On Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, tattoos and other not so secret displays of self

As a devout liberal and Progressive thinker, I’m all for people being and doing what they want with their bodies. Yet something in me recoils at the manufactured imagery of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Or for that matter, the airbrushed models in Playboy.

The calculations and thought that goes into these supposedly sexy female images ultimately should ultimately leave one cold. Anything that calculatedly titillating should be a turnoff because it is manipulative.

SI Swimsuit coverPredictably, this year’s SI Swimsuit cover shows a gal pulling her suit down to the point where the male eye naturally gravitates. You have to figure a ton of planning went into that cover. It is designed to sell magazines. Lots of magazines.

In fact there’s a whole culture built around SI swimsuit covers. The swimsuit issue alone has generated more than  $1B for Time, Inc. That’s a ton of money.

Actually, that’s a lot of money for a topic concentrated on so little fabric.

So we must ask: what does it really represent? At one point Sports Illustrated might have faintly claimed that it was celebrating women’s fitness. Okayyy…we saw through that one. Yes the girls were fit in most respects. But it doesn’t take much effort to stand in the surf and pull down your bikini bottoms or hold your own bare breasts. That might burn 1 calorie at most.

That left one alternative. The Sports Illustrated issue was actually about showing half-naked girls. Surprise! From the point at which Cheryl Tiegs wore that mesh swimsuit and nipples became part of the public lexicon, Sports Illustrated never looked back. It stopped apologizing or pretending it was about anything other than soft porn. And the public loved it. They even purchaed videos about the Making of the Sports Illustrated edition.

Meanwhile the models appearing in the edition went on to stardom in movies. Smart women such as Kathy Ireland leveraged their exposure into real business success. That sort of lets Sports Illustrated off the hook in terms of accusations of exploitation.

There’s money in it
VS Sandy ButtBut it’s also proof of the idea that there is money in sex, and the free market’s ability to exploit it. That fact puts modern day conservatives in something of a moralistic bind. The man or woman who is both socially and fiscally conservative is forced to reconcile the free market’s support for public nudity with a moral obligation to prevent women from exposing and exploiting their bodies. What’s a conservative to do?

Because it’s not a far leap from the soft porn of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition to a justification for the entire pornography industry. Forbes estimates the yearly revenue of the porn industry at between $3B and $4B in revenues.

But for all its supposed revenue-generating capacity, there is an entire set-aside in the porn industry of willing participants that do not get paid much, if anything, for posting their own naked pictures online. All it takes to participate in that game is an account on a site such as Imgur or Reddit and the world is your mirror.

Eternal fascination

There’s an interesting spectrum of needs going on here. There is the eternal fascination among men with the nude female body. Yet there seems to be an equal or at least parallel audience among women who comparatively or competitively view themselves through these images.

Some blame the loosely-defined “sex industry” for manufacturing these ideas of self-exploitation and opportunities to do it. But that’s not the whole answer is it? From the Sports Illustrated models who make good money appearing in swimsuits to the girls who post .gifs on Reddit looking for feedback (or compliments) about her body, there is a need to see and be seen.

At its most basic levels there are a number of explanations to this phenomenon. There is the simple recognition that youth is flirting and temporary. A girl or gal exposing themselves for attention might just be curious and horny at the same time. Exhibitionism is not that complex an emotion. It’s a desire to be needed. Yet there’s also the probability of the sub-conscious at work. Youth is fleeting, as is plain desirability. Fitness is also fleeting. Hence all those photos of guys and girls in their workout clothes, showing tight abs and equally tight butts. There’s a reason why there are so many mirrors at the health club. People dress up to work out and dress down to appreciate it.

Oh you pretty things

VS Suit FrilledHence the allure of company’s such as Victoria’s Secret. The company makes clothing that makes women feel pretty. Some never care to share what they wear under there. Others enjoy the flair of public underwear, and the dare. It’s very much a game of hide and seek. Yet Victoria’s Secret is a $10B company. And that’s no secret. You can argue all you want about the morality of the products the company sells. People like what they deliver.

Perhaps that’s an expression of the fact that feeling sexy is not just about looking sexy after all. Not everyone that puts on a set of panties or a bra from Victoria’s Secret will looks like one of the “angel” models hired to market the brand. Everything about the marketing hints at the taboo. And yet, Victoria’s Secret has responded to its intended audience by introducing swimwear and underthings that visually enhance a women’s body no matter her breast size or other attributes. There’s a real practicality to so much of what they sell. And that, perhaps, is the real secret to their success. Pretty practicality.

Alternatives

VS Dressing roomCertainly there are quite a few men that shop at Victoria’s Secret on hopes of fulfilling their fantasy of seeing their women in attractive underwear. But it’s just as true that men who like to cross-dress will purchase items from Victoria’s Secret as well.

The formerly taboo is now open for consideration on many fronts in society. Some claim it symbolizes the downfall of culture and a sinking of morality toward base desires. Others see the current progressive state of society as a move toward honesty and empowerment. At its broadest definition, culture is expressing the full range of liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. In other words, live and let live.

The new empowerment

Not all agree on the subject of course. Some see pornography and sexploitation as a limiting factor on women’s right’s and equality. Others view the right of women to show their bodies as they wish as a real expression of those rights.

