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.
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.”
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.
Rev. Laurie Haller, Senior Pastor
First United Methodist Church