An Open Letter to Sports Illustrated

To my friends at Sports Illustrated,

I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated for thirty-three years. I pretty much read it cover to cover. As an amateur athlete myself, I enjoy the variety of sports that I find in SI, but I especially like the quality and style of your writers. SI is my very favorite magazine.

There is one special issue of Sports Illustrated that I never peruse, however, and that is the annual swimsuit issue. For some unknown reason to me, you have published a swimsuit issue for fifty years. It does not escape me that the vast majority of readers of SI are male, yet I still don’t get it. How is devoting an entire issue to scantily clad, gorgeous models related to sports? No doubt the bottom line is marketing, profit, and more subscriptions.

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The 50th anniversary edition arrived at my house last week, so I decided to take a look.  Over two hundred pages are devoted to current pictures of five decades of SI swimsuit cover models, numerous poses of twelve “rookie” SI swimsuit models, and countless advertisements, all featuring the most beautiful of the beautiful. The first swimsuit issue in 1964 consisted of just six pages.

Christian Stone’s Editor’s Letter estimates that one in four American adults will see this print issue before spring and that it will reach more eighteen to thirty-four year olds than the Super Bowl. In addition, the swimsuit issue has expanded exposure through the Sports Illustrated website, Facebook, and Twitter, with links to swimwear for sale through Target and other advertisers.

I have a lover’s quarrel with your swimsuit issue, but it’s not simply the fact that this particular issue usually has nothing to do with sports (I don’t consider models posing on the beach as a sport). And it’s not the fact that I consider many of the pictures to be soft porn and offensive, not suitable for viewing by children and youth. To your credit, you give subscribers ample warning that the issue is coming and offer to extend the subscription of anyone who does not want the issue sent to their home.

My concern with the swimsuit issue is that it promotes women as sexual objects and reinforces stereotypes of beauty. This attitude not only does not contribute to the health and welfare of girls and women, but it condones and even encourages men and boys to treat women as mere instruments of sexual pleasure. Consider the words on the cover, “Five Decades of Sexy.” In other places I found these words, “Fifty Years of Beautiful.”

Jule Campbell, SI swimsuit editor for thirty-two years, responds to critics by stating that offering models a chance to be in the swimsuit issue has given them a voice and a platform. One could argue, as this issue does, that these women embody the possibilities that come along with being SI models. Over the years they were empowered to become “successful captains of industry, media moguls, social advocates and Emmy winners.”  Unfortunately, by using physical beauty as the only tool for empowerment, the vast majority of the world’s female population is disqualified.

As a Christian pastor and mother of two daughters, I have decided that after thirty-three years, it is time to speak out about the way in which women are exploited in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as well as in American culture. It is virtually impossible for a girl to grow up in America or around the world without being sexually harassed or abused.  Rarely a week goes by that I am not whistled at by men in cars while I am running. At times men have pursued me to offer propositions or expletives. I have even been sexually harassed in my role as a United Methodist clergyperson.

Unwanted sexual or gender-directed behavior or discrimination is designed to humiliate, degrade, exploit the vulnerability of, or exert power over others.

  • A prospective employer asks a young woman if she intends to become pregnant in the near future. If she has small children, she is asked if caring for her family will interfere with her job.
  • There is an inappropriate focus in the workplace on a woman’s appearance, and derogatory comments are often made about clothing, weight, or body shape.
  • Crude sexual remarks are directed to women at a business party.
  • Sexually suggestive emails or text messages are circulated in the office.
  • Grabbing a person’s breasts or buttocks against their will is considered okay.
  • Women are pressured to perform sexual favors in order to retain their job.

More than one of my closest friends and family were sexually abused and will bear those scars for the rest of their lives. I have heard the stories of dozens of other women who were sexually abused by relatives, neighbors, friends, business associates, or church members. Many of the perpetrators were trusted by the girls/women and were never held accountable for their actions. Millions of abused women around the world suffer in silence until someone enables their voice to be heard.

Despite your protestations that the Sports Illustrated models are empowered to make their voice heard because of their beautiful bodies, I believe that SI does all women a disservice by only choosing “perfect bodies” in their swimsuit issue. We empower all people, girls and boys, women and men, to become their truest and best selves by focusing on gifts, talents, and dreams rather than appearance.

