Categorized | Women in Sports

A Picture and 1,000 Words

Ann Simonton in 1974, Kathy Ireland in 1989 and Bar Refaeli in 2009 (Sports Illustrated)

What Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue says about women and sports.


With her back to the camera, Ann Simonton placed her hands on the back of her head and turned to look over her left shoulder. She smiled into the lens as waves lapped against the shoreline behind her. When this image was selected as the cover of the January 28, 1974 edition of Sports Illustrated, all that was added aside from the prestigious name was a headline that read “What’s New Under The Sun.” Simonton had become a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model, her eyes staring out seductively from the front of one of the most famous magazines in the world. These days though, Simonton lives a life that’s the polar opposite of models in bikinis on exotic beaches. She quit the modelling industry in 1979 and later founded Media Watch, a non-profit operating out of Santa Cruz, Calif., that scrutinizes the images of women on TV, radio and in print and digital media.

“It was just a typical job,” she said in an interview conducted by telephone. “I got a lot of fan mail [after the magazine came out] that I didn’t usually get, and it was clearly sexual attention. I got letters from males aged 12 to 80. It’s a pure masturbation fantasy, and to call it anything else is a joke.”

The swimsuit issue, which was published for the first time in January 1964, has long been a subject of contention in the American sports world. Sports Illustrated regularly contains some of the finest pieces of sports writing around and is one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, but it has always faced criticism that the swimsuit issue is exploitative. The idea was conjured up in the sixties by the then editor Andre Laguerre, who wanted something to fill the months between the Super Bowl and the start of the baseball season. The 1964 edition featured a small five-page layout, but this gradually increased until swimsuit models were granted a whole issue to themselves in 1997.

The swimsuit issue has been accused of many things over the years, chiefly of sending raunchy material through the letterbox of people who subscribed to a sports magazine. But what’s its impact been on the way sports are covered? When you consider that only 4 percent of SI’s covers since the sixties have featured female athletes, the question has to be asked as to how much this is linked to the existence and continued success of the swimsuit issue.

Pamela Laucella is the academic director at the National Sports Journalism Center, which operates out of Indiana University. She said that when female athletes are featured on the cover of the magazine, it’s usually those who are considered “attractive” anyway. “Sports Illustrated needs more women on the cover,” she said, “and more articles about women in the magazine. These articles also need to be positioned more towards the front than the back.”

Laucella thinks there is some link between the glamorous, Barbie-doll image of women in the swimsuit issue and the way in which women’s sports are covered. “The media re-enforces and presents a certain ideal of female beauty,” she said. “The swimsuit issue plays with that too. It’s a magazine about sports, but [the models] are clearly not swimming, just women in bikinis. When female athletes are covered, you have to ask yourself – ‘Is this about power, athleticism and strength? Or are female athletes shot featured in a different way to the men?’”

That sentiment is shared by Ann Simonton, who goes even further. “Overall, the real problem is that women can’t be athletic and only athletic,” she said. “Sports Illustrated is rightly given flack for not having women on the cover, and the way in which the media portrays female athletes is a huge problem.”

Earlier this year, Olympic gold medal-winning skier Lindsey Vonn was featured in a multi-page photo spread in the swimsuit issue. Vonn was pictured posing in a sauna, ski chalet and by a rescue helicopter, all whilst wearing various bikinis. On various websites, there was great debate between those who thought it was another blow to female athletes being taken seriously and people for whom this was just a piece of harmless fun – a good looking athlete showing off what she’s got. Ann Simonton was more concerned by what she saw online.

“You can go on YouTube and watch a behind the scenes video of the Lindsey Vonn photo shoot, put together by Sports Illustrated,” she said. “She talks about how much fun the shoot was and how she’s so excited to be given the opportunity to do it, and this is really important to the powers that be. That’s the part that’s important. There’s no blame, and no-one takes responsibility for the issues. These women need to understand that we’re all affected by their capitulation.”

Click here to watch the behind the scenes video of Lindsey Vonn’s photoshoot.

For Simonton, the responsibilities lie less with the women who are just models and more with female athletes who choose to pose in a revealing way for photo shoots. “When I was a model, I was always amazed that they’d pay me just to stand there,” she said. “’You want to pay me to go to Puerto Rico? Sure’. So I can understand models – it’s not their responsibility. But someone like Lindsey Vonn needs to be told that her images in the media do have consequences.”

Not everyone is convinced by this link between the swimsuit issue and a difference in female athletic coverage, however. Le Anne Schreiber is a former ESPN ombudsman and edited the sports section of the New York Times as well as a women’s sports magazine during the 1970s. She’s not sure that a direct link can be traced from the swimsuit issue to the unpopularity of women’s sports in the media.

