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Sports Illustrated's plus-sized push is deeply sexist



Women everywhere are celebrating the release of Sports Illustrated's 2017 Swimsuit Edition, for squeezed in among the innumerable images of slender young models is an aberration: a picture of a voluptuous woman wearing a bikini which doesn't conceal the stretch-marks blooming across her stomach.

Denise BidotThis is Denise Bidot, a so-called plus-sized model, though probably average-sized in reality, posing in swimwear designed by the plus-size clothing brand Lane Bryant.

At first glance, this image is significant, for though 'bigger' women have featured in the magazine before, their flaws have been airbrushed into oblivion. The image of Bidot represents womanhood in all its flawed, natural glory: soft belly, broad hips, and those silvery stretch marks, the calling card of pregnancy.

Women, most of them long excluded from advertisers' narrow concept of 'beauty', have rushed to compliment Bidot on her gloriousness, on her rebellious brand of sexiness. They are part of a movement that is speaking out, and often disrobing to prove their point, against the marginalisation of women who don't fit into the dictatorial confines of what society has determined to be attractive.

It's understandable that these women are rejoicing at the inclusion of an un-retouched, representative body in a magazine as iconic as this, given the slew of one-dimensional, provocatively posed, heavily photoshopped models used to represent them in the media.

And it is remarkable that a 63-year-old woman — the preternaturally youthful Christie Brinkley — has also posed for this edition, for she does so amid a sea of almost unvaryingly youthful faces and bodies.

But this response is highly problematic, for it salutes a publication that objectifies women for widening the definition of those it is willing to objectify. It suggests that women accept without question — indeed, encourage — the idea that their most important attribute is their body.

It forgets that the apparently subversive image is really just a clever marketing tool employed by Lane Bryant: the company's #IMNOANGEL campaign — a dig at Victoria's Secret's hyper-sexualised 'angels' — aims to redefine society's notion of 'sexy' by declaring all women sexy — and so earning undying loyalty from women who've been told for too long that they are not.


"As deliciously subversive as body acceptance campaigns are, they perpetuate the idea that women are, fundamentally, objects to be assessed. They keep women focused on their physical being — and the response of others to it."


In expanding its repertoire of women's bodies (which must still adhere to certain criteria — relatively slim waists, lush hair, conventionally beautiful faces), the magazine lures people into the trap of believing it is somehow committing a radical feminist act. In fact, it is deeply, deeply sexist: it pays little attention to female athletes, featuring them as the primary or solo image on just 2.5 per cent of its regular covers in the years 2000 to 2011; it eschews female athletes in favour of models (bar a few exceptions) in its swimsuit edition.

Most gallingly, the magazine has further patronised women by marking the launch of its latest swimwear edition with a campaign encouraging them to post pictures of their bikini bodies on Instagram, 'because you should feel beautiful no matter what you wear'. If a woman is declared beautiful, they seem to believe, her life's purpose will have been fulfilled.

But herein lies the absurdity of it all: it is not a woman's job to be beautiful. It is not her job to be sexy. It is not her responsibility to remove her clothes so as to prove that she is beautiful or sexy. It is especially not her job, when she knows that she falls outside of the west's circumscribed notion of what beautiful looks like, to remove her clothes so as to convince onlookers that there exists something desirable within the contours of her imperfect body.

For as deliciously subversive as body acceptance campaigns are, they perpetuate the idea that women are, fundamentally, objects to be assessed and approved of (or not). They keep women focused on their physical being — and the response of others to it — at the expense of their intellect. They make room for more women — bigger women, older women, women of colour, disabled women — inside the tiny cage of acceptability that has been built around them, rather than encouraging them to break free from it entirely.

And they misunderstand the very essence of beauty and sexiness: they can never be manufactured, nor declared in oneself, for they exist only in the eye of the beholder.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Denise Bidot



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Existing comments

Great article Catherine. The eye of the beholder is paramount in advertising. And that is the purpose of selling magazines. Whether it's to perpetuate the myth of perfection in feminine 'beauty' or pandering to the plus-size protest. I met a friend the other day in front of a dress shop we both frequent. We were looking at the same garment and she said to me "That's not your size, it's much too big for you." And I said, "I think you look great in white, it's definitely your colour." Then we talked about more important things, like her visit that morning to the dentist and my haircut (!). Seriously, it's difficult to be serious all the time about our body image. However, we partially redeemed ourselves by having a good laugh before parting. Without buying anything.

Pam | 24 February 2017  

Great article Catherine. The concept of beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And beauty is much more than our body, our face, our hair. Having said that, though, there are billion dollar industries which rely on women feeling less than perfect, whatever that may mean to the individual woman. And advertising is a powerful medium. I think being interested in what life has to offer us can break that obsession with our body, our face, our hair.

Pam | 26 February 2017  

The effects of advertising on women's beauty are interesting. We have seen the ravages of eating disorders leading to great ugliness stimulated by the skinny images of models in women's magazines. We have seen truly beautiful young women ruining their beauty by tattooing. We have seen the upsurge in obsessive compulsive disorders (a modern day variant of the difficult to treat scruples). We have seen increasing numbers of youth suicides and self-mutilation by young women disillusioned by their looks. And the magazine markets flourish supported almost exclusively by women! Seems liberation is still a long way off. Perhaps the old girls who preceded the modern day feminists had something right after all!

john frawley | 28 February 2017  

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