I am especially disappointed that you have partnered with Mattel to produce a Swimsuit Barbie, which is advertised in the swimsuit edition and on the SI website. Since both Barbie dolls and the swimsuit issue objectify women, the partnership seems natural. In fact, both companies call it “unapologetic.” I call it “sad.”

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According to a statement released last Tuesday by SI’s swimsuit editor, M.J. Day, “From its earliest days, Swimsuit has delivered a message of empowerment, strength and beauty, and we are delighted that Barbie is celebrating those core values in such a unique manner.”

The 55-year old “plastic bombshell” Barbie was always seen as an unattainable ideal, with a perfect body, perfect boyfriend, perfect car, and perfect life. In the same way, the SI swimsuit models are all young, gorgeous, and extremely thin. In both cases, unrealistic and now photo-shopped bodies convince generations of women around the world that they can’t possibly become successful.

In the end, beauty is much more than appearance. Beauty embraces passion, determination, and inner strength. Beauty results when all people in this world are treated with respect and are given the freedom to develop their own unique gifts. Beauty emerges when no human being is seen as an object to be used but is valued as a child of God with potential to change the world. Most of all, beauty is found in the human heart through love, grace, hope, empathy, and compassion.

I would like to issue an unapologetic challenge to Sports Illustrated. I ask you to publish a swimsuit issue in 2015 that features ordinary people who are making a difference, both male and female, none of who are professional models and none of whom are scantily clad.

  • A little boy with Downs Syndrome playing in the water
  • A teenager who was the last one picked for the soccer team
  • A young woman who is training to be a bobsledder
  • A man playing baseball with his children
  • A girl with cerebral palsy participating in a wheelchair race
  • A young adult who lost a leg to cancer riding a bike
  • A teenage boy whose body shape isn’t “perfect” playing football
  • Children of different nationalities playing together on the playground
  • An elderly woman walking with her grandchild in a stroller

Don’t do it just because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Do it because you have an extraordinary platform to promote self-esteem, confidence, and real beauty. Do it to celebrate the fact that each person in this world is a unique, one-of-a kind child of God.  Make my favorite magazine even better.

Sincerely,
Rev. Laurie Haller, Senior Pastor
First United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Michigan

52 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Sports Illustrated

  1. I totally agree! The focus on scantically clead young ladies does nothing to promote the beauty of each human being, male or female, young or old.
    Let’s concentrate on what would be goals for our young people: family and friends, Christian (or civic) involvement in bettering our communities and environment.
    Toni Segitz

  2. Spot on, Laurie. Thanks for saying this. You can’t be the only female athlete out there who reads sports illustrated and every Feb wonders, what the …..?

  3. Thanks for your letter to Sports Illustrated. I wonder if they will take any of your suggestions. At the very least they should make the “Swim suit issue” be a celebration of women wearing suits because that is the sport they do. The number of female athletes out there– swimmers, paddlers, divers, etc-who excel at what they do no matter if they are the model of physical perfection or not would be a wonderful substitute for the swimsuit issue. It turned my stomach to go visit their swimsuit issue’s FB page and see, as the first comment that your eye catches “beautiful lady with a beautiful body and tits.” I would love to see someone spark a campaign to end the Swimsuit issue, or at least make it a celebration of water women and women athletes everywhere. And perhaps while we’re at it, celebrate the water in which we play and which is a life-source for us all. Without water there would be no bathing suits! ah, but I dream!

  4. Amen to your Open Letter. Fortunately I plucked the issue from our mail box before my impressionable teenagers (boy and girl) perused. How about celebrating the best lessons of sports – sacrifice, endurance, determination, resilience, teamwork, etc. instead? I really appreciated your invitation to SI and the great list of examples you provided. Thanks for speaking out!

  5. I like all your other readers look forward to Mondays and look for your blog. I think I have only sent a few comments through the years but that does not mean I do not appreciate your writing and thoughts. Just the opposite. I feel compelled to comment this time and say thank you Laurie. Thank you for being our voice. I have never understood this issue and why? What does it say to the young girls and boys who may not see the actual issue but hear all the hype? I would go one step further and say if it does not change next year and I were a subscriber I would cancel or not renew my subscription. It is easy for me to say that being the non-athletic woman that I am but there must be other sport magazines that would be more deserving of “my money and subscription”. Thank you Laurie for your weekly blogs and how they always make me stop and reflect. Love and Blessings, Wendy

  6. Laurie, thank you again for your gentle and kind but powerful words to SL. I’m not athletic and have never even read the magazine but of course I have heard about the annual swimsuit issue. You brought up some important points, but, my concern also is what does this say about our young men? This issue is not published for women so how are we raising our boys and men to view women…as a sport?
    Thank you again for speaking from your heart.
    Blessings, Pat

  7. I totally enjoyed and AGREE with your open letter to the SI. Yah!! Glad to hear someone is speaking up. The Barbie on the cover really made me uneasy and should not have been done. I also like the points you made for en edtion with everyday people, children etc. Now that I am old, I see more blessings in other people – young and old- which often times brings me to tears.
    Thank You.

