The Sport Illustrated Swim Issue is to Female Empowerment What the Measles Outbreak is to Vaccine Choice

Sports Illustrated swim issue cover model Hannah Davis has been busy playing defense regarding her racy cover shot. During several recent interviews she has said people criticizing the magazine’s cover are “anti-feminist” and “overanalytic”. She says the image is “empowering” and that the backlash is “silly”.

Her full, somewhat hard-to-follow comment is: “There’s controversy every year, so I think it’s kind of just silly that they’re making it out to be the big thing; I mean it’s the swimsuit issue. There are far more scandalous pictures in the magazine if you open it up. It’s a girl in a bikini, and I think it’s empowering; I’ve been hearing it’s degrading. I think the people who are saying that aren’t feminists, because I think when you’re a woman and you look at that picture and if you overanalyze it as anything more than just a full picture, it’s just silly to me.”

Read our post “Add To Your Grocery List Some Mainstream Porn” on why this cover matters to your family.

This empowerment thing – we need to discus this.

At the end of the day this really works out well only for Hannah Davis. For the rest of us, it is one more drip in the toxic bucket girls and women everywhere are forced to slop around.

What bothers me most about this statement from Hannah Davis is a very clear lack of media training before the big publicity blitz for this money-making issue. Sports Illustrated is leaving Davis to do her own PR work for a knowingly controversial cover, hence the “year of the torso” comment we got from the TODAY Show interview and the nonsensical quote we see above. Maybe Davis was given on-point media sound bites prior to SI trotting her all over the media and she chose not to use them, but it certainly feels like SI hung her out to dry like a wet string bikini. Is it empowering for SI to leave this young woman to weather the storm of public opinion over the exploitative revealing of her mons pubis on the cover of a mainstream magazine while they rake in millions and millions in sales?

Don’t get me wrong, I like that we are hearing Davis’ voice and thoughts as it serves to humanize the objectified body we see on the cover. But Davis shouldn’t have to defend her choice to work in her professional industry, nor should she have to defend her desire for her hot, fresh career to sit on the modeling equivalent of a rocket launch pad while she is still hot and fresh. Davis is not a stupid woman and she knows exactly what this will do for her name and net worth. Davis gave up being a star tennis player on the junior circuit for a career in modeling, and she has said that being as SI swim cover girl was a lifelong dream of hers. Davis would have grown up watching a dozen other SI swim issue cover models become household names, successful businesswomen, television stars, and international icons of beauty and sexiness – who wouldn’t want to follow the same track?

In all honestly, I feel for Hannah Davis and some of the flack she is getting. This is an enormous moment and she most likely wants people to be happy and excited for her. While it is true she is a participant in a problematic industry, she didn’t create the cultural framework in which a woman who looks the part can buy in to the patriarchal bargain and become a sex object in order to make a power grab for her future. Davis is being individually attacked online and mocked publicly for the cover image, but at the end of the day she’s a 24-year-old woman trying to make a name for herself in a society that demands she do exactly what she is doing.

Davis didn’t create the rules to the game, she’s just playing by them. Sadly she feels empowered by them and downplays the peddling of her sexuality as a commodity because she knows if she doesn’t do it, the next girl in line will. The young women who are willing to go the furthest for the male gaze achieve the most fame, and this celebrity and wealth then becomes confused with modern female empowerment.

The swim issue has nothing to do with female empowerment and everything to do with the male gaze and profit margins, to the tune of 7% of SI’s total annual earnings. The swim issue sells ten times the number of copies as a regular SI issue. This glossy semi-nude empire earns the magazine $1 billion. The secondary merchandise tier of calendars, videos, digital media like screen saves and television documentaries bring in an additional $10 millon. In fact, these bikini-clad bodies also boost tourism at shoot locations by as much as 30% as well as become a golden-tanned ticket for the bikini and jewelry designers featured on the models. And each year, the swim issue has to get racier and racier in order to stay relevant, controversial, and titillating all at once.

