The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue's Big Problem
Only "Changemakers" are allowed to advertise in the next issue. I guess a seat opened up on the bandwagon next to Victoria's Secret?
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This year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will only take advertisements from “brands who are helping drive gender equality forward.” I know what you’re thinking — it’s a damn good thing the green M&M doesn’t wear high heels anymore!
To participate, we are changing the cost of doing business from a monetary value to a currency of doing good. All brands who prove they are creating change for women will be certified as a Changemaker, which is defined as a brand who has made, is making and will make progress for women by May 2022 when the annual SI Swimsuit Issue hits stands. Each changemaking brand will then be able to purchase a space within the print edition, which will only feature adverts showcasing the progress each brand is making to build equity for all women. Brands will also be featured across SI Swimsuit’s digital properties including our social media channels.
…Additionally, SI Swimsuit will invest a percentage of every ad dollar generated by the annual issue to create the Sports Illustrated Gender Equity Fund. The Fund will support a non-profit organization which is on the frontlines of helping create an equitable future for all women.
Just a couple questions that are likely percolating in the logical mind:
What has the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue done for women?
Will any brands’ ads explain why they are, oh I don’t know, lobbying to guarantee healthcare for all women, including easy and affordable access to abortion, a right we are losing?
The first question, I’ll get into. As for the second, I would be stunned if such an ad were included, because this kind of “Changemaker”marketing gimmick is usually designed to play into a watered-down version of female “empowerment” that corporations can publicly align with, but actually empowers almost no one.
The merits of the SI Swimsuit Issue have been debated since its inception in 1964, when it was merely a five-page supplement to the usual SI. It was conceived, per Slate, by the editor at the time, Andre Laguerre:
Laguerre, who believed that a good deal of all magazine business should be conducted from inside a bar, found himself with a minor editorial problem: He had no compelling sporting events to cover during the winter months. In 1964, he had a brainstorm: He would supplement sport with skin. Laguerre summoned a young fashion reporter named Jule Campbell to his office and laid down the intellectual roots of the issue. He asked Campbell, “How would you like to go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover?”
In 1965, 17-year-old model Sue Peterson appeared on the cover of what Laguerre was calling the “sunshine issue.” In a 1996 interview that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Campbell talked about her approach:
"That was the Twiggy era, and all the models in New York and Europe were skinny, skinny, skinny," Campbell said. "So for the first 12 years of the swimsuit issue I had to go to California where girls grew up in sunshine, drank orange juice, rode mountain bikes and had that wonderful healthy, all-American girl-next-door look."
Today, this cover seems as scandalous as high heels on a piece of cartoon candy. But pearls were predictably clutched, and as pearl clutchers tended to do in those days, they wrote letters. Scathing letters. Letters that compared SI’s swimsuit photos to Playboy and Penthouse.
One reader wrote to SI that he took one look at the swimsuit issue and "tossed it into the fire where it deserves to be with Satan and all his imps."
Comparisons to porn have dogged the SI Swimsuit Issue for pretty much its entire existence. And it’s not like photos of women in bathing suits have historically been so rare or alarming — they appeared in fashion magazines like Vogue in the sixties and seventies, along with bare breasts. The difference was that SI was doing it for a target audience of men.
However, Campbell did something somewhat unusual for the time, and printed the models’ names alongside their photos, making them more than just a pretty picture.
But modeling agencies didn’t want anything to do with SI in the sixties and seventies — that is, until after a photo of Cheryl Tiegs in a fishnet swimsuit, nipples apparent, was published in the 1978 issue. That year Newsweek reported, “90 percent of her fan mail comes from high school and college boys who have seen her in Sports Illustrated's annual bathing-suit feature.” Backlash came with the fan mail, of course; Michael MacCambridge reported in his book The Franchise about SI that the Tiegs photo resulted in 340 subscription cancellations.
However, the impact of that photo was undeniable. By the eighties, agencies started wanting their models in the magazine. Eileen Ford once reportedly said, “Everybody is praying Jule [Campbell] will take her. Praying.” Each year, the issue led to debate. People argued that it objectified women and presented an image attainable by virtually no one but the models in its pages.
Campbell’s comment to the Associated Press in a 1986 story about that year’s issue was: "If you don't like the magazine don't buy it… You can't please everybody." That issue also, according to AdWeek, was the biggest issue ever, with a record 137 ad pages. Not having to pass any sort of activist litmus test, these “include[d] marketers' own swimsuit-themed ads.”
In the eighties, models who the covered the Swimsuit Issue like Christie Brinkley and Paulina Porizkova were huge stars because of it. Advertising Age reported in 1986 on the effect that landing the cover had on Macpherson’s career:
With her appearance on the Feb. 10 SI cover, Elle Macpherson became a big name. Lever was fortunate to get her when it did [for a fragrance campaign], says Mike Casey, who runs Flick East/West, a subsidiary of the Click modeling agency, which represents Miss Macpherson. "They would have paid a different price today."
