By Lindsay Kite, PhD, and Lexie Kite, PhD

Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, Olympic gold medalist gymnasts and celebrated role models for young women, are featured in the upcoming 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. This is nothing to cheer about.

This is not progress for women or for Sports Illustrated. Women have always been valued for their bodies – especially very young, attractive, and fit women like Biles and Raisman. It wasn’t progress last year when “plus-sized” (but extremely beautiful, hourglass-shaped, young, white) Ashley Graham was on all fours in a bikini on the cover, and it wasn’t progress when literal supermodel Tyra Banks was their first black cover model pulling down her bikini bottom in 1997. 

As if seeing more and different undressed bodies will reduce this world’s obsession with valuing women as bodies above all else. As if seeing more bodies could ever convince women they are more than bodies.

If you want women to be valued as equals to men, you do not cheer for their objectification — no matter what those women look like. The sexual objectification of people reduces humans to body parts, silences them, turns them into objects to be viewed and consumed, vessels for sexual pleasure, and less than fully human. If you care about women as more than bodies to be ogled, stop pretending like mainstream media allowing more body types to be objectified is progressive. Or empowering. Or healthy. Or body positive. It’s not. Individually and collectively, women’s progress is damaged by being valued as bodies alone.

The sexual objectification of women is at the root of women’s inequality and oppression — whether they choose to participate* or not. Because women are primarily valued for their sexual appeal at the expense of anything else, they are bought and sold to men, silenced, abused, mutilated, murdered, devalued, not believed, not taken seriously, and compelled to keep beauty at the forefront of their thoughts for life. As long as women are sexual objects first, and all of the rest of their humanity is secondary, they will never be on equal footing with men. This quote by author Ambrose Bierce in 1911 is as true today as ever:

“To men, a man is but a mind – who cares what face he carries or what he wears. But a woman’s body is the woman.”

Your reaction to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a litmus test for whether you are cheering for women’s empowerment or inadvertently cheering for their general oppression. Are you applauding the devaluation and objectification of women when you think you are applauding women’s progress and empowerment?

Let’s be clear. Anyone who thinks this magazine is 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.
  • Their swimsuit models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off their swimwear – they are posed and displayed to specifically emphasize their sexual appeal through all the typical poses found in Hustler or Penthouse, just like every other men’s magazine that features women. (See the video of Biles and Raisman’s photo shoot here for proof, at your own risk.)

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. PLEASE. 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, women are doing the Swimsuit Issue’s unpaid PR and advertising work for them. Literally. Go look at the comments and posts about this worldwide trending topic of Aly Raisman and Simone Biles in the Swimsuit Issue, with the camera tilting up and down their bodies in cut-out, sheer bikinis while they lay splayed on the ground or with one leg over their heads. (Gymnasts are often fighting the sexualization of their sport, and this SI feature won’t make it any easier for them). Online, you’ll see cheers and praise from women of all walks of life congratulating SI for so graciously including these muscular young women among their ranks this year. To be sure, we don’t blame Aly Raisman or Simone Biles 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.

A men’s sports magazine allowing new female body types in its sexy swimsuit issue is NOT a sign of progress for women. Do NOT let the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue be your barometer for women’s advancement. 

As if seeing more and different undressed bodies will reduce this world’s obsession with valuing women as bodies above all else. As if seeing more bodies could ever convince women they are more than bodies.

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. Seeing more women’s bodies undressed in media will not improve the status of women, regardless of what those women look like. This holds true for mainstream media like SI as well as social media run by regular individuals.

If you are applauding seeing more types of women’s bodies undressed in mainstream media

AND/OR

If you are an activist posting body-centric photos of yourself online

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

…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? Is this message promoting “empowerment” in the same or similar ways people who hate women (but love women’s bodies) would want you to view “empowerment?” Would a person who thinks women are garbage also want women to do this thing being portrayed as “empowering?”

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 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.

*Many people will say women are a portion of the audience for the Swimsuit Issue as a justification for why this outlet isn’t sexist or harmful. Nope. Unfortunately, women are often complicit in our own oppression and are greatly rewarded by this culture for doing so (rewards being: “cool girl” status, money, fame, likes, followers, etc., for playing by the rules of objectification). Lots of people will say that since these women chose to be objectified, that means it IS empowering for them. This is the classic argument of “choice feminism’ — where some people say that *any* choice a woman makes is implicitly feminist and/or acceptable and/or empowering because SHE made that choice. But that argument ignores the system that has oppressed women for centuries, teaching women they exist to be looked at and to serve men, and guess what? Those same “choices” are now being branded as empowering because women choose it “themselves” — like posing with your clothes off for a men’s magazine, or prostitution (not to conflate the two), or literally anything else that upholds male supremacy and rewards the male gaze. We strongly disagree with this perspective because we know sexism is systemic, and solutions have to be systemic too. See more on this at Feminist Current if you’re interested in a deeper analysis of this argument.


 

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.

 

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