For Sports Illustrated, the rise of the #MeToo era – in which women began speaking out, and up, about sexual harassment and worse – presented a unique problem. Its annual swimsuit issue pays tribute to swimsuits, near-swimsuits and women wearing nothing more than sand, smiles and body paint. Could that same issue evolve with the times, portraying women in a way that empowers them while showing that it is something more than a thinly disguised skin mag?
For this year’s issue, which arrives on newsstands this week, editors attempted to modify a message little evolved from the late ’50s by giving women a chance to craft their own messages with carefully chosen words, written on their naked bodies or clothing.
It’s a commendable idea, as well as one that bucks the mission of the formidable swimsuit issue, one of the most successful concepts in publishing. The issue’s purpose is to sell sex: if people wanted essays from women, they’d buy Ms. So SI came up with an unfortunate compromise: More nudity! But nudity with a real purpose!
The result was an “In Her Words” feature in which editor M.J. Day, who is in her fourth year of editing the issue, and an all-woman core staff tried to send a more modern message about women with the assistance of Taylor Ballantyne, a female photographer.
Its purpose, according to Day, was partly to “allow the model to be her own creative director.” Model Robyn Lawley, who also served as director of photography for a behind-the-scenes video, posed in a black-and-white photo with words like “mother,” “lover,” “creative,” “progressive” and “human” written across her body, for instance.
“No one ever gives models a real opportunity to be who they are,” Day told Vanity Fair. “You’re always an actor, you’re always a part of the photograph, you’re always performing for something: for the brand, the photographer, the spirit of the photograph, and you’re never really your most authentic self.”
That meant giving free rein to models who are veterans of an era in which harassment and worse was frequent, and something to be endured. Models like Paulina Porizkova, who landed her first swimsuit issue cover in 1984, and Christie Brinkley, who appeared in the issue eight times between 1975 and 2004 and was the first woman to get consecutive covers with a three-peat from 1979 to 1981.
At 63 Brinkley last year graced the magazine in a bikini, saying women “do not come with an expiration date.” This year, her 19-year-old daughter, Sailor Brinkley Cook, took it all off, except for a few choice words written on her body, words like “artist,” “optimist” and “natural,” which appeared across her buttocks. Cook, a photography student, only showed her mother the photos afterward, telling ET “she didn’t even ask, ‘What is it for?’ or anything. She was like, ‘Oh my god. You’re art. These are beautiful.'”
Porzikova, 51, chose to write “TRUTH” in big letters along her torso, accompanied by a having-the-last-laugh expression.
“Here is the funny thing about sexual harassment with us as models: It was seen as a compliment,” Porizkova told The New York Post’s Page Six in December.
“As a matter of fact, you almost got offended if you did not get harassed,” she went on. “Like, if this photographer is known for hitting on [models] – or goes for all the brunettes – and you show up at the studio and you are a brunette and he does not hit on you . . . it is like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ So it is messed up. It makes you think that sexual harassment is what you need.”
Porizkova, 51, has taken some backlash on social media, including from one user who wrote: “Gotta love the hypocrisy of a woman who marginalizes herself and her gender while at the same time making reference to the #metoo movement! Here’s an idea: if you don’t want men to act like wild dogs, don’t hang your meat in front of their hungry eyes.”
To that tweet, she replied, “How about self-control, Pete? Ever tried it.”
During the Golden Globes awards last month, Porizkova, 51, explained on Instagram her reasons for wearing black and joining the movement.
“From the comfort of my warm home on this chilly NYC night, I’m wearing black. As usual. But tonight, this is #WhyWeWearBlack: when I was a teenage model, sexual assault was considered a ‘compliment.’ We fought off constant sexual harassment. But we were the lucky ones; there were rumors of girls on trips who were raped. Distraught, they were simply sent home. Goodbye modeling career. When we heard about these incidents, some of us just shrugged in resignation – it was that common.
“So I wear black for them, for myself, and for women everywhere trying to follow their dreams who’ve been blocked, limited, denigrated. And even more so I wear black for women in decidedly less glamorous circumstances trying to make a living to feed their families while fending off workplace sexual harassment and abuse. Enough is enough. A few very brave women have cracked the door open, now ladies, let’s fill the damn house. #TimesUp#enoughisenough #freetowork”
For giving Porizkova and others a platform, albeit a naked one, SI is to be commended – even if this halting step feels like a public service announcement dropped inside an issue that still too conveniently plays to SI’s advantage. Rightly painted into a corner by the #MeToo movement, it should have sent a stronger message than “Come for the female empowerment, stay for the hot babes.”
The bottom line on the bottoms is still, after all, “buy this magazine.”
“At the end of the day, we’re always going to be sexy, no matter what is happening,” Day told Vanity Fair. “We’re Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. The ideal is to create something artful, to create a beautiful image that both the subject and the team is proud of and collaborates on together.”