    • Laurie, this is what I would call “blockbuster” writing. I read all the comments posted so far, and noticed there are no men commenting as yet. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased to include my comment now, and challenge my male friends to join me in affirmation of your outstanding letter. I am with you 100% in your remarks, suggestions and your challenge. No more Swimsuit issue for me.
      Blessings,
      Bill Johnson

  8. Can a guy also say extraordinarily well done, and long overdue?

    Please let your audience know if S.I. ever responds, or, even less likely, if it prints your letter.

  9. Frank & I were at the hair salon this morning for our monthly haircuts. As the stylist was finishing up on me, Frank was waiting his turn in a chair next to me, when your weekly blog came in on his iPhone. He started reading your blog aloud and it caught the attention of people within earshot. What a wonderful reaction your letter received. As she finished my hair, the stylist told Frank not to stop reading. She was enthralled and wasn’t about to start another haircut until she heard the rest of your letter. Needless to say, there was a lively discussion afterwards with nothing but raves for your outstanding letter. When hearing how many ladies could relate to your experiences through the years, he felt a need to apologize for the entire male species and admitting that the SI swimsuit edition serves no useful purpose.
    Diana & Frank Ruprich

  10. Thank you Laurie. You expressed my thoughts and feelings much better than I could have ever put into words. You are a wonderful writer. Thank you again.

  11. Whole heartedly agree. In terms of speaking up about what’s appropriate, I am spear heading a petition to ask Air New Zealand to stop the rollout of their new in-flight “safety-porn” video featuring these SI swimsuit models. I find it totally inappropriate for family content and “mandatory” viewing on an airplane, especially for something as important as emergency safety information. I don’t want my 2 young daughters or my young son to receive all the unsaid messages you have well defined in your blog. Please sign and share my petition! Thank you! http://chn.ge/1c29j6q

    And you might want to check out BeautyRedefined.net and CollectiveShout.org for organizations really doing something posititve and world changing on this topic!

  12. Right on Laurie! Have no interest in magazine, however, have always felt it was degrading women…Most of us never have had their body makeup…we’re still loved by God.

  13. Laurie, You’re absolutely correct and I hope you send this to the publishers. I discontinued my subscription over 10 years ago, not just because of the editors’ planned content in the swimsuit issue, but also because of what they allowed in advertising in that issue, including a very suggestive ad on the last page that was hard to hide from one’s children. I had to make a statement. Today, I read a reliable statistic that a full SEVEN PERCENT of men on college campuses have raped or attempted to rape women on campus. Sexualizing women through popular media is not only anachronistic; it is harmful and negligent. When an otherwise admirable publication encourages viewing women (or men) as simple objects of sexual attraction, it condones and encourages the adolescent lack of control and misappropriation of priorities of these young college men. Kudos to you!

  14. Thank you for writing this letter and sharing it with all of us. SI doesn’t know how many of us are sick of the objectification of women (and men) and our sickeningly oversexed culture, because not enough of us speak up.

  15. I’m with you, Laurie! For SI to ridiculously try to claim that they’re providing women a platform for strength and empowerment is a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to justify printing these images. They’re not just pretty young women in bathing suits; they’re pretty young women in “bathing suits” and in the most sexually provocative poses allowed by law in a magazine of this type. If they were just standing on the beach it wouldn’t be quite so bad (but bad enough) but these poses are deliberately designed to say “can’t you just imagine sexually assaulting me, and wouldn’t it be fun?” It’s long past time for this to stop. I’m an older woman and one of the biggest perks of being my age is that the constant sexual harassment has (almost) stopped and I’m no longer followed down the street or subjected to attempted assaults which is the lot of most young women today. But these pictures encourage that kind of behavior.

