Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition: A Long Tradition of Gawking

Kate Upton on the cover of the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Kate Upton on the cover of the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)


Kate Upton on the cover of the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
Kate Upton on the cover of the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

In case you haven’t heard, or haven’t had the opportunity to gawk at the newsstands, Sports Illustrated recently released its annual swimsuit issue with model Kate Upton on the cover.  Upton is the first woman to be featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition two years in a row, this year wearing only an open fur jacket and bikini bottom in what is supposed to be Antarctica. (I mean, come on, she would freeze.)

I could agree with some who want to celebrate women’s sexuality through images of eroticized yet empowered women—and some would argue that Sports Illustrated is an example of this. But let’s not kid ourselves here; that is not the motive behind the swimsuit edition. Sports Illustrated is deliberately selling sex to their one million consumers, and they are simply capitalizing on our society’s obsession with gazing upon passive female forms.

There is no wonder why Sports Illustrated has continued this tradition since its debut in January 1964. Unlike all other issues of the magazine, the swimsuit issue has nothing to do with sports and athletics, save for a section featuring female athletes modeling swimsuits.  According to Forbes, the swimsuit issue racks up seven percent of the publication’s annual revenue. While the weekly edition of Sport Illustrated usually sells about 100,000 copies, the swimsuit issue sells over a million.

All of the images of women in the swimsuit edition are placed in a passive position to be looked at as objects of sexual pleasure for the viewer. We hear the word “objectification” thrown around a lot these days.  Here’s why: it’s happening to women everywhere, especially in media, all the time.

We can’t ignorantly assume that every person who buys this issue is a heterosexual man, but who the viewer is doesn’t matter.  The bottom line is that whoever is buying the issue, no matter the gender, sexuality or age is responsible for perpetuating the effects of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in all the ways that it may be dangerously exploitive to women, or even arguably beneficial.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition has received praise in the past for featuring healthy-looking models like Upton, and not emaciated models like many in the fashion industry.  Let’s give Sports Illustrated some credit here—at least they aren’t perpetuating an absurdly unhealthy standard of thinness for women. It would be hypocritical for a magazine focused on athletics and fitness to indirectly promote dangerous dietary habits.

However, no good deed goes unpunished.  There’s been backlash against Sports Illustrated choosing Upton as the covergirl, namely from “thinspiration” blogs, such as one called Skinny Gossip, who called Upton a “cow” with “huge thighs, NO waist, big fat floppy boobs, terrible body definition.”

Really? First of all, a “thinspiration” blog?  The only people these blogs are “thinspiring” for are women with serious problems in self-esteem and eating disorders. Thinspiration blogs are downright unhealthy for anyone’s physical, emotional or mental health and they don’t deserve nearly as many hits and readers as they rack up. Secondly, take a look at Kate Upton.  If that’s the new standard of what is considered “fat,” America is screwed. But then what can you expect from someone writing for a “thinspiration” blog?

The fact that Sports Illustrated chose a full-figured woman for the cover for a consecutive two years is at least a step forward for the swimsuit issue itself. The fact that consumers are still encouraged to think of women primarily as sexual objects unfortunately isn’t. I’m not going to write the swimsuit edition off solely as an annual tradition of glorified porn withstanding the fight against sexism. But I will say that we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we pretend that the majority of the magazine’s readership of straight men aged 18 to 24 are buying the swimsuit edition to celebrate womanhood.