Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Launches in Miami With a Feminist Discourse?

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The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue is famous for many things: sexy models, bikinis, sexy models, scenic locales, and sexy models. Wokeness hasn't traditionally been one of them.

The creators of the Swimsuit issue have set out to change that with a 30,000-square-foot pop-up exhibit titled SI Swimsuit on Location. Visitors can hear behind-the-scenes stories of its photo shoots and meet with editors to learn tips and tricks for applying to be the next SI Swimsuit cover girl. And yes, some of the annual issue's most famous models will be there to help launch the 2019 edition.

The twist? They're not just there to look pretty.

"We are hosting In Her Own Words panels, where models, industry experts, and the SI Swimsuit team will discuss beauty, diversity, female empowerment, and more," explains editor MJ Day. Planned panel topics include "True to You: How to avoid losing your sense of self in an industry obsessed with your appearance and the pressures of keeping up with social media" and "Casting for the Real World: Diversity, inclusion, and representation."

That's right. This year's Swimsuit issue comes with a side of intersectional feminism.

"There have been too many limits placed on what a woman should look like in order to be considered worthy of being celebrated in the media, or taken seriously," Day says. "We [Sports Illustrated Swimsuit] have had such meaningful impact on how women feel about themselves [and] we won’t stop there. For too long, women have been told they have specific boxes that they need to stay in, and SI Swimsuit knows we can help change that. We want to help shatter perceptions that hold people back from realizing their potential."

She's right, of course. Pressure to fit into rigid, traditional ideals of beauty can be limiting at best, and emotionally damaging and even life-threatening at worst. In recent years, SI Swimsuit has broadened its scope to include more women of color, of size, and of age. In 2016, Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to grace its cover, and 56-year-old Nicola Griffin became its oldest star. In this year's issue, Winnie Harlow, a model with the skin condition vitiligo, and plus-size models Hunter McGrady and Tara Lynn appear alongside Halima Aden, the first model in the publication's history to wear a hijab and burkini. 

Model Hunter McGradyEXPAND
Model Hunter McGrady
James Macari for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

But the Swimsuit issue also fits into a long history of publications that present women as sex objects, with near-naked females romping through its pages in a male fantasy of access that, many media researchers say, contributes to sexism and violence against women in the real world. Studies show exposure to sexualized images of women can lead men to view all women as incompetent or unintelligent — the exact opposite of "taken seriously," as Day put it. Objectifying images of women can also increase physical and sexual aggression against women. Images of extremely thin women — and despite a few outliers, SI Swimsuit's models are near-universally thin — also contribute to eating disorders like anorexia, another study concluded.

So yes, SI's Swimsuit issue has had a "meaningful impact on how women feel about themselves" — just not in the uplifting, you-go-girl way Day describes.

What does Day say to critics who argue that Swimsuit issue still objectifies women and promotes unhealthy standards of beauty?

"There are so many examples in this specific issue [the 2019 edition] that highlight the range and scope of the type of beauty that exists," she says. "We can’t please everyone, but the brand's commitment and belief in supporting women to own who they are and what makes them unique, ultimately reaffirms what our messaging has been — which is what SI Swimsuit celebrates."

Supporting women is an admirable goal, and acknowledging that women who aren't thin and white exist, sadly, still counts as progress in 2019. But opening the doors for more types of women to be sexually objectified doesn't solve the problems of objectification itself. A better way to support women would be to stop selling images that make the world a more difficult and dangerous place for them.

But it's a lot easier to host a few feel-good chats about "female empowerment" and call it progress.

SI Swimsuit on Location. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, May 10, and Saturday, May 11, at Ice Palace Studios, 1400 N. Miami Ave., Miami; icepalacestudios.com. Tickets cost $10 to $50 via swimsuitonlocation.com.

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