Does the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue have a place in the #MeToo era?

The <em>Sports Illustrated</em> swimsuit issue is up for debate in the #MeToo era. (Photo: Ben Watts/Sports Illustrated)
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is up for debate in the #MeToo era. (Photo: Ben Watts/Sports Illustrated)

Danielle Herrington becoming the third black model to cover the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is an important milestone, but the magazine has triggered a debate over whether the sexy tradition is necessary in the first place.

According to a story published by the Associated Press Friday, “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day says that even though the issue was conceived and shot before the #MeToo movement heated up last fall, it’s about more than just women in swimsuits. Day says the magazine is ‘creating and giving platforms to these women’ and presenting them as multidimensional people.”

Additionally, an interior feature called “In Her Own Words: SI Swimsuit Models Celebrate More Than Just Their Bodies” shows Paulina Porizkova, Olympian Aly Raisman, Hunter McGrady, Robyn Lawley, and Sailor Brinkley Cook posing nude with words like “love,” “truth,” and “power” written on their bodies.

The project, explains SI, is “a platform that allows the voice, the strength and the passion of these women to be expressed in the rawest form … on the naked body … with all the artistic and creative control left to them.”

Each model also penned an essay on the meaning of her chosen words — for example, of “confidence” and “worthy,” McGrady wrote of her path to self-acceptance as a plus-size model.

But lots of people on social media skewered the magazine for a seemingly tone-deaf presentation in light of #MeToo, the anti-sexual-harassment movement. Some debated whether getting naked was empowering or sexually exploitive. And still others asked why nudity was perceived as antifeminist.

However, Day maintains that the new issue, created by an all-female team, was designed precisely with #MeToo in mind. Last week, the long-time editor told Vanity Fair, “It’s about allowing women to exist in the world without being harassed or judged regardless of how they like to present themselves. That’s an underlying thread that exists throughout the Swimsuit Issue. You have Harvard graduates, you have billion-dollar moguls, you have philanthropists, you have teachers, you have mothers — you have a full range of women represented in the alumnus of this magazine, and not one of them failed because they wore a bikini.”

Day also explained in her editor’s letter that the issue is politically charged: the Caribbean location desperate for hurricane relief; the “powerful and poignant” Raisman, who represented sexual assault survivors of the Olympic abuse trial; the models’ diverse bodies and age ranges.

The reaction to the Sports Illustrated cover is not unlike what happened in January when “Despacito” Grammys performer Zuleyka Rivera was scorned for her sexy dance during an event that placed so much emphasis on feminism and the #TimesUp movement. The backlash, Margaret L. Signorella, a professor of psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University, previously told Yahoo Lifestyle, was indicative of a burden placed on women to uphold sexual standards. “We’re still implicitly assuming that women are responsible for ensuring men don’t get out of control with their sexual emotions,” she said.

And the women of SI have a very different take than the majority of commenters on social media — on Friday, they all proudly posted outtakes from the shoot on their social channels.

“A woman does not have to be modest in order to be respected,” wrote Day in her editor’s letter. “There is beauty in not holding back. In confidence. In perseverance. In strength of will as well as strength of body.”

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