There’s a lot of buzz right now about the fact that the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is running its first “plus size” ad. The breathless tone of the story seems to suggest that the rest of us of the female variety should be grateful. I have several problems with this.
First, hats off to Ashley Greene, the “plus size” model in question. She’s gorgeous. The suggestion that she (and therefore we, vicariously) should be grateful that she was finally chosen is insulting to her (and us) on several levels. By all measures of beauty, Ms. Greene is a knockout. To put the qualifier “plus size” before her name diminishes that.
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Adding “plus size” before the word “model” suggests that there’s s regular size and then something deviating from that norm. Unfortunately, the model-industrial complex (is that a thing? If it isn’t, it should be) has decided that the “norm” is a weight and a look that can only be achieved through freakish genetics and a lifestyle and eating habits widely confirmed to involve eating disorders and body shaming. Sure, the SI models tend to look a little curvier than their runway sisters (mostly due, however, to more suggestive posing than to any actual extra weight on them). But they draw directly from the unhealthy “norms” of the modeling industry: way too thin.
Even putting aside the fact that the modeling industry uses genetically unusual models, sets unhealthy standards for them and then airbrushes all semblance of realness away, in the end the big reward is… these women are seen as hot pieces of ass? Sure, that can get you far in our society – it can get you a rich rock star or athlete husband – but is that so great? Every year when the hype about the SI swimsuit issue happens, I feel a little twinge for all our daughters. We have an endless supply of fascinating, accomplished women (including athletes, should SI choose to feature them) but instead we take an issue to celebrate a narrow view of female “hotness.” Hotness is just a measure of how desirable a woman is to a man. How much of a pretty object she is. Yes, of course men should keep liking women and, one hopes, considering us hot. But an over-hyped issue of a magazine usually devoted to athletic achievement being instead dedicated to the objectification of non-athlete women simply for their decorative value is something that should have gone away in the bra-burning years.
Also, if I may point out, Sports Illustrated did not actually add a “plus size” model to its line-up. It took advertising dollars from a company who photographed Ashley Greene. I haven’t thumbed through this year’s issue (although, I’ll admit with shame that as a young woman I used to buy it every year and put up pictures of the impossibly gorgeous models on my refrigerator to keep myself from eating) but I’ll bet they took advertising dollars from a whole lot of other companies. The ads’ content does not reflect a change in SI swimsuit editorial policy.
So what does it matter if SI chooses this “groundbreaking” new development to drum up hype for its annual girlie magazine? Well, it matters a lot. It’s hard for young women to skim the news without seeing this headline up there beside the latest ISIS atrocities and news of world economic crises. It gives it a sheen of importance it does not, in fact, possess. It sets SI up as an arbiter not just of taste but also of standards of female beauty. It reinforces the corrosive notion that there’s a right shape for a body and a “plus size” shape. It makes it seem like a good thing that, now, not just overly thin women can be gawked at as objects, but that – look, how democratic! – we’ll even throw a bone to the “big” girls. It’s insulting and demeaning.
So is Ashley Greene beautiful? Undoubtedly. Is her inclusion in the SI swimsuit issue good for women? Not by a long shot.