“The state of women athletes in male magazines is comparable with male athletes in female ones,” she said. “A female athlete in a non-women’s sports magazine is going to have to have crossover status into the general popular culture. It’s the same for a male athlete on the cover of GQ or Vanity Fair.”

Watch an interview with Simonton from the film

Simonton disagrees, saying that a discussion comparing male and female athletes in non-sports magazines “becomes invalid when you say that there’s a level playing field. There’s simply no equality between male and female athletes, so any discussion comparing them is pointless.”

Schreiber does concede, however, that with female athletes “most of the time achieving that crossover status has a lot to do with their looks. Sports Illustrated is a sports magazine – a good sports magazine – but it’s also a men’s magazine. Its advertising is geared towards men. ESPN, for example, makes the revenue that it does because it can guarantee the delivery of that affluent male audience.

“It’s always been a men’s magazine,” Schreiber said. “Good sports journalism delivers a male audience. It’s not often a female audience, it just isn’t. And that male audience has never shown an interest in female sports, but they have shown an overwhelming interest in the sexualized female body.”

But what does that male audience have to say? Before Jeff Pearlman became a Sports Illustrated writer and blogger, he was a subscriber. He doesn’t like the fact that bikini shoots appeared in his sports magazine.

“There’s always been something regal about Sports Illustrated,” he said. “It’s a great magazine with fantastic writers and photographers. I’ve always put them up on a pedestal and I feel they stoop down once a year, and they shouldn’t.”

According to CNBC’s Business Model: Inside The SI Swimsuit Issue, seven percent of Sports Illustrated’s total advertising revenue for 2009 was generated by its bikini-based franchise, but a magazine spokesman would not provide the revenue figures. Pearlman says this is why it’s not going away any time soon. “From a business point of view I understand it,” he said, “but I never subscribed to SI to see women in bikinis. Penthouse and Maxim are okay, you know where you stand with that kind of magazine. But Sports Illustrated lowers itself for one week a year. I never thought the issue was devilish, far from it. I’ve just always thought that it’s not worth the SI brand.”

But to academics who study these things in greater detail, the swimsuit issue’s culture and characteristics are often troubling. Laurel Davis is the author of The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated, a book which discusses at length the sociology behind the swimsuit issue. She thinks that there are worrying trends afloat around the issue.

“The women of color who are featured in the swimsuit issue are still very much token,” she said, “and when they are featured they’re Anglicized to a high degree. Their hair will be straightened, for example, and they don’t have large facial features.”

Davis also critiques what she sees as men marking their masculinity through sports. “As women have been getting more equality, they’ve taken over more gender neutral roles in the workplace, for example,” she said. “As that goes on, there’s less and less that men can do to mark their masculinity. One of the remaining ways is through particular forms of sports – football and hockey, not soccer or figure skating.” The swimsuit issue, according to Davis, is an institution that reinforces gender stereotypes, but it’s a product of the society we live in. “Sports Illustrated’s not been leading anything,” she said. “I see it rather as a reflection of what’s going on in wider society. It reinforces and publicizes gender stereotypes, but at the same time it emerges from and is influenced by them.”

So should we consider Sports Illustrated as a men’s magazine to be considered alongside Maxim and GQ and give up any notion of it being this semi-mythical, even-handed sports magazine that goes out of its way to cover sports from unique angles? Davis says that idea of SI as the holy grail of sports writing is one of the main reasons the swimsuit issue has always drawn so much negative attention, and continues to today. “There are all these sexualized images everywhere now, but SI is still a huge deal,” she said. “Why is Nike targeted almost solely regarding large corporations exploiting labor all over the world? Nike is symbolic in the same way that the SI swimsuit issue is hugely symbolic. Pornography’s purpose is explicitly sexual. SI’s is sports, at least officially. It’s the placement that’s objectionable to a lot of people.”

Beez Schell, who has conducted research on women in sports at SUNY Fredonia, says that in a contest between money and old-fashioned morals, there’s only ever going to be one winner. “If those images help them reach that bottom line, well [the publishers] just stay happy,” she said. “They just don’t seem to be willing to take the moral high ground and stop doing the swimsuit issue and all the hype that goes along with it leading up to its release.”

So the swimsuit issue still divides opinion to this day. Ann Simonton goes as far as to say that it’s “part of the sex industry, in terms of churning out what’s acceptable as a woman’s role.” But Pearlman thinks that campaigners like Simonton would be better off fighting battles against bigger issues. “It’s a million, zillion times less shocking than it was fifteen years ago,” he sighed. “So I don’t really know why anyone cares anymore. But they do.”

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