The 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is here, and hype is buzzing around its historic inclusion of a so-called “plus size” model. But is that really a positive step forward for women?
SI’s swimsuit edition, a juggernaut which has earned a billion dollars for SI’s parent company Time, Inc., has been around for over 50 years. Its annual appearance sparks controversy. Its detractors rightly ask what itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikinis have to do with the wide world of sports. They complain that, like Victoria’s Secret, SI is promoting an unrealistic body ideal for women. They argue that the titillating cover makes the swimsuit edition barely distinguishable from the Playboy just a few magazines away at the newsstand.
On the latest one, for example, model Hannah Davis wears little more than a come-hither look; there is so much exposed flesh south of her belly button that the magazine very nearly qualifies as Gynecology Illustrated. It’s fair to say, as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation does, that the photo “normalizes genital display” and “borders obscenity.”
But this year SI seems to be throwing its critics a curve, so to speak, by featuring the first plus size model ever to appear in the swimsuit edition: Australian Robyn Lawley.
The term “plus-size” bears so little relation to reality as to be meaningless, and should be scrapped. In the fashion biz, it refers to models who are size 8 and up—but the average American woman is about a size 14. As Laura Beck puts it at Cosmopolitan: “At size 8, the plus-size models are considerably smaller than the average American women, and if that isn’t indicative of how delusional we are about what the majority of woman’s bodies look like, I don’t know what is.”
The 6’2” Robyn Lawley (a U.S. size 12) is no Kate Moss but she’s hardly overweight. “It’s ludicrous to call me plus size,” she wrote on Facebook. “I just consider myself a model because I’m trying to help women in general accept their bodies,” she has said elsewhere.
It was a struggle for the Amazonian Lawley not only to be accepted in an industry that treats women her size like lepers, but even to accept her own body. “When I started my career 10 years ago, I had to painfully go to castings and people would look at you and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” After years of extreme dieting, being sent home from casting sessions for not fitting the clothes, and hating her own body, Lawley found a modeling agent who told her, “‘You don’t need to lose any weight. You just need to be you. You’re perfect just as you are.’ You have no idea how happy and amazing that was to hear as a teenage girl. ACCEPTANCE.”
This revelation, and her perseverance, paid off with an extraordinary career and a string of awards and notable “firsts”: first plus-size model to be shot for Australian Vogue and GQ Australia; first Australian plus-size model on the cover of Australia Cosmopolitan; and first plus-size model to appear in a Ralph Lauren campaign, among others.
Nevertheless, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is, as she puts it, “a milestone”—not just for her but for the magazine’s inclusion of her and, in a Swimsuits for All ad, another plus size model. The ad depicts a bikinied Ashley Graham, whose size 16 curves so captivate a passing male admirer that he either trips or hurls himself into a nearby pool.
Thanks in no small part to the much-publicized SI appearances, Lawley, Graham, and other models burdened by the “plus size” label are becoming increasingly visible fashion role models for women who want to be considered sexy but who don’t measure up to the waifish images that usually populate magazines and advertisements.
Yes, the swimsuit issue blatantly panders to Sports Illustrated’s largely male readership, and the cover’s pushing-of-the-sexual-envelope is problematic. But with Lawley and Graham, at least SI appears to be making a concession to the growing calls for size diversity in modeling, and using its rather significant influence to begin to broaden our perspective on the feminine ideal and on what is sexy. It may be the beginning of the end for the limiting label “plus size.” That may not sound like a giant leap for womankind, but it’s a step in the right direction.