Modeling Women

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

This being my first year as a paying Sports Illustrated subscriber, I was watching my mailbox this week with a mixture of curiosity and indignance. It’s Swimsuit Issue Season, that dreary time of year between the Super Bowl and Opening Day when the bronzed, sultry airbrushed babes beckoning from warmer climates find their way into the eager hands of, uh, rabid sports fans.

I’ve seen the swimsuit issue for a number of years and the ensuing onslaught of letters that follow, some praising SI editors for “thawing the frozen tundra of winter,” and others lamenting that “this is not what we had in mind when we bought an SI subscription for our ten-year-old son.” The letter topics are as predictable as the strategic scallop shell placement on the models.

Getting (geo)graphic
Not to be outdone, National Geographic’s first-ever swimsuit issue, “Swimsuits: 100 Years of Pictures” hit newsstands recently. (National Geographic? As in the magazine that my grandparents subscribed to and saved for years? I can’t wait to read those letters to the editor.) National Geographic’s editors use words like “tasteful” to describe the issue that focuses on, ahem, “humanity’s relationship to water and the evolution of what we wear around it.” Ah, the swimsuit issue for highbrows.

I have to admit that I am curious. I will probably read both magazines and I can almost predict my reaction. The angry feminist part of me will rage with resentment at the objectification of women. Maybe I will marvel at the evolution of what humans wear around water. The curious part of me will gaze in wonder. How many leg lifts does she have to do to look like that and how many Ding Dongs did she turn down? How did they get those shells to stay so perfectly in place? What is it with guys and images of women?

Are you hot?
I’ve often wondered if magazines like these really do change men’s perceptions of beauty, of what qualities they seek in a woman. After a quick, unscientific survey of the dependable men in my life (brother, significant other, friend), I’ve found they still, thankfully, value the real deal. “Those women are beautiful and all,” said my brother, “but you don’t really expect the women in your life to look like that. Nothing can beat a girl that you just totally connect with, that you love spending your days with.”

Another friend recalls his childhood SI subscription and the yearly arrival of the swimsuit issue. “My brother and I were allowed to look at it every year,” he said, “but only if we looked at it with my mom.”

I love that story because it illustrates how something like the SI and NG swimsuit issues most likely will not seriously affect guys who already have healthy relationships with real women: women who would rather go out for pizza and beer than eat celery and wear a string bikini, women who could care less if they are a size 2, women who put more effort into their education than their appearance.

Strong moms, good friends, cool sisters
The guys I worry about are the ones who do not have solid relationships with women, the ones who do not have strong mothers or close women friends or great sisters. I fear that they will hide out in the tropical refuge of the pages of SI or its counterparts, simultaneously shying away from real conversation with equals, content to gaze and not engage, possibly missing out on the most significant relationships of their lives.

Slick images are a poor substitute for shared experiences, and they provide cold comfort when you just want to share your day with someone. Picking up a magazine is far easier than calling someone up for coffee or a quick run, and I worry that for a select group of guys, glossy photos will be as close as they get to a healthy, life-giving relationship with a woman, whether it be as friend or girlfriend. And they will be missing out.