With models establishing themselves as mainstream celebrities and talking heads in the media, setting the stage for supermodel mania that defined the nineties, the faces of the Swimsuit Issue started having to defend both the magazine and their decision to pose for it. In 1987, Macpherson got the cover for the second year in a row, her 1986 issue having sold more than 1.2 million copies at newsstand (for reference, this was considerably more than a typical issue of Vogue, which was killing it at the time). The Associated Press interviewed Macpherson, and you can imagine the uncomfortable line of questioning that led to her comments:
"I don't think it's a sexy bathing suit cover, I think it's sporty, wholesome," said the 22-year-old model, who poses in a high cut, form-fitting bathing suit.
…Ms. Macpherson draws the line at posing nude.
"Penthouse and Playboy have offered me thousands and thousands of dollars to pose for them, but I won't do it," she says. "I'm proud of my Sports Illustrated cover. I have a very good relationship with my mother and she's proud too." She thinks it's an achievement to make it to the cover two years in a row.
With the success of the swimsuit issue, SI parent company Time Inc. saw major profits, according to a 1989 AP story:
The latest one could gross $30 million in sales and spinoffs for Time Inc.
The 2.5 million street copies are $3.95 each. The 286-page issue has 118 pages of ads worth over $15 million. Home Box Office, also owned by Time Inc., has a 50-minute show on how the issue was made and has 600,000 orders for a $19.99 videocassette. About 750,000 calendars at $10.95 each are on sale.
It’s a lot of money for a magazine that came out once a year, allowing Time Inc. the last laugh in the face of negative press, like the 1993 U.S. News and World Report article that called that year’s issue less of a pearl clutcher than usual but still “demeaning to everyone involved.”
To its credit, the Swimsuit Issue has been a reliable career booster for a small group of select models. What percentage of models ever gets air time on a late night talk show to reveal a magazine cover? However, in 2022, old articles where these women were asked to justify posing for the magazine are painful to read. In 2014, Emily Ratajkowski spoke to a Metro reporter about it:
Ratajkowski describes the word feminist as “testy,” saying, “People connect a lot of strange things to that word. In general, I really love women and I want them to be treated equally.”
She continues: “I think some people have a problem with a model who has done nude work using the word ‘feminist,’ but I have no problems with saying it.”
Ratajkowski, the current face of fashion retail site Revolve, is keen to avoid being typecast as a gushing airhead despite appearing in the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Ratajkowski shared some disturbing stories about alleged sexual misconduct she experienced in her modeling career in her recent essay book, My Body. Reading the book, it’s not hard to see why she would want to do everything she could to get better work — or famous enough to escape modeling entirely.
Previously in Back Row: Emily Ratajkowski Exposes the Disturbing Truth About Modeling Agencies
So in some ways, it’s a nice turn of events that MJ Day, SI Swimsuit Issue editor-in-chief since 2014, and her team are making the justifications themselves through their new initiative. However, they’re also in the unenviable position of needing to adapt the magazine to the current age, which has hardly been easy. In 2018, in the throes of the #MeToo movement, Day published a portfolio, created by an all-women team, of nude models with words of their choosing written on their bodies. This was part of Day’s effort, Erin Vanderhoof wrote for Vanity Fair, to “use the images that you’ve come to expect from S.I. to change attitudes about women.”
But the shoot was, as usual, unsurprisingly and widely criticized. “The consequences of inhabiting an objectified body are, in many ways, what #MeToo is all about, and there’s something spectacularly silly, not to mention tone-deaf, about Sports Illustrated fighting fire with fire,” wrote Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker. The issue’s continued existence baffles many; in 2019, an interview with Day ran in Women’s Wear Daily under the headline, “Is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Still Relevant?”
In recent years, the women featured in the magazine have been more diverse. Like the rest of the fashion industry, the SI Swimsuit Issue’s long held beauty ideal was mostly thin white women, and this change was terribly overdue. But the brand still suffers from the same problem that many things that served a purpose around 60 years ago do today: they just don’t work anymore and therefore can’t be sufficiently adapted.
I imagine that if SI were making nineties-level profits, they wouldn’t be doing this “Changemakers” stuff. Which makes me wonder if it originated because advertisers didn’t want to go anywhere near the Swimsuit Issue in 2022, and this idea of “certifying” them as “Changemakers” and printing ads about how great these brands are for women (*jazz hands*) was necessary to drive revenue.
However, as we saw with our poor green M&M friend, corporate efforts to adapt at the feet of a vocal, progressive consumer base are often stumbling and insignificant. The reason words like “Change” and “Voices” dominate these marketing initiatives is because, unlike progress, they’re benign and inoffensive. Progress offends people. The things women need in 2022 (abortion access) offend people. “Lean In” feminism succeeded for so many years because it was just some good old-fashioned ladder climbing — “empowerment” that someone running a marketing budget for a bank could sponsor.
That age is over. A magazine that was truly empowering for women would have advertisers really nervous, if it even had advertisers at all. And a magazine with such a long history of offending so many people should, theoretically, be able to have a unique conversation with brands about the upside of pushing boundaries.
But I suspect that this effort will merely give cover to SI — yet another a magazine too beholden to corporate overlords to take a real stance on behalf of the women they feature and to whom they aim to appeal.
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