Recently at the sports site For the Win, I read this headline: “Aly Raisman shares powerful message on body image after SI swimsuit debut.” As I read on, I saw the gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast’s recent social media post. With a photo of her wearing a bikini and leaning backward over a stone tablet, Raisman wrote:
“I'm very proud of my body and how hard I have worked to look like this. I of course like everyone else have my days where I feel insecure and not at my best. BUT I think it is that much more important we love our bodies and support each other. It is 2017 and there is NO perfect or ideal body type. SI SWIM celebrates women for being unique and beautiful in our own way, which is why I am so happy to be a part of it.”
Truly, Raisman is a beautiful woman. And I can see she means well. But I have mixed feelings about her words. Of course, a powerful message of positive body image is one I'd welcome any day. But this one, coming as it does with a plug for Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition, feels off to me. I think Raisman has the right idea, but if "celebrating women" is the goal, it's attached to the wrong publication.
While I agree that "there is no perfect or ideal body type," we do live in a world that displays ideal body types in media all around us. These ideals may be superficial, restrictive, and ever-changing, but they're real. A Buzzfeed video in 2015 highlighted the different beauty standards over time; during the Renaissance, it was a curvy woman with love handles; in the nineties, it was a thin waif like Kate Moss. Today, it is a woman with a thin waist, a large chest, and a large butt—a look best augmented by plastic surgery. The video’s example for today’s beauty standards showed someone who resembles Kim Kardashian. In other words, according to Buzzfeed, our culture’s latest ideal body held up by media is a hypersexualized one. One might even call it pornified, the point being to draw attention toward sex organs, for the purposes of looking sexually appealing to someone else.
Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition may be the best example of these sexualized beauty standards on display in mainstream media. In 2014, Sports Illustrated released two covers—one featuring large-chested model Kate Upton, and the other with three models showcasing their nearly nude rear ends. In 2015, its cover focused instead on front female nudity, with a model pulling down her panties, er, swimsuit bottom. In 2016, viewers saw three covers—one showing curvy model Ashley Graham on all fours sharing her generous cleavage, another showing a topless model, and a third cover showing a naked Ronda Rousey with a painted-on suit.
This may be nothing new—that our culture is selling us confining messages about beauty—but without a doubt, today’s messages display hyper-sexualized beauty ideals that place value from the external, instead of internal.
“I think it’s important that we love our bodies and support each other,” Raisman wrote. Yes. This is important. Everything she wrote is great; if it only it were matched with concurrent imagery and a publication that supports that philosophy.
It seems more like Raisman is saying something a little different than her exact words suggest. Something like, I believe this ideal—that women are unique and beautiful in our own way. I also happen to have posed for a publication that shows women as sexual objects for male pleasure. Raisman can do as she wishes, but let’s not kid ourselves that these two statements are cohesive.
Raisman’s body is beautiful, as is Simone Biles, who also appears in this year’s swimsuit edition. From all the promo photos I’ve seen, Biles looks like a stoic gymnast. Whether it’s the skimpier suit or the photographer’s styling, Raisman’s photos look distinctly like advertisements for a porn site or a strip club. If I didn’t recognize her face, I would have thought that’s what they were. I don’t know if that was Raisman’s intention, but it most certainly was Sports Illustrated’s. Indeed, it’s the sole intention they’ve had for a long time.
Let’s celebrate women for real. Let’s celebrate women being unique and beautiful in their own way. Let’s love each other and support each other. And let’s stop pretending Sports Illustrated does any of these things.
Photo Credit: ESPN