Female athletes gone missing: Sports Illustrated’s objectification of plus size women isn’t progress

The internet is abuzz with joy and celebration because the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue features plus size model, Ashley Graham, on its cover.


Isn’t this great, girls? Even if you aren’t skinny, you can pout doggy style in the surf! Yes, apparently, it’s true that even if you’re not a size zero, men will still want to fuck you. No worries, sweeties, you still have value in the world.

Maybe we can get a woman over 50 to pose in a bikini. Helen Mirren? Never mind that she’s a great actress, it’s her body we want to show off. What about a plus size woman of color? Now that would be a real leap towards equality.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Louisville found that out of 716 SI covers, all of them from the years 2000- 2011, only 35 featured a female athlete. Of those, only 11 featured a female athlete of color.

Despite females’ increased participation in sport since the enactment of Title IX and calls for greater media coverage of female athletes, women appeared on just 4.9 percent of covers. The percentage of covers did not change significantly over the span and were comparable to levels reported for the 1980s by other researchers. Indeed, women were depicted on a higher percentage of covers from 1954–1965 than from 2000–2011.

Do you see we’re going backwards here? Putting a plus size woman on the cover of the SI swimsuit issue isn’t any kind of progress.

When Serena Williams made the cover of SI in 2015 as sportsperson of the year, she was pictured in stilettos and a black body suit, one bare leg slung over a chair.


Some defended Serena’s cover claiming it’s important to show that a woman can be powerful and sexy. But for men, it is their skill that makes them attractive. For women athletes, if they happen to be “attractive” it is in spite of their talent, not because of it. Men’s bodies are valued for what they can do while women’s bodies are valued for how they appear.

If you’re going to tell me this sexism is just innate, tritely quoting: “Women use sex to get power, men use power to get sex,” listen to me carefully: People who are not in power learn to survive and be successful by pleasing those who are in power. That need is the only thing innate about reducing talented, skilled, brilliant women to body parts. Men, as a group, not individually, are able to stay running the world as long as women, as a group, stay weak.

Here is what I blogged in 2014:

Memo to the world: objectifying fat women is objectifying women

Just saw this from Buzzfeed on Miss Representation’s Facebook page:

Plus-size swimwear company Swimsuits for All set out to prove that “sexy curves go beyond a size four” by shooting its own swimwear calendar, including a picture reenacting this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.


Are you kidding me? Do you think I’d be any happier if my 3 daughters saw that picture in the Safeway checkout line instead of this one?


All right, maybe I’d be a smidgen happier that my kids wouldn’t have to see more starving women defined as beautiful, but my goals and expectations are so much higher than what this image from Swimsuits for All represents. I want to see images of women where they are not defined by their sexuality, by whether whomever is looking at them finds them sexy or not, where what they look like in bathing suits is not the be-all end-all, where who thinks they are attractive only matters in a very particular context, like when they are with someone who they love or want to have sex with.

Swimsuits for All is in the business of selling swimsuits. The company has got to sell its product, so posing women in the merchandise that it’s marketing makes sense. I’m not indicting the company, but pretending as if seeing this image all over the internet is liberating is ridiculous. Also, it might be nice to see the women swimming in their suits. What about playing volleyball on the beach? Building awesome sandcastles? Doing something? There could be a shot of a woman or two sunbathing, as long as the “aren’t I sexy” poses were not the dominant, ubiquitous ones.

I’ve written this for a long time, but “fat” women beauty contests don’t represent progress. Women no longer paraded as meat is progress.


Still confused or want to see more images to make this point? Please take a look at Reel Girl’s recent post: Why do men in America feel entitled to women? A gallery of reasons. You’ll see this famous painting by Manet (look she’s got fat rolls and she’s naked, isn’t that cool?) along with contemporary images of dressed men paired with naked women.


Fat girls wear bras too!

When plus size company Lane Bryant’s sexy TV ad was supposedly censored by ABC as inappropriate for “Dancing With the Stars” audiences, there were calls of hypocrisy. After all, TV networks don’t seem to have an issue showing lingerie ads for Victoria’s Secret (or even the much touted half naked extravaganza ‘Victoria’s Secret Special.”) Still, TV executives seemed to feel that fat girls shouldn’t show cleavage. Ironic, since big girls are more likely to have big breasts, but I guess natural is what’s offensive here.

Lane Bryant TV commercialABC is now denying it ever censored the ad. Lane Bryant still claims the ad was censored. Either way, I’m having trouble leaping on the feminist band wagon burning up the blogosphere defending this commercial and demanding it be aired. Fat women should be allowed to be objectified too, dammit! 

I had the same negative reaction when Mo’Nique hosted a fat girl beauty contest for TV. I didn’t think it was so awesome that large women were gaining entry into the world of the skinny, finally allowed to compete against each other so a panel of judges could decide who was the prettiest.

I was also bummed when “High School Musical” featured a fat cheerleader and everyone called that progressive and “so PC.” Cheerleaders are just bad for women. I don’t care if they’re fat or of color or have athletic skill. Being a cheerleader is the definition of being the sideshow, her role is to make the main event look good; she is not and never will be the star. Cheerleader obsession is like teen training ground for the perfect heterosexual relationship; it’s like wife school. The hot girl cheers on her talented guy, standing by her quarterback, loyally, faithfully, whether he wins or loses; her admiration is constant and her love is true.


Another recent example of fake feminist progress is Angelina Jolie’s much touted role Salt, originally written “for a guy,” a guy like Tom Cruise! Scott Mendelson wrote about EW’s self congratulatory cover story on how progressive the movie is on his blog. Mendelson has this quote from EW:

“In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt (the original male protagonist) saves his wife, who’s in danger,” says Noyce. “And what we found in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.”

Mendelson writes:

So, hidden in an article on how “Salt” is oh-so-empowering for female action heroes is this tidbit. The filmmakers believe that it was perfectly OK for the spouse to be rescued from mortal danger if said love interest was a girl, but not if the romantic partner was a man. Apparently, it’s great if the action hero is a girl, as long as she doesn’t have the opportunity to one-up any male counterparts or reverse the oldest cliche in the action-film handbook.

What a bummer. The supposedly feminist “Salt” remains safely within the gender boundaries of every classic Disney movie, and is it even possible to be “a little castrated?”

Update: Jezebel posts a leaked memo from ABC to Lane Bryant, showing that, contrary to its claims, the network did refuse to air the ad.

Second update: To the offended commenters, just like I tell my six year old, “fat” is not a bad word! Nor is “large” nor is “chubby.” People who are upset I used the word “fat” to describe the plus size model in the photo are reinforcing the values of a society that thinks one woman’s size is so preferable to another’s. And yes, of course size is relative, as is height, weight, age etc. Compared to certain groups of people, in various societies, the Lane Bryant model would not be fat or plus size.

Third update: Ashley Grant, the Lane Bryant model, says on ET she thinks her breasts were too big, bigger than the Victoria’s Secret models and that’s why her ad was censored.

I don’t watch “Dancing with the Stars” but seeing the clips on my TV right now, the costumes on those women look like my three year old got near them with her scissors; they’re missing whole sections.

While I was posting this story last night, Joy Behar was on TV with Pamela Anderson as a guest, showing clips of half dressed Pam doing splits, again and again, over her dance partner. If ABC censored big breasts during its cartoon hour, that would be one thing, but during “Dancing With the Stars” gives a whole new meaning to the term “double standard.”