What Does the ‘Sports Illustrated’ Cover Teach Our Kids?

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Photo by Ben Watts/Sports Illustrated 

Hannah Davis’ risqué Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover is a “dream come true” for her. But for the parents who now have to explain to their kids why the pretty lady is nearly taking off her bathing suit on a magazine — when some of those kids only recently learned to keep their clothes on at the playground — it’s a bit of a nightmare.

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The annual issue sparked controversy as soon as it was revealed on Wednesday, as it shows the 24-year-old model from the U.S. Virgin Islands sliding down a teeny bikini while standing, inexplicably, in the middle of a farm. A Washington Post piece, promptly asking if the cover goes “too low” with Davis’ bikini bottom, elicited a slew of condemning comments including: “Horrible message for young girls,” and “They should change the name to Sports Illustrated Playboy edition.” One commenter even accused the magazine of “contributing to the accelerating loss of innocence.” An Us Weekly poll reveals that 72 percent of their 12,000-plus voters consider the cover “porn.” And a similar survey on Yahoo Health found that 48 percent of respondents deem the cover “degrading.”

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“Confusing” is the term So Sexy So Soon co-author Diane Levin opts for. “Starting from young age, children are figuring out, ‘What does it mean to be a boy? What does it mean to be a girl?’” Levin, a professor of education in the Department of Early Childhood Education at Boston’s Wheelock College, tells Yahoo Parenting. Catching sight of all that skin, glorified on the newsstand at the grocery store, “becomes an important part of what they understand as to what it means to be girl and what people value,” she says. “It shows them girls are supposed to be pretty, and how you look is really important. It says, ‘Don’t think about what lies underneath, just focus on appearance. Being sexy is what’s valuable.’”

Sexualized images like the SI cover can pose a problem for young boys, too. “The research tells us that when young boys see women in this way, they begin to think of girls and women as objects instead of complex people with whom they can develop mutual relationships,” says Jennifer W. Shewmaker, author of Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children: Teaching Kids to be Smart.

Parents can combat these messages, Shewmaker tells Yahoo Parenting, by teaching kids to critique the media rather than just accept the images. Start by asking children questions about how such photos make them feel, she suggests. “When you see objectifying advertisements that focus on a woman’s body, you could ask your daughter, ‘How does that make you feel? How might it feel to be valued only for the beauty of your body? Don’t you want to be treated as a whole person, not just a body?” she says.

Then, she says, try pointing out examples of women acting as “agents” in media (such as pictures of female athletes participating in their sport versus posing in bikinis), and talk about which are more realistic. “The first depicts the athlete as an agent, pursuing her own agenda and focusing on her ability to make decisions and take actions that are self-affirming,” says Shewmaker. “The second depicts the athlete as an object for someone else’s pleasure.” The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example, she suggests, considering heroine Katniss acts as an agent in her own life. It could also be worth pointing out that SI cover girl Davis is a former Caribbean National Tennis Team champ, and was valedictorian of her high school class.

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Photo: Ben Watts/Sports Illustrated

With older kids, you can be more frank. “Explain to them that magazines and companies will often go to great lengths to make money,” psychoanalyst and WE series Sex Box panelist Dr. Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “Say, ‘These sexy photos are “a campaign to make money and you, child, are going to have to make a decision about whether such images value people’s feelings and self worth.’”

Just don’t lecture, she advises. To assure you’ll actually be heard, keep things matter of fact and speak from a voice of having been there, with advice such as, “’When sexuality is given away too easily or quickly, my daughter, it’s not valued in the precious way it deserves.’”

The psychological goal, after all, says Walfish, is “for each boy and girl each teen to come out on the other side of adolescence with their own opinion about character, morals and ethics.” In that way, regardless of how parents may feel about this particular cover, “It presents a golden learning opportunity,” she says.

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