Another Plus-Sized Fumble

It was a nice few days for girls and women who are interested in sports, both as spectators and competitors. The women who watched the Super Bowl (that would be 46 percent of the viewership, incidentally) were treated with a bit more respect and regard, when it came to the ballyhooed TV commercials. Yes, the ads are still about manly men, daddy men, men with cars and beer and games. But there was no Swedish Bikini Team or other overtly insulting ad. Instead, we were treated to an excellent ad discussing what it means to “throw like a girl,” or “run like a girl.” The girls and women in the ad threw and ran like athletes, as they should.
Tragically, Sports Illustrated still doesn’t get it. Every year, the alleged sports magazine panders to the base instincts of its base, publishing a “Swimsuit Issue.” The issue displays women in skimpy suits (or half out of them) that no woman would wear to actually swim, and underscores the magazine’s apparent contention that women’s role in sports is to pose seductively for men.

But while the advertisers who buy time during the Super Bowl have started to grow up a bit, Sports Illustrated is stubbornly going backwards. Its cover model is pulling down her bikini bottoms to the point where the photo is dangerously close to being sold behind a brown paper wrapper. (And the photo is especially excruciating to see for women, who can imagine the waxing session that went on before the shoot). And inside, Sports Illustrated proudly displays a photo of what it says is its first “plus-sized model,” Robyn Lawley. Lawley is thin — not thinner than most American women, but just thin. She’s a size 12. Not only is that not considered “plus-sized” in the fashion/department store world (where “plus” starts at size 16), but it’s a particularly absurd description when the person wearing the size 12 is as tall as an NBA player. A size 12 on a five-foot-tall woman might look a little chunky. On a woman approaching six feet, it’s actually quite small.
The insult here is deeper because Sports Illustrated seems to think it’s catering to “real” women. Instead, it’s delivering the offensive message that it is their job to decide what makes women worthwhile (their looks, including a boniness that makes them weak and vulnerable to strong men). Worse is the patronizing suggestion that the magazine is making some sort of concession by displaying a model who does not look too weak to stand up (let alone excel at actual sports).

The answer is not for magazines to show regular-looking women in fashion spreads, any more than magazines show typical-looking men in fashion spreads. People like to look at good-looking people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Fashion tends to select female (and to a large degree, male) models who are exceptionally thin. Designers basically want a human hanger on which to display their clothes. What’s wrong is assuming that women should care only about how they compare to models, and then to metaphorically pat them on the head by showing a slightly less thin model. Does anyone worry that men will open Sports Illustrated, look at photos of professional athletes, and dissolve into a neurotic puddle of tears because they know they will never have the height, musculature, talent or skill to play professional basketball?
If Sports Illustrated wants to be honest, it should just call itself what it is — a men’s magazine, with a yearly porn issue. Just own it. But if it wants to appeal to women, the magazine’s editors need to respect women not just as athletes, but as sports fans. Women want to see strong, successful and unabashedly female athletes. They want to know about men in sports, too (for example: does Pete Carroll get police protection this week, or does he need to hire his own bodyguards?). It’s not hard to figure out what women want. Sports Illustrated just needs to actually listen.
Update: Who else thinks calling Robyn Lawley “plus-sized” is absurd? Robyn Lawley, who says it’s “ludicrous” to describe her that way.

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