Note that this is a rewritten/reorganized high-level recap of a longer paper. Since bibliographies aren’t ripe for blogs, I have stripped the citations from a number of facts. If you want a full copy of the paper, complete with bibliography and footnotes, email me. Also, this is not accusing the editors or photographers of Sports Illustrated of being consciously racist. The Swimsuit Issue is simply a well-known lens through which to llustrate how cultural images effect our perception of the surrounding world. To be fair, many of these examples come from SI's between 1996 and 2004. Since then, the issue has been better - consciously or not - about how they photograph women of color.
Sure, Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue - which hit news stands earlier this month - stands as a cultural marker. It is perhaps the most (in)famous annual issue of any magazine and its arrival in the middle of brutal Midwest winters hints at the hopeful thaw that awaits in the coming months. Over its 40+ years of publication, the issue has managed to drum up its fair share of controversy.
That’s really no longer the case. Surrounding swimsuit issue controversy has been blunted in recent years because it’s now relatively tame in comparison to its contemporary surroundings. R-rated movies are more explicit than ever. The Internet age has brought many freedoms, including finding scantily clad women – and women who lack even a little clad – in mere seconds. (A great philosopher and noted Internet user, Trekkie Monster, is fond of asserting that, “The Internet is for porn.”) Unable to show women entirely naked (or without body paint on), SI is resigned to photograph merely near their swimsuits, rather than wearing them. Or as one model shows this year, only behind a well-placed oceanic shell. Culture at large will not be subjected to such restraints! But alas, Sports Illustrated must. However, there are a number of important other issues the publication brings up, at least on the periphery.
The most obvious component of this is the portrayal of women solely as sexual objects, encouraging individual and group practices that maintain gender inequality. I think we can all agree that the issue objectifies women. That’s not the point I’m trying to make.
Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue also helps determine and reinforce the accepted standard of beauty in America – blonde and straight hair, blued eyed, and small-nosed – descriptions that entirely exclude minorities. The larger issue with this is that most Americans have become so immersed in certain cultural standards that they are interpreted as natural, normal and bias-free. This establishes a pretty rigid hierarchy for beauty in America for women, where in-group prejudice fosters a sense of superiority to other women simply because of their racial characteristics.
This ethno-centric view of beauty captured by the Sports Illustrated cameras has a lengthy history and strong precedent. Only one model with visible African ancestry appeared between the inaugural issue and 1982. Only eleven of the ninety models – or 12% – featured on Sports Illustrated's archived section of their website in 2007 are African-American. The archive only dates back sixteen years or the percentage would certainly be substantially lower. While the number of African-American women featured slowly increased, the models typically exhibited Anglo-friendly features of light-skin and straight-hair. An African-American failed to appear on the issue's cover until 1996 when the magazine featured Tyra Banks posing next to a blonde-haired fair-skinned model. While Banks' appearance on the cover of the issue signifies progress, it still leaves room for improvement regarding the under representation of minorities in the media, even within the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The success of one should not be used to obscure the injustices of many. To the publishers of the swimsuit issue, minorities seems to mean solely African American women; a single woman of color representing the entire spectrum of beauty, ignoring Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and so forth. This is pretty clearly token-ship. For example, Banks was the only African-American model in the ‘96 issue.
Future issues also marginalized women of color, choosing instead to features models with an "ethnic" or "exotic" look who commonly possess slightly darker skin. Even so, the accepted American standard of beauty continues to dominate popular images. Consider the cover of the 2006 swimsuit issue – which declared the subjects to be the "All-Star Cover Models"– featuring eight women, with six of them reflecting America's beauty standard with white skin and blonde, straight hair. “2 OF 8 IS 25%. LOOK! DIVERSITY!” Hardly. The remaining two were brunettes, not blondes.
While this does not suggest that Sports Illustrated and its publishers are inherently racist, it does implicate the magazine in reinforcing the media's color-coded standards and norms. Once these standards of beauty find themselves accepted into the cultural conscious, they are tough to get rid of.
While the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue under represents minorities, the images of those minorities that are included still catalyze additional racial stereotypes. While scientists have since dismissed claims of inherent physical and mental differences, the prevailing image of blacks as more natural or physically gifted continue in contemporary America, perhaps influenced most greatly by success in the arena of sports.
Sports Illustrated perpetuates an image of African-Americans as more primitive and primal. Since the turn of the century, African American models are far more likely to pose with exotic animals or in unconventional settings than their Caucasian counterparts. In 2006, the only model to pose with an animal is thedarker-skinned, curly haired Noemie Lenoir, who is photographed with a leopard. The same holds true for the 2005 issue, where Oluchi Onweagba is photographed leaning on the front left leg of an elephant. In 2003, Jessica White made her swimsuit issue debut with a shoot in Kenya, where photographers captured her standing along side a river holding an elongated spear, which could be interpreted as either some type of primitive hunter or a fisher. Other photographs showed her in the midst of an African safari, even posing in a jewel-encrusted suit next to a safari hat and a book on African game, as if she was the most elusive and wildest target. A final five photo set shows her body caked in mud, as if she just emerged from the dirty waters of the small Kenyan pond behind her. Noemie Lenoir returned in this issue as well, photographed carrying a wicker basket of freshly picked fruit, implying a simple, primitive existence (Sports Illustrated 2003, p. 178). She is also shown in the 2004 issue straddling a Mississippi license plate (Sports Illustrated 2004, p. 136). The 2001 issue featured an extensive pictorial with Shakara Ledard, who posed in a series of shots inside of and around grass and clay huts, while her lighter-skinned counterparts rarely stepped off of the beach. This continued the following year when Ledard appeared playing a tambourine in the middle of a group of natives dancing, while her fellow models along for the shoot posed alone. I should point out each of these were photographs that actually published in the magazine. Countless others showing the models in more conventional (and I use that adjective loosely) poses, including a most in the on-line archive, were not selected to be published.
African-American models rarely appear in locations traditionally thought to be dominated by whites. For example, no models of color appeared in the 2001 pictorial titled "Arctic Explorers". Even on Tyra Banks' noteworthy first cover in 1996, she wore a leopard print swimsuit and needed to share the cover with a model of “standard beauty”. Sports Illustrated reinforces these collective stereotypes by positioning their models in situations that reaffirm the accepted position and interpretation of races in society at-large. The stereotype of blacks as more primal, basic, and unsophisticated finds continual traction through mediums like the swimsuit issue, which positions models within contexts that imply their accepted position and image within the social hierarchy while pandering to society's prejudices.
You think this type of representation doesn’t matter or that you have control over your subconscious reactions? Try an implicit association test for race and see what happens. You can take one here.
As for the editors and photographers of the swimsuit issue, are they racist? No, at least not overtly. But they are weaned on the same culture as we are and not immune to standardized beauty and socio-economic and historical concepts that we often bath ourselves in. Isolated examples like the swimsuit issue may not seem to have great importance, much the same way a single tile of a mosaic appears insignificant apart from its whole. However, both these stand as integral parts of a larger whole that gain greater significance when placed within their proper context. As for the case of the swimsuit issue, it helps construct and perpetuate exclusionary cultural standards.