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  17. I totally agree with you. Sports Ilustrated should stick to SPORTS and leave out their swimsuit edition. That gives the impression that the magazine is promoting women as sex objects.

  18. Bravo! Laurie!! I’m glad I saved your letter to read at a later time. You are such a good writer and they should be blessed to have gotten a letter that was well-stated and beautifully written. God Bless You!

  19. My dear Laurie,

    I was away when your letter to SI came to me. Having read it now that I am back home, I can only agree with 100% and applaud how well you have expressed your feelings and the feelings of many women. Thank you for your “voice”.

    With love, Shirley Klipfel

  20. To tell you the truth, I had no idea in the 21st century a sports magazine would still be publishing such an edition. I appreciate you taking your time to write the well-written letter of protest about objectifying women, but I especially give you high fives for suggesting they use their platform to shine the light on the truly beautiful people in the world. Beauty comes from within and what a powerful platform they have to shout this to their readers. Thank you.

  21. Rev. Haller, I am totally blown away by your letter. As the mother of a 17-year-old daughter, I echo your concerns. In fact, when I received our issue of Sports Illustrated in our mailbox, I was with my daughter whose first response was “that’s disgusting, throw it away.” I had heard about this legendary issue from men in my life who enjoy it and like to share it with their sons and friends. I didn’t think it was such a big deal til I heard my daughter’s response. Funny thing is she looks like your ideal female, thin, blond and beautiful, but was disgusted by the overly sexualized cover.

    Your letter really resonated with me and I join you in your challenge to Sports Illustrated to cover more uplifting stories of ordinary people. I share your love of Sports Illustrated and, while I’m not a sports aficionado, I read it for the wonderful, enjoyable, well-written articles (the magazine was intended for my 16-year-old son who rarely reads it anymore).

    I hope Sports Illustrated takes up your cause, and I join you in support.

    Best regards,
    Wendy Alpine
    wendy@alpinepr.com

  22. Yes! Thank you for taking the time and energy to put all of this together. “Sad” is just how I’ve seen this for years.

  23. Thank you, Laurie. The cover of the present issue is just plain porn. They’re not kidding anyone by trying to smooth this over by saying that it provides “a platform for young women” or whatever it is that they say. These issues, and this one in particular are just, plain insulting to women. I’m sorry that those young women on the cover were so “needy” as to have let themselves be used in this way.

  24. To play devil’s advocate, these women strive to appear in Sports Illustrated. It is considered one of the top outlets in commercial swim modeling. I say, encourage women to be successful in their professional field regardless of what you think of their physical appearance – whether they are ‘too beautiful’ or not. These women have chosen modeling as their industry, and how anti-feminist of you to berate their participation in what may be the height of their career. Are youth and beauty not God’s gifts?

  25. Great piece. As much as I agree with everything Laurie says, the problem, as I understand it, ultimately is money and greed. SI will justify the product as long as they continue to sell millions of copies.

    Years ago (probably 40) my mother wrote in with some of the same concerns. She angrily complained that this material was inappropriate (probably for all ages) for her young son who loved looking through regular issues. She received a cordial reply, probably written to pacify her and the hundreds of other mothers writing in for many of the same reasons. Money talks. It’s not just about being politically correct. It is about profit—wrapped up in lame excuses. How might those outraged affect that outcome?

  26. Nancy, my Wife and I have two young grand daughters, 3 and 6 years old. They are both beautiful in the truest sense of that word. They are full of energy and wonder. I hope and pray that as they grow up that we will grow up as a culture where they are valued for their full worth as Children of God. In my upcoming retirement, I plan to do what I can to continue to challenge media images that continue to encourage outdated, dehumanizing images of our Sisters, and sometimes Brothers. Grow up, Sports Ilustrated. I want a better future for our Grand Daughters and all the Women of their Generation.
    In the Name of the One who makes us all Beautiful & Whole Persons, Spirit/Mind/&Body:
    -Dave Edwards

  27. Thank you: for making this statement; for speaking what is on your heart; for standing up for those who are trodden down by humans misusing and abusing others for their own gain/pleasure. May God bless you as you continue to minister in Jesus name.