To say there is A LOT of money riding on the bared bodies of these beauties is an understatement. The problem is, a very small percent of that windfall goes into the bank accounts belonging to the women whose bodies brought those profits in for businesses owned by men. In that regard, SI is similar to a really crappy pimp.

And this is where I have to depart in opinion with Ms. Davis. If this were true female empowerment, SHE would be the one earning $1 billion+ from her body. In actuality, the models get paid very little for this gig and are expected to monetarily capitalize on the publicity and job offers that roll in. This system was established by female SI swim editor Jule Campbell, who fought to have the models names published on the cover alongside their photo just like the sports stars. When I first read that sentence while doing research for this piece I thought “Hell yeah!” The following sentence said this was done in order to keep the model’s day rates low. Oh hell no. The models are encouraged/expected to find ways on their own to cash in on the favor SI just did them. Classy. For example, beauty icon Cheryl Tiegs earned$125.00 for her 1983 SI swim cover. Today, that translates to $297.11.

As a business woman, I really hope Davis cashed a check for more than $300. As a feminist, I really wish these women would stop acting with a “lowest common denominator complex”, band together, and demand their bodies and commercialized sexuality is worth a whole lot more than a few hundred bucks. Case in point, I interviewed a stripper once who told me she had trouble earning extra money on the side during her shifts because she can no longer get $50 for oral sex in the private rooms when the girl next to her is prostituting the whole rodeo for $20. This just isn’t good economics. (Ladies, for myriad reasons, we are often our own worst enemy.)

So while Hannah Davis will most likely follow in the profitable footsteps of the beach babes who came before her and went on to lucrative corporate endorsements, modeling jobs, and business start-ups, at the end of the day this only works out well for Hannah Davis. For those of us who aren’t Hannah Davis, it is one more drip in the toxic bucket girls and women everywhere are forced to slop around.

The constant and continued sexualized objectification of females in the media carries forward a massive list of societal ills for the rest of us who have to live in a culture that is skewed and altered by the acceptance of men’s entitlement over women’s bodies.  And if a woman says anything else to the contrary, well then shut that “bitch” up. From the spectrum of passive-aggressive “oh not you too, feminatzi” comments to gender based violence and murder, when a woman is not allowed by her society to advocate the idea that a woman’s body belongs to her and holds value as a full human being we’ve got big trouble.

We are the ones who have to deal with: sexualized and stereotyped girlhoods, split-second decisions on how to handle street harassment, achieve higher education during an epidemic of campus rape, earn a living while being valued less than our male colleagues, suffer the lion’s share of domestic violence, victimization from revenge porn, fend of the crush of beauty norms from the media, fend off rape and death threats on social media for saying words, protest legislation against our bodies, attempt to keep in tack a sense of healthy sexuality with our partners who are inundated with images of what a woman “should” look like, and somehow maintain a level of self worth through all this lifelong bullshit.

Friend, that’s quite the load for our sisters and daughters to bear.

Hannah Davis should not be our Typhoid Mary, but she and her cover-worthy private parts can serve as the canary in a coal mine just like the recent measles outbreak did for vaccine safety and herd immunity. Hannah Davis no more created these problems for women than vaccine free families created measles. Hannah Davis most likely doesn’t want to see girls and women hurt, just has vaccine free families don’t want other children to get sick. But just like not vaccinating children fails to remain a personal choice because it impacts the health and safety to all those around them, so too does the participation by women in their own sexual objectification and sexual commodification for massive profit to men build risk and inevitable harm to girls and women everywhere.

We seem to have caught on quickly to the issues and risks of not vaccinating our population. It appears we now understand the concept that herd immunity provides a protective ring around those most vulnerable. Maybe when we learn to see the hustling of female sexuality and bodies as a public health and safety issue, we’ll learn to  inoculate ourselves against that as well.

Immunization

Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: www.pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).