What’s Wrong With the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition?

Posted on February 13, 2013



Let’s talk about skinny models in bathing suits. Or not. Instead, let’s talk about “negative racial and ethnic stereotypes perpetuated by placement of skinny models in bathing suits against a backdrop of indigenous peoples.” There. Now you can get angry, instead of being intimidated.

Each year, Sports Illustrated debuts its hotly-awaited Swimsuit Edition. The swimsuits worn on its pages relate to sports in the same way that a pole dancing pole relates to ballet. Slightly different version of the uniform/equipment, majorly different results.

This edition is getting a lot of flak. In it, 6’ tall models with legs that come up to most people’s wattled necks, are photographed on various continents. With the exception of two hunky bullfighters in Spain, they stand in front of or next to what Jezebal magazine describes as “primitive locals.”

All of the countries portrayed have large, industrialized cities. They have their own reality shows, have cell phones that go off in movie theaters, and they cause auto accidents while texting when driving. They are, in other words, highly civilized. They also have lots of people living in poverty, and lots of people who make a living providing others with a romanticized version of “the natives.”

China, especially, represented by an elderly, sun-baked man maneuvering an ancient wooden raft, atop which lounges a blond model, is the object of scorn to some. According to 26,000 people interviewed from 21 separate countries by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is no longer looked upon as the world’s leading economic power — the title now belongs to China. Argue all you wish. The simple fact is that China is an economic and industrial powerhouse. Anyone who still thinks of it as it was portrayed in The Good Earth is delusional.

“These photos depict people of color as exotic backdrops,” David Leonard, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, tells Yahoo! Shine. “As with beautiful oceans, picturesque trees, people of color are imagined as exotic, as novel, as foreign, as uncivilized and as a point of comparison for the civilized white beauties scantily clad in bathing suits. Beyond functioning as props, as scenery to authenticate their third world adventures, people of color are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment.”

Hence, the uproar. The gorgeous, genetically-blessed white goddesses, propped against the smaller, darker inhabitants of Wherever.

Granted, a lot of the uproar has come from women and from men who, for whatever reason, don’t look forward to the swimsuit issue. A lot of men who do, probably wouldn’t even notice if the models were being chased by mutant fungi. And fashion magazines have often crossed the line of what is palatable. Yahoo cites the August 2011, Vogue Italia’s website, which featured an accessory they called “Slave Earrings” with the tagline, “A classic always in evolution.” That same year, the skin lotion company Nivea issued an apology on their Facebook page for their “Look Like You Give a Damn Campaign” in which a clean-cut black man held the head of a caveman lookalike with dark skin and an Afro.

And the most famous American Indian photographer, Edward Curtis, lauded for his amazing in-the-moment shots of a rapidly-vanishing Indian world at the turn of the century, actually gave his subjects props and costumes and told them exactly how to pose. We wanted a romanticized version of the Indian, and Curtis delivered.

So, what now? Probably nothing. It’s good that some people, somewhere called attention to this. Most people, though, will received their issues or purchase them and probably not notice anything except the women and the swimsuits. Or rather, imagine the women without the swimsuits. Or better yet, the women without the swimsuits, standing or lounging in their immediate vicinity. With a come hither look in their eyes.

Ah, sports.