    Rev. Torger P. Johnson, Pastor
    Cross Roads Community Church
    A United Methodist Congregation

  28. Thank you, thank you for your eloquent letter. It has been 20 odd years since I burned out working at a women’s center for victims of abuse. While much progress has been made, it has not been nearly enough. I am still saddened by the widespread victimization of women, children, and men fueled by such objectification. We would all be better served if people were celebrated for their efforts to make the world a more beautiful, caring place than by how physically beautiful they are (by society’s standards). I must say that I am heartened by all of the supportive comments from your readers. Maybe, someday, SI will understand the damage they perpetuate with this issue and make constructive changes to celebrate real women and men doing positive things.

    Blessings,
    Barbara

  29. We have an assignment at school where we need to read a controversial article and write a response taking a side. This SI letter was our article for this week. As I read I was thinking “this tone and style sounds so familiar”, “oh they’re a preacher”, “United Methodist also”. At the end of the letter I saw your name and was so happy! This really had an impact on me, my friends, my classmates and my family. It was wonderfully written and I’m so glad you said this.

  30. Perfectly written, captures every point that needs to be made. As a 40-something, I’ve often said you couldn’t pay me enough to be a girl or teenager these days. Besides objectifying women, magazines like the SI issue and the “laddie” magazines (GQ, FHM, etc.) perpetuate the message that women are only for men’s pleasure. It’s no wonder that college guys and young men aren’t committing to young women – they can walk around the corner and find a prettier product any time they want. Young women are being taught that their only value in life is being considered “hot” by guys. It’s absolutely pathetic and I feel so badly for young adults these days. They’ve been sold a shallow view of life that will give them unhappy relationships that don’t last and a self-image that is far too dependent on appearance. Truly sad.

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  32. Your definition of beauty is one of the best and most concise that I’ve read. There is more opportunity to expound on your core definition. Thoughtfully consider writing about beauty for a wider audience, through perhaps a book. I believe you have something special here that has much value and a refreshing insight that is in sharp contrast with a stale, consumerist culture that misses the mark in depicting true beauty.

  33. Very dignified letter. But it will get nowhere. Since the late 60′s when porn first became “mainstream” (R rated is often porn lite), and the women’s movement was co-opted by men (Gloria Steinem admits she was involved with the CIA, a male oriented agency), men have been targeted visually in order to get them to buy. It’s been going on longer but that’s when it turned really nasty. Studies have been conducted (google it) and they found that the chemistry in the brain is such that humans can be “trained” and “stimulated” with visual ques.

    This entire issue is more complex than what it appears to be. You have the “profit” side of it, but you also have entire generations of men that have learned to stimulate from photos. That guy in Missouri who was recently in paper for kidnapping the little girl and killing her, he was highly into pornography. It becomes an addiction for some of these guys. Others, become impotent: that’s why Viagra was made. Do you see them inventing drugs to help women get stimulated?
    Actually, more and more women are getting into pornography. It’s quite sad.

    Saddest of all: My took many “women’s classes” in college (she has since graduated). One day she was telling me that both men and women “naturally” get stimulated more from viewing a woman’s body, and studies have been done to prove this.

    BUT WHAT SHE IS MISSING about that “study” is the fact that NOT ONLY MEN see these visuals of women but they are plastered EVERYWHERE and all children are growing up with these visuals of women.
    So…..
    The woman’s body is OFTEN associated with sex. We see woman’s body as sex while we wait in grocery lines, on billboards, magazines, TV ads, ONLINE Website ads, books, etc etc. Breasts are embarrassing to the public when a woman is feeding a child publicly. She is often times reprimanded and told to cover up….I find that weird, considering how nobody dares to question a public ad with a half naked woman in sexual prone position (but up in air like the gals in the sport issue) that their Children, including all little girls, visually take in EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    Most men do not care what you think. The growing Male-as-Victim Movement is growing and getting louder and angrier. One way they “get even” with women is thru degradation of females. I’ve had direct contact with these male groups and honestly, you cannot reason with them. Women are NOT paying attention to this growing threat. Women tend to get consumed with themselves and families and neglect the larger picture….to there own detriment.

    The woman’s movement was originally about FREEDOM. There was nothing about it that you could not support, unless there was something wrong with you as a human. I mean, what kind of person would NOT be for their own freedom? Well, in the 60′s the movement was hijacked by some hard-core political groups with agendas. That’s when the movement turned into a sex-fest. I graduated from high school in ’1976. It wasn’t like it is now, women were still fighting for their dignity and to be regarded as equals in humanity. But I remember how fast it was changing and how we were being told to be like the men…Very sad.

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