Last week I received an offer from Sports Illustrated for a cheesy mass-produced NFL team jacket if I subscribed to their magazine. It’s been years since I’ve read an issue of SI, but this whole month of February, I had had the recurring thought about the Swimsuit Issue and its role in men’s development (as experienced through my own adolescence) and its larger place in our society. Receiving that mail in offer was the catalyst that I needed to actually sort through what I thought and how I felt about the Swimsuit Issue. Not only did I come to view it through my own lens of developing a masculine identity, particularly its role in sexuality and idealizing female archetypes, but also as it relates to the larger issue of gender equity in sports and sports culture. The latter topic is so broad it deserves its own post so look for that, bu the personal is stake we should all feel in this is what I think is most critical.
When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for around three or four years. Each year, I looked forward to the annual Swimsuit Issue, because, in case its not obvious, as a heterosexual teenage male, I viewed the female models as objects that existed solely for my self-gratification. But what wasn’t apparent to me was that I was supposed to view them this way. It definitely could be argued that the very public imagery of the models reinforces existing media efforts to restrict women in American society to fit a certain ideal. That feminist critique is valid certainly, but in this space I’m concerned with the impact that the magazine has on our young men and their expectations for women’s appearance.
Each year, we’re given a new issue filled with women in bathing suits (or body paint) and posed in sexually suggestive positions. In the same way that pornography warps men’s expectation of sexual intimacy, the swimsuit issue warps are view of the ideal woman (in line with most mainstream media outlets of course). That the Swimsuit Issue is more readily available to young males, even with access to the pornography-overrun internet, a young teenage male could easily spend the cover price and pick up the magazine at their local 7-11. Thus with access to this lone magazine, young men and boys are starting to do what society wants them to do. View women as objects, lust (not necessarily in the biblical sense, just the animalistic desire sense) after these models, and by extension other women, and begin to habitually imagine sexual acts with these and other women. When researchers suggest men think about sex every seven seconds, if those men are anything like I have been, they’re imagining sexual acts with strangers they pass on the streets—a tough habit to unlearn. The Swimsuit Issue functions as a gateway of sorts. Once one starts objectifying women in the Swimsuit Issue, how easy does it become to go browsing the internet for porn?
In the digital age the Sexism Issue may be an outdated attempt at boosting revenue, especially with access to bonus content for magazine subscribers, but it’s just one piece in a very large web that serves to keep women and men restricted. Women are supposed to fit an ideal and their athletic (or professional) success is irrelevant. Men are supposed to lust after women, after all its only natural, right? That SI’s swimsuit issue is just taken as normal is indicative of how pervasive the problem has become. We are numb to the things that reinforce the Man Box and keep us trapped by this narrow definition of men.
Instead of subscribing, let Sports Illustrated know that you are disappointed in their exploitation of women. Tweet at them at @SInow or contact them. And you can do what I did if they solicit subscriptions. Send back a note asking them to change their sexist ways. As women’s history month begins this weekend, think about the progress that’s been made and how this magazine is just one of the many remnants that still needs to be swept away as we look to build a more equitable society.