This morning, my local news station aired a segment on Kate Upton’s third Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover. They cut to Jimmy Kimmel joking about a previous cover, her “bathing suit” being more like a hammock ripped to shreds. The current cover was brought to the fore of the screen, and the camera panned upward to her face as if it caught itself in the clash between woman-with-boobs and not objectifying the woman-with-boobs. The camera rested on Kate’s face.
Kate Upton has been on three SI swimsuit editions and now wears the title of the most “collector’s covers.” In Kate’s world, I assume this is a big deal. Models need to be featured in as many publications as possible, specifically on as many covers as possible. The heavier the promotion, the more money they make for their brand. Sports Illustrated wants to maintain their position as a leading franchise in the sports media industry. It can be argued that swimsuits have little to do with sports unless they’re worn on a competitive swimmer or a surfer. But given that the swimsuit edition is likely the highest grossing arm of SI’s business, Kate is doing her job for them. She makes Sports Illustrated look good, and in turn, people buy her (and other’s) editions, making Sports Illustrated and their investors money.
The swimsuit edition does have an interesting history. First published in 1964, it was meant to boost the slow winter months. Wikipedia cites an article by the Lincoln Star Journal that says the swimsuit edition is “credited with making the bikini a legitimate piece of apparel.” The swimsuit edition didn’t exclusively feature models on the cover until 1997, and then it featured Tyra Banks–the first black woman on the cover. Many non-models have also been featured within the pages: athletes like Steffi Graff, Serena Williams, and Ronda Rousey. Ronda Rousey was included in the first issue with multiple women on the cover (with Ashley Graham and Hailey Clauson). They are celebrated for their individual beauty as well as their athleticism. There was recently even an ad in the swimsuit issue by Swimsuits for All, which shows “plus-size” model Ashley Graham with Puerto Rican locals, all with body types more like people we’d all see at our community pools.
In the vast expressions of womanhood, there’s nothing wrong with Kate Upton. She is beautiful; it’s her prerogative to choose a modeling career and be successful in it. However, I felt a little dismayed at the specific recognition given to her magazine covers. I reflected on all the action woman have rallied for within just the past several months. Again, as has happened multiple times throughout history, women are demanding to be recognized as capable and intellectual human beings, not solely bodies for sex, babies, or baking pies. Read: the satisfaction of others. Yes, women can fully enjoy sex, children, and baking. I’m talking about the expressed effort in stepping outside of the subtle boundaries women are boxed into. We are having uncomfortable conversations with loved ones. We are showing up en mass to support and push for action. We are looking for ways to get more involved in community at a ground level with hopeful fire that our progress won’t roll back into a passive ball. That the effort that has pushed for equality in the boardroom, in our paychecks, our autonomy in health and family planning, won’t dwindle in silence.
I listened to the jovial reactions to Kate’s shredded hammock and wished more women of aptitude and ambition were given the same expected coverage. In recent contrast, Hillary Clinton was seen as “stiff” and “unrelatable”. And those pantsuits! God forbid a woman wants to wear a pantsuit. Nevermind that she had the stamina and prowess to emerge a top contender for the highest office the United States. In media coverage, it came down to presentation. Whether people are aware of it or not, women are still graded on a scale of presentability, as if we’re all descending a curved staircase at a debutante ball, showed to the public in genteel gowns and expected to waltz. Until society starts seeing brains, intellect, and the same power that goes unquestioned in men displayed in women, as sexy and not default to “nerd,” “boring,” or “bitch,” women will always be fighting to be heard. Even in this fight, women have claimed such adjectives as proud reflections of their character.
At the tail of the segment, one of the newscasters chimed in, “Don’t worry about Sports Illustrated, go for the cover of Time Magazine!” I was encouraged. Kudos to Sports Illustrated for working within the confines of its brand to include normal bodies. But that’s just an example of a business that knows how to strategize, not a true shift in cultural perspectives in what is accepted or favorable in women and beauty. There will be times when we’re fighting uphill and times when we feel supported. In either time, motivation should not slack: women need to continue to step more fully into themselves, whatever that expression is. Even if you’re passionate about modeling or pop culture, educate yourself on the history of women’s rights and use your platform to challenge expectations. People don’t like to be made uncomfortable. But any change only comes when people are unrolled from their safe wrapping and interact with unknown or new realities.