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Sports Illustrated Wants Its New Swimsuit Issue To Empower Women, But Will It Succeed?

Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition turned 58 years old yesterday. The magazine used the anniversary as an opportunity to announce a new initiative that it’s hoping will redefine its Swimsuit Edition into a “platform for change” for women. If helping women is indeed the goal, research suggests that Sports Illustrated may be more a part of the problem than the solution.

“SI Swim takes the next step on that journey with the announcement of Pay With Change, a new gender equity advertising initiative that will turn the SI Swimsuit franchise into a platform for change,” the company reported on its website.  To reach this goal, the Swimsuit Edition will accept advertising only from companies with demonstrated programs to advance gender equality and drive progress for women’s empowerment. In addition, Sports Illustrated will donate a portion of their Swimsuit Edition profits to an unnamed nonprofit organization that they say is “dedicated to creating an equitable future for all women.”

Not everyone sees this as the best step toward gender equity. “The best thing Sports Illustrated could do for women would be to cover women’s sports and to cover women athletes, as athletes, instead of as sex objects,” says Elizabeth Daniels, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her research examines how young people perceive images of athletes and how these images impact their self-perceptions. 

Daniels’ research indicates that images of athletes in swimsuits like those that appear in the Swimsuit Edition lead young viewers to feel bad about their own bodies. In addition, when female athletes appear in swimsuits, people perceive the athletes as less competent and less likely to be good role models.  Far from improving gender equity, viewing the photos in the Swimsuit Edition results in negative outcomes for girls and women.

Instead of adding to the gender equity problem by publishing photos of athletes and models in swimsuits, greater coverage of female sports would be one way Sports Illustrated could directly contribute to achieving gender equity. Soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe has complained that lack of media coverage is one of the biggest threats to women’s sports, and research has shown that women’s sports tend to be underrepresented in the media, including Sports Illustrated.

One study which examined 245 covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN, from 2012 to 2016 found women athletes appeared on just 10% of the covers. And not only did the female athletes appear on fewer covers than male athletes, but these cover women were also more likely to be shown in sexually objectifying poses, in scantily clad clothing and with seductive eye gazes. The male athletes were often depicted in their team uniforms and playing their sport.

 “When we look at the scant media coverage we have of female athletes, and then layer in that female athletes are more likely than male athletes to be sexually objectified in their coverage, then we have a compounded problem,” says Daniels.  She explains that because there is so little coverage of female athletes, when these athletes are objectified, the objectified images tend to stand out even more.

Sports Illustrated says they are still in the process of selecting a non-profit organization that they will be supporting from a portion of proceeds from the Swimsuit Edition. Certainly, any effort to direct money toward gender equity causes is a positive step. But, when the money is earned from objectification of women, then the contribution becomes more problematic. Certainly, Sports Illustrated could do more to directly help raise the visibility of female athletes and to raise the visibility of female sports, while reducing the objectification of women.

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