Feb 21st, 2018, 01:53 PM

Sports Illustrated Advocating For Women's Empowerment?

By Teresa Segovia
Image credit: Flickr / xenonanon
"The movement isn’t trying to take away a woman’s sexuality, but these images sexualize the #MeToo movement"

It seems as though part of the world is openly recognizing the ethical implications of explicitly monetizing the male gaze. Is the solution to now profit off of feminist ideals? Plastering "feminist" words on women's naked bodies does not nullify the male gaze, it perpetuates it while pretending to evolve with the rest of the world. 

Such were the reactions to Sports Illustrated's 2018 Swimsuit Issue, where they created a collection of photographs and essays by different models and athletes: In Her Own Words. The series of photographs featured naked women with words of their choice written across their bodies. They describe this as "a continuation and evolution of the essence of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. It 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."

The problem with their phrase is the continuation. While pretending to be part of a movement, they fail to recognize that one of the first things about the women's movement is change, not continuation. For the past couple of years, the media has focused on women’s rights and empowerment, a term used so broadly and frequently in popular culture it may have lost meaning for some.

Women's empowerment should never solely focus on an individual experience, such as this campaign portrays, it should promote equality for all. If sexualizing and exploiting the female body is profitable and a common practice, what does it mean to commodify feminist ideals? The irony of a magazine which profits mostly on selling images of sexualized women's bodies, profiting out of making women's bodies "canvases" on which "feminist" words can be written, is preposterous. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, MJ Day, editor of the Swimsuit Issue, said she sees connections between the #MeToo movement and her own work. “It’s about allowing women to exist in the world without being harassed or judged regardless of how they like to present themselves,” she said.

Nonetheless, this series of photographs ultimately sexualizes the women's movement and portrays a very narrow-minded outlook on what #MeToo stands for as a whole. That's not to say that the women who participated should be judged for this; no woman should ever be judged based on whatever she chooses to do with her body on her own terms. The issue here is, how is this actually helping the women's movement on a larger scale? The sentiments and ideas these women put forth with this project are well-intentioned, and, as an individual experience, these women claim to be fulfilled. Nonetheless many aspects of the ideals for all women's equality seem to be ignored, and the diversity of the models featured Sports Illustrated is very low. Only three black women have been selected for the coveted Swimsuit Issue cover. The first issue came out in 1964.

It is also important to consider how women feel about this issue. When asked, Natalie Gates a political science student at Sciences Po, said, "One dimension of female empowerment is recognition of the beauty in all bodies, and the encouragement to love the body we each have. But I would argue that in the male-dominated society we live in, in wake of the #MeToo movement, and the revelations of men tormenting and demeaning women, a dimension of greater weight is de-sexualizing women. More specifically, that men see women not as sex objects first, but for their humanity.

"The movement isn’t trying to take away a woman’s sexuality, but these images sexualize the #MeToo movement. Considering the audience is predominantly men, I fail to see how this encourages men to see the human in a woman before her sex. Moreover, the exploiting a movement as a theme for one of the most profitable sales of a magazine is rather disgusting. As a medium for men, this opportunity could have been taken to educate the readers, but it was a swing and a miss. These images just perpetuate women as sex objects."

As for the actual photographs, it is both interesting and disconcerting to a see a woman's body being used as a literal physical platform - a canvas, as they describe it - to be written on in order to get a message across, rendering the body as an object and ultimately defeating the purpose of their piece. The juxtaposition of being naked and exposed in contrast with generic and "strong" words written across their bodies can be understood as an individual expression of views rather than a political statement in the name of women everywhere.