By Lindsay Kite, PhD, and Lexie Kite, PhD
In addition to the very young, very thin, surgically and digitally augmented and idealized bodies Sports Illustrated has always featured with or without swimsuits in its “Swimsuit Issue,” the leading sports magazine now deems larger supermodel bodies as worthy of objectification in its pages.
Many people are praising the magazine for this inclusive, revolutionary step toward empowerment for curvy women, but we see nothing to cheer about.
A men’s sports magazine allowing new female body types in its sexy swimsuit issue is NOT a sign of progress for women. Please don’t let the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue be your barometer for women’s advancement.
Expanding the boundaries for which bodies qualify to be objectified does not translate into actual empowerment for women. The sexual objectification of women reduces us to body parts, silences us, turns us into objects to be viewed and consumed, vessels for sexual pleasure, and less than fully human. Just as boys and men learn to view and value women primarily for our appearance and sexual appeal, girls and women learn to view and evaluate ourselves in the same terms, through the same outside perspective. We monitor our bodies constantly, consciously and unconsciously working to adjust our appearances to be most appealing to onlookers.
Objectification hurts us. It minimizes us, it distracts us, it drains us. It always has. Only now, we’ve learned to claim it as our own and fight for our own scraps of “power” in this system that only values our bodies at the expense of our humanity. And thus, we cheer when new female body types are deemed acceptable to be stripped down and posed for sexual consumption in a mainstream sports magazine.
If your idea of empowerment is indistinguishable from the sexist objectification that has always been used to devalue and degrade women, it might not be all that revolutionary. If we want women to be valued as equals to men, we can’t cheer for their objectification — no matter what those women look like. Individually and collectively, women’s progress is damaged by being valued as bodies alone.
And let’s be clear. Anyone who thinks the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is in the business of doing anything other than objectifying female bodies to provide sexual stimulation for a targeted male audience while making millions for corporations is kidding themselves.
- Women appear on less than 5% of SI’s covers, and the editorial content is similar. There’s no lack of female athletes to cover — those just aren’t the women SI values and they certainly aren’t doing the things SI values women for.
- The swimsuit models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off swimwear – they are posed and displayed to specifically emphasize their sexual appeal through all the typical poses found in Hustler or Penthouse — arched backs, down on all fours, lips open, legs splayed, chests protruding, etc.
People celebrate and cheer for women to be featured in the Swimsuit Issue as if they are being honored for their athletic accomplishments or any other achievements, and the magazine is doing a great service to humanity. However, the “honor” here is simply that this magazine has decided these new bodies will sell issues and subscriptions and get views on their videos and websites. All the while, regular everday women are doing the Swimsuit Issue’s unpaid PR and advertising work for them. Go look at the comments and posts about the heroic inclusion of “plus-sized” supermodel Ashley Graham, and the praise of SI’s 2018 co-opting of the #metoo movement with a spread that included writing words like “empowered” and “artist” on the nude bodies of several young women like Aly Raisman.
To be clear, we don’t blame Aly Raisman or Ashley Graham or anyone else for their participation in the Swimsuit Issue. We wish they wouldn’t do it, but we recognize the huge rewards our culture gives women who buy into objectification as if it is a great honor to be chosen for a magazine like this. They are paid handsomely, fawned over, given huge publicity, and validated with likes, comments, followers and new fans in men and women alike. However, while it may be personally beneficial for the women featured in the magazine, that does not mean those benefits extend to women in general.
This critique doesn’t mean we are against seeing body diversity in media. We will always continue to advocate for more diverse representations of all women in mainstream media, but we’ll know progress is happening when those same women aren’t required to take their clothes off in order to be included. We need regular roles and representation for women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ability levels that do not revolve around what they look like.
What does this mean for the #bodypositivity movement?
If you are applauding seeing more types of women’s bodies undressed in mainstream media
If you are an activist posting body-centric photos of yourself or others online
…we know you are likely doing that for the purpose of promoting body acceptance and freedom from body shame. We also know that the internet is now absolutely flooded with the most diverse array of body photos you could ever imagine. Sharing photos of your particular body online, regardless of how you might perceive your “flaws,” will not move this work forward in a meaningful way. We firmly believe that part of the work is done. Consider that as the work of the first generation of body positive activists. They diversified the representation of women’s bodies online to help girls and women see that their bodies are OK even if they don’t look like the ones we’ve always seen in media. But it can’t end there.
Now we must move on to the next generation of promoting positive body image. The second generation must move beyond the now-stagnant place of body photos with long captions about how those bodies are beautiful and worthy. Of course they are. But women are more than bodies, and we must back that up with the ways we choose to represent and value ourselves and all women, online or otherwise. Our objectifying culture silences women by putting the focus on their bodies at the expense of everything else about them.
Don’t be silenced.
We have to use our voices, our words, our talents, our creativity, and our unique skills — not just the appearance of our bodies — to be successful in teaching and encouraging others to feel good about themselves. If you are a scholar, activist, artist, or otherwise invested in promoting women’s empowerment, you already come into this work with a set of skills and viewpoints that can make your contributions impactful. We can’t and won’t tell you what to do or how to do it. We simply want you to consider this framework for determining whether or not something you are doing or something in mainstream media is promoting positive body image and empowerment, or if it is simply perpetuating the same old focus on women as bodies. That critical framework is summed up in the Beauty Redefined mantra: Women are more than bodies. See more. Be more.
Start with this criteria when evaluating a message created for the purpose of promoting positive body image and empowerment:
- Self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or hate it), is stifling the potential of too many girls and women by sapping their mental and physical energy and their self-esteem. Ask yourself: Is this message inviting people to turn their focus toward their own or others’ appearance? If so, how could it be modified to take the focus off of appearance and turn it toward other aspects of a woman’s humanity?
- Having positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. Ask yourself: Is this message perpetuating the idea that positive body image means just feeling good about the way your body looks? How could it be modified to encompass feeling positively about yourself and your body overall, not just what you look like? How could this message promote the idea of our bodies as instruments for our use, rather than ornaments to be looked at?
- Often, female “empowerment” is co-opted and re-appropriated by people and companies that have their own best interests in mind and not women’s. Is the supposedly “empowering” effect of a woman buying into this message (for example, by doing/buying this thing) solely related to her appearance or sex appeal? Who, other than the women themselves, might be receiving any benefits from women believing this message is empowering? Would a person who thinks women are garbage also want women to do this thing being portrayed as “empowering?” Again, if your idea of empowerment is indistinguishable from the sexist objectification that has always been used to devalue and degrade women, it might not be all that revolutionary.
The progress and power of women hinges on our ability to be discerning about what constitutes empowerment, as opposed to what maintains the body-centric status quo. The same obectifying status quo where women are bought and sold to men, abused, mutilated, murdered, silenced, devalued, not believed, not taken seriously, and compelled to keep beauty at the forefront of their thoughts.
It is up to each of us to learn and recognize the difference between faux empowerment that maintains our body fixation, and true empowerment that is self-determined, unable to be taken away by someone else, lasting, fulfilling, elevates our voices and contributions to the world, builds our confidence in our abilities and innate worth, and encourages us to see more in ourselves and others in order to be more.
Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, are co-directors of the Beauty Redefined foundation, founded in 2009, and identical twins with doctorates in the study of body image resilience. They travel the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. They also host an online course to promote body image resilience in girls and women ages 14+. Learn more about it here.