billion dollar industry in which the swimsuit issue trades.
The swimsuit issue is a setback for women and models are engaging in what philosopher Shay Welch, in her book Existential Eroticism, calls “oppression-perpetuating choices.” She defines “existential eroticism” as women’s oppression through beauty and sexuality.
Basically, some women’s choices contribute to conditions of oppression for women as a group even if we can understand why women make them.
While we would be better off without the swimsuit issue (we’d be better off without lots of things), I’m not suggesting it be censored or banned. Nor is this an objection to the display of bodies, even skimpily clad bodies. But is there a different way of going about it?
Look to ESPN’s The Body Issue, which depicts a diversity of athletes (not only women and not only non-disabled), nude and often in action shots that display their athleticism within their chosen sport.
It presents a completely different esthetic of physicality, based in athleticism. Athleticism isn’t the only dimension along which to appreciate bodies, but it’s not clear how the swimsuit issue, the very essence of which is to represent a particular type of sexualized bodies, could morph into something that celebrates the body in a different way.
Swimsuit issue editor-in-chief MJ Day says, “We encourage readers to see these models as we see them — multifaceted, multitalented and sexy while they’re at it.” As multi-dimensional as these women may be, their suitability for the swimsuit issue ultimately depends on being sexy.
We should be wary of uncritically accepting the sexual objectification of women for the sake of inclusion and diversity. When we do, we’re celebrating the swimsuit issue as something empowering for women and praising it for “breaking barriers.” Given its context and target-audience — straight, cisgender men — doing so perpetuates the pernicious idea that women (all women) need to be sexy-to-men to be acceptable.
We can promote inclusion and celebrate the beauty of diverse bodies without piggybacking on that relentless message about what makes women worthy.