A mother raising a daughter to think independently faces some interesting challenges among all these scenarios. Do we accept our bodies for what they are? Or do we try to imitate those images found in Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret?

Into this mix comes a new model for self-empowerment. More women than ever are now participating in endurance sports such as running, riding and swimming. Learning from an early age what a body can do, and how to keep fit and manage weight to the best of one’s ability are vital tools for women. These are ultimately empowering methods of healthy self-image. Middle school and high school programs in cross country and track are attracting increasing numbers of girls to an egalitarian sport where effort equates to self esteem. Triathlons are also giving women of all ages the opportunity to take control of their own bodies.

Tats and all

IMG_8337But we should not leave out the art of existence, either. Which perhaps explains  why so many women now choose to get tattoos. And… just like the underwear manufactured by Victoria’s Secret, some tattoos are private and some are worn quite publicly.

Tattoos were once the province of sailors and servicemen. The once-regrettable choice to get fuzzy ink images injected into one’s skin has evolved into a massively creative industry where anything is possible when it comes to ink and skin. There are an estimated 15,000 tattoo “parlors” in the United States accounting for about $2B in business. “Tats” are now everywhere, and on people of all ages. They align with the overall commitment to confront (and own) one’s body image in the larger culture. Athletes do seem to enjoy this type of personal branding. Getting tattoos is like writing the book of your life and then showing it off.

Where are that tats among the tits?

Interestingly, neither the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition nor Victoria’s Secret has shown a model with tattoos on its pages. Perhaps it is the fact that tattoos represent independence and ownership of a body by something other than the viewer places tattoos out of the picture. Most likely it is an airbrush job that keeps it that way.

What both Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret sell is the notion of availability. A woman in skimpy clothes looks available. That’s what makes the argument over what constitutes rape so difficult for some people to discern. The classic question: If a man rapes a woman for wearing sexy outfits, was she asking for it? Of course not. But that’s where moralists have such a hard time making sense of sex in culture.

Perceptions

VS teeny TriIt’s obvious from all this exposure and self-elective display that many women want to be perceived as attractive or even sexy. Yet they also do not want undeserved attention. Women training in sports bras or booty shorts often face street harassment. It can be difficult for anyone to know where to draw the line.

That’s why the most conservative cultures in the world force women to cover up their bodies and even their head or face. These cultures resist the Western ideal of objectifying women and force women to hide as a result.

But here’s the irony: both radically conservative and radically liberal cultures place their own claims of ownership on women. Conservative zealots demand strict control of the social persona through law. Liberal western cultures (especially Americans) flaunt women sexually (or strictly) for money.

Amongst this madness women are at once both competitive and appreciative toward each other. That can really confuse the issue, but especially the male mind seeking justification (or an excuse) for a prurient attitude towards women.

Swimsuits united

VS Women in WaterSo Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret are perfect symbols for the contradictory social memes inherent to American society. We love to celebrate our high moral standards yet we love our base desires even more. The once staid and dependable, Sports Illustrated, documentarian of all things athletic, now reflects the moralistic challenges faced by the nation as a whole.

We love to hide our desires in conventionalities. With even the conservative media trotting pretty women out to report the news, it appears we’re having a very public debate about what America truly values. Is it actual honesty and truth about the role of women in society that we’re seeking? Or is it some sort of backwards commentary about what it means to be empowered?

And most importantly, are the rules for competing in society fixed against women before they even play the game?  

One wonders. Certainly the fact that no women golfers seem to make the cover of Golf Digest magazine suggests that there are perceptions that no matter how good women get at the game of golf, they don’t deserve to be on the cover.

The long run

VS women's marathonIn many quarters of the sporting world, women still have a long way to go when it comes to be taken seriously as athletes, and as people. Fortunately in sports such as distance running and triathlon where women frequently compete on the same courses and at the same time as men, there is growing respect for the idea of women as equals, and more. There is also an absolute at work. The times run by women can be directly compared to men. There is no escaping the quality of their efforts. No false judging based on looks or body type. Women are putting it out there and letting their feet do the talking. In running. In cycling. In swimming. In triathlons.

Liberal dose of maturity

PreI admit I learned a lot of things from Sports Illustrated as a kid. At one point the magazine wrote a tremendously informative article on long distance running and running form. I took that article to heart and built my entire career around the advice in it. That’s a life-changing bit of journalism. They also did a cover story on Pre. And then writer and Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore contributed all those great stories on runners like Lasse Viren and more.

I also remember getting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and retreating to the bedroom to do what most boys do with magazines like that. Maybe that’s what made me a liberal. But I doubt it.

Because as demonstrated by most patriarchal societies in the world, it is our more conservative instincts that actually turn women into objects, not the other way around. The most liberal cultures in the world accept nudity for both men and women as a fact of life. Nude beaches are no big deal. Women can safely move about without fear of being judged for their bodies. Because when everyone is nude, everyone is equal. That might be where we’re headed in America, toward a place where liberality becomes the great equalizer. It’s probably going to take a while.

In the meantime we’re left with the Big Tease of what the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition has to offer. But I think the girls should form a union, go on strike and ditch the swimsuits altogether. That would force the hand of Sports Illustrated. So to speak.

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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