The Hopelessly Outdated Swimsuit Issue

By Pete Williams

Still relevant?

Back in February of 1980, just two months into my gift subscription to Sports Illustrated, I opened the mailbox and found Christie Brinkley staring at me.

There she was, the 26-year-old future ex-Mrs. Billy Joel, clad in a white bikini. If memory serves – and 10-year-old boys rarely forget such things – the pictorial inside included a thong-clad Miss Brinkley.

In 1980, few women worked out. Title IX was not quite eight years old. We were a couple years away from Martina Navratilova’s decision to transform her chubby physique into a lean, athletic machine, becoming perhaps the first prominent female athlete (and one of the first overall) to embrace conditioning. Jane Fonda was only 42, but not yet an exercise video entrepreneur.

Back then, we thought of athletic conditioning mostly in terms of distance running and bodybuilding. Either you were an emaciated marathoner or a freak show muscle head. There was little in between, especially for women.

Thus, the SI swimsuit babe, a product of terrific genes, makeup artists, and world-class photographers, became the epitome of female attractiveness for many men. We were, after all, just a few months removed from 23-year-old Bo Derek setting the standard for a “10.”

Flash ahead three decades. Title IX has helped level the playing field for women in sports. Women understand, perhaps better than men, that some combination of strength training, Pilates/yoga/core conditioning, and endurance work can produce a lean, sexy physique that’s more powerful, resistant to injury, and attractive than the soft and skinny (“skinny fat”) specimens still gracing the pages of SI every mid-February.

The SI swimsuit issue has become cliche, yet advertisers still pony up big money for it. So SI keeps trotting it out after every Super Bowl.

Who would have thought that ESPN, with its well-chronicled history of sexual harassment at its Connecticut offices, would stage a more appropriate celebration of the female (and male) physique?

ESPN the Magazine’s annual October “Body” issue displays prominent and not-so-prominent athletes (male and female) in nude poses that celebrate the time and effort they’ve put into their physiques to excel in sports. The poses are implied nudity, with nothing showing, though for the second-annual issue last fall ESPN printed photos displaying bare bums.

Unlike the come-hither SI poses, ESPN positions athletes to accentuate their sport-specific power. Thus you see the lats of Olympic rower Susan Francia, the muscular wingspan of Dwight Howard, and the upper-body power of triathlete Sarah Reinertsen, who has a prosthetic left leg.

For years, SI has thrown a few pro athletes into the mix for the swimsuit issue, but it always seems forced, as if the magazine is trying to doll up pro athletes to come across as models rather than, well, the athletes the magazine celebrates the rest of the year.

2010 Body Issue cover

Serena Williams appeared in the SI swimsuit issue a few years back, but looked far more athletic and stunning in a strategically-shot nude cover image in the 2009 Body Issue. Last October, ESPN the Mag featured volleyball player Kim Glass nude in a sport-specific pose that accentuates her jacked physique, bare bum angled to the camera. It’s not a sexy pose so much as it is a powerful one, leaving the viewer (male or female) to think, “Damn, I wish I had glutes like that.”

I felt the same way looking at Nelson Cruz’ back, Carl Edwards’ abs or Ryan Lochte’s quads in last fall’s Body issue. You admire the hard work and how the bodies drive and reflect the success of the athletes.

Glass appears in the newest SI swimsuit issue nude but with a strategically-placed (though out of place) paddle, just another SI teaser pic. She could be any swimsuit model. Unlike the ESPN shot, the SI version does nothing to accentuate her physique.

The irony, of course, is that when ESPN removes the swimsuit, much of the titillation factor goes away. The photos in ESPN’s Body issue are more raw, more impressive, more appropriate for the subjects.

Oh well. No longer do people express outrage over SI’s swimsuit issue. After all, it looks downright tame compared to what 10-year-olds can find online. But given the way we now celebrate the athletic physique – in or out of swimwear – the SI swimsuit issue featuring skinny 20-year-old models not only is outdated.

It’s irrelevant.

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