Each year, shortly after we have made and already begun to break our New Year's resolutions, Americans become captivated by sports' most competitive contest. No I am not referring to the Super Bowl, but the contest for who will grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Landing the cover is supposed to be the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl of the modeling world (or something like that), credited with launching, or at least elevating, the careers of some of modeling's most famous and enduring names, among them Christie Brinkley and Tyra Banks. While it's arguable that it elicits very different reactions from men and women, with the New York Times describing it as "the dream book of adolescent males and the bane of feminists," I'm one feminist who believes that there's a lot for women to celebrate about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
This year's cover girl is Kate Upton, who before receiving the honor was best known for appearing on youtube doing the "Dougie." (If you are scratching your head asking, "What's the Dougie?" click here.) Now she's known as the next big thing. And I do mean big. Upton is not your typical model. Though her official weight is hard to pin down, there have been endless references to her "curves" which, let's face it, usually means cup size when referring to models, actresses and whatever it is that Kim Kardashian allegedly does for a living. But not in Upton's case. As one friend said refreshingly of Upton 'She's not your typical model... She will eat anything." Lengthy profiles in outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail have chronicled her management team's, seemingly uphill battle to establish her and her ample assets, in modeling's incredibly shrinking world, where a size 4 makes you chubby and a size 10 makes you borderline plus size.
Some of the vitriol aimed at Upton -- much of it by women no less -- reinforces the notion that even in the non-high fashion world of swimsuit and lingerie modeling, there is little tolerance for bodies that dare to look -- gasp! -- healthy and not borderline skeletal. Speaking of Upton, who has already drawn comparisons to legendary curvy (all over) beauties like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Neophitou, who helps cast the Victoria's Secret runway show said "We would never use" someone like Upton, describing her looks as comparable to those of the half-naked "glamour" models popular in European tabloids.
Underneath photos of Upton at her model heaviest -- which was still thinner than most of us -- anonymous commenters referred to her as a "cow." (No, I'm not joking.) Her own agent at A-list firm IMG has said that colleagues were initially against signing her, owing to her non-traditional look. Upton's triumph comes at an interesting time in the fashion world. Katie Halchishick, a former plus-size model, recently launched Natural Model Management. The agency specializes in models who are not plus-size or underweight but a healthy 6 to size 10. Halchishick was inspired after her own successful career as a plus-size model came to a screeching halt when she began dating a personal trainer and lost fifty pounds, and subsequently ended up losing most of her clients. Down to a healthy size 6 she found there were virtually zero opportunities for a model who was above a size 2 but below a size 14, a sentiment echoed by one of the few plus-size supermodels Crystal Renn.
Or should I say former plus-size supermodel? Renn, one of the few plus-size models to find mainstream success in high fashion magazines and with top designers, has struggled with the industry's mercurial weight specifications for years. She has openly discussed battling an eating disorder earlier in her career, but recently landed the ultimate validation that at her current weight, which is not stick-thin, but healthy, she looks absolutely fabulous. She appears alongside Kate Upton in the current issue of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Of the honor, Renn said, "I have been a double-zero to a 16 even, for a bit.... Now to settle at a [size] six or an eight, it's a really interesting place to be because there are very few sixes or eights." Her statement echoes those of one of the most famous supermodels ever. Cindy Crawford has expressed doubts that she, and some of her peers from the heyday of the "supermodel" in the 90's would have made it today, because most of them were a size 6.
And that's why I, speaking as a woman and a feminist, am actually a big fan of Sports Illustrated including its swimsuit issue. While the rest of the modeling world has increasingly celebrated body types that look like a 16-year-old girl's head placed on top of a 13-year-old boy's body, Sports Illustrated has continuously celebrated healthy female bodies. Before the eye-rolling begins, yes, I know that many of those bodies have had a lot more in common with Pamela Anderson than, say, Serena Williams, but Sports Illustrated has also featured a number of beautiful, healthy-looking female athletes in the swimsuit issue, along with a number of male athletes and their beautiful, healthy-looking wives. Some of my favorite photos over the years have featured these women, who don't look like supermodels, but do look beautiful, healthy, happy and like real people. Not some ridiculous, undernourished, overly airbrushed myth of what real people are supposed to look like. (Click here to see some of my favorites.)
Based on responses from teen girls regarding questions about their body image, it's arguable the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue could end up having the positive impact on young girls that the Dove real women campaign tried, but some in the industry, believe failed to. The responses illustrate that while teen girls consider most models underweight, they consider themselves overweight. Yet they would still rather look like the images they see in popular culture because while models may be underweight, they also seem glamorous, or at least their lives do. The Dove Real Women campaign exuded a lot of things -- confidence among them -- but glamour it did not.
So maybe, just maybe, seeing real women looking, happy, healthy and glamorous, bikini and all, may send a message to some girls and women that you don't have to be underweight and unhealthy to live a great, or in the words of Sheila E., "Glamorous Life."