Body Image, Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Identity, Pop Culture, Society and Politics

There’s Nothing Empowering About Those ‘Body Positive’ Sports Illustrated Covers

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog on February 23rd 2016


Last week the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue released no less than three different covers featuring three different body types: American model Hailey Clauson, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey (who appears in a body-painted swimsuit), and plus-size model and body image activist Ashley Graham.

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

It marks the first time a size 16 model has graced its cover and needless to say, the Internet went crazy. “Wow. Just, wow,” gushed The Huffington Post. “The body positivity movement is booming,” proclaimed Shape magazine. “And we couldn’t be more excited that SI picked women who add fuel to the fire.” Exactly the kind of responses that SI had been hoping to create as Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day made clear at their unveiling event:

“All three women are beautiful, sexy and strong. Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’ Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”

 She’s right, of course. Beauty certainly isn’t “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” and seeing this (not so) ground-breaking idea finally appearing on the covers of an iconic beauty magazine gives it even more commercial validation for all those women out there who have never considered themselves to be ‘conventionally’ beautiful. And yet, as I looked at these uniquely beautiful cover girls in their swimsuits, all I felt was unease. There was just something about all this self-congratulation and buzzworthy empowerment that didn’t sit right with me.

Let’s break it down.

The pros are obvious. Women of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel loved, sexy, and beautiful, and celebrating that breaks down the harmful monotony of the ‘one-size’ beauty culture. A lot of women feel undervalued and invisible when they can’t see themselves on a cinema screen, or a catwalk runway, or a shop window, or a magazine cover, and so the more the body positive movement is allowed to infiltrate all of these fiercely image-conscious industries, the more women will feel healthier and happier in their own skin without the crushing pressure to constantly change themselves.

Let’s also not forget SI’s clear target demographic: heterosexual men. Another misconception that the ‘one size’ culture helps to wrongfully prevail is the idea that there is similarly a singular type of woman that all straight men find attractive. But from my research of actually, y’know, talking to straight men about their tastes in women this just simply isn’t true. Men have a very diverse range of sexual tastes and desires that different kinds of women can easily fulfil. Sometimes they can even open them up to new fantasies they didn’t even know they had.

'Not Models' photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use "real women", from Stylehasnosize.com

‘Not Models’ photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use “real women”, from Stylehasnosize.com

Speaking of the straight male demographic, let’s get into the cons. There is always a fine line to tread between owning your sexuality and allowing it to be owned by others. This is something that has plagued feminist debate for decades, especially when feminist artists and performers use nudity or provocative imagery as a means of self-expression. Whenever I think about this debate, I am always reminded of a particular section from art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1975):

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. […] She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

 “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

As inspiring as the body positive movement is, you can’t escape from the fact that these covers are sexualised female bodies for the approval, delight, and consumption of male eyes specifically. They still place sexuality and image as the most valuable trait for any women of any visible description. Ashley Graham is a role model for plus size women. But who cares about that unless she also looks great in a bikini! Ronda Rousey is a successful and respected female athlete. Yeah, but is she hot though? Any way you slice it, it’s the same old objectification but with a ‘body positive’ Get Out Of Jail Free card attached.

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated May 2015)

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated, May 2015)

It’s also worth noting that out of the three covers released, not one single woman of colour has been featured. I guess racial inclusivity and body inclusivity are two completely separate things to SI. 

In fact, I think I’ve finally worked out what that feeling of unease is that I just couldn’t find the reason for earlier. It’s exactly the same feeling I get from all those “real beauty” Dove adverts. For years, the personal care brand Dove has – in the brilliant words of Mark Duffy – “passive-aggressively assaulted women’s physical insecurities to sell beauty products.” Think about every Dove TV advert you’ve ever seen. Did you ever worry about not having soft enough underarms, firmer skin, or more radiant under-eyes before watching it? Nope, me neither. But apparently Dove thinks these are pressing issues to further women’s empowerment. Who cares about the patriarchy when you have a natural-looking glow!

Dove's 'Campaign For Real Beauty' Ads revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ Ads in 2008 were revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Hijacking an aspirational movement or trend like body positivity to use as an empty marketing ploy for easy headlines is certainly nothing new, but judging from the trend-worthy hype those SI covers have generated it’s effectiveness clearly hasn’t diminished either.

I’m not saying that Ashley Graham and Ronda Rousey aren’t empowering women. I’m just saying these particular photos of them aren’t. And incidentally, if you want to see some real body positive photos of women (and men) that don’t reduce their models to sex objects, then take a look through this great collection on Bustle.

Although I can see some of the positive benefits of using models of different sizes, when you break it down SI is still a magazine that pedals eroticised photos of swimsuit models to cater to straight male sexual fantasies and little else. The only difference here is that the editors have found a way to trick people into applauding that.


 

IMAGE CREDITS

1 – 3: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016 featuring Ashley Graham, Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson.

4. ‘Models vs. Not Models’ photoshoot campaign from Stylehasnosize.com

5. Sports Illustrated cover featuring Ronda Rousey, May 2015

6. Hacktivist photo from Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ advert campaign, 2008

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