The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue arrived last week in the mail, and there was Kate Upton, smiling distractedly, mouth open. She must have been cold, posing on a boat next to a glacier in Antarctica, and wearing nothing under her (unzipped) white ski jacket but a tiny bikini bottom. Her eyes say "come hither," but she's probably fantasizing about a space heater.
Some 18 million women "read" the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, according to research carried out by the magazine. Given that the weekly's circulation is just 3.1 million, 77% of whom are male, hordes of women must pick up this issue on the newsstand or sneak through their partners'. This makes sense to me, for I've been a closet consumer of the swimsuit issue most of my life. Though pitched to men, the annual photo spread of unfathomably lovely women is an insistent reminder to most females of all that they could be, if only they'd put in the effort. Behold these magnificent specimens of creation! (And get off the couch, you lazy cow.) You too can be the object of every man's desire! (So lay off the Reddi-wip and grow eight inches taller.)
As a teenage girl, I used to study the photos of those otherworldly creatures and marvel at their sheer perfection -- Kathy Ireland, Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs. Paulina Porizkova, the dark Czech beauty who was rumored to speak five languages, was one of my favorites. Elle Macpherson, the impossibly leggy Aussie with glittering teeth and a honey blond mane, was another. Did these astonishing creatures actually exist? If so, they created a challenge for those of us with split ends, mottled complexions and bulges in all the wrong places. We were about as much alike as an orange tabby and a Bengal tiger: technically of the same species, but in reality, discrete life forms.
In the end, these images triggered in me an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, shame and longing. Clearly, the gap between what men seemed to want most and what I possessed was too vast to close by simply giving up carbs or figuring out, finally, how to apply eye shadow. I knew I was smart, easily amused and a pretty decent tennis player and shortstop. But I started inventing ways to level the playing field, for surely, no cruel God would allow a woman to be gorgeous as well as intelligent, funny and kind? "There's not a lot going on upstairs," I'd reassure myself, looking at a picture of Cheryl Tiegs draped over a Camaro. "She probably subsists on coffee and cigarettes," I'd think of Kathy Ireland, "she could never turn a double play."
My attitude towards the swimsuit issue changed as I grew older and more involved in sports. Rather than provoking self-loathing, the photos stoked my feminist fury. Title IX was giving girls equal access on the playing field, but you'd never know it from reading Sports Illustrated. Most of the year, the magazine seemed to focus on professional football or basketball, with the occasional snoozer on men's golf. Once in awhile, Chris Evert or Billy Jean King would show up, but women were most visible in February, when they were also barely dressed. Real female athletes were largely absent.
My outrage reflected a deeper frustration with the lack of interest in actual women athletes -- i.e., me. Football reigned where I grew up, and the boys' teams always siphoned off the most resources. While all the girls' high school teams were herded into one dreary, fetid locker room, the boys' freshman football team had its very own changing room adjacent to ours. (The little creeps promptly discovered a peephole in the door that divided us and spied on us as we changed.) Meanwhile, the boys' varsity football team was feted with in-school pep rallies and homemade cupcakes that were baked and delivered by adoring cheerleaders. Girls' sports were an afterthought, and some female athletes responded by downplaying their sporting achievements. When my softball team won the Group II State Championship, we all bought satin maroon and gold state champ jackets with our names embroidered on the right front pocket. But after the jackets arrived, long after the season's end, we were all too embarrassed to be seen in our gaudy jock-wear. Sports Illustrated didn't create the problem, but it seemed to perpetuate the idea that athletics were a male domain, and that only buxom, scantily-clad women frolicking in the sand were worthy of attention.
In recent years, I've made peace with the swimsuit issue. That's partly because the editors profile more women athletes and teams year-round than they ever used to, adapting at last to Title IX's seismic shift. Even the swimsuit issue includes spreads of bikini-wearing female athletes alongside the supermodels, though calling this progress might be a bit of a stretch. More important, girls take part in sports with almost as much regularity and enthusiasm as boys, and the very best of them accrue the same social benefits as their male counterparts. I felt this most acutely when my sports-obsessed 9th grade son attended his school's semi-formal with a striking classmate who is famous for her soccer prowess. I sensed it again when fans packed the stands to watch my basketball-crazed niece score her 1,000th point. It's finally cool to be a female athlete.
What's most responsible for my newfound comfort with the issue is personal, of course. The pressing demands of adulthood, with work, kids, a husband and household responsibilities have crowded out room to fret about Rebecca Romijn's superior cleavage. Further, I've outgrown the adolescent desire to be someone other than who I am, let alone a supermodel with a two-year shelf life. (If I were to come back as someone else, let it be Tina Fey or Michiko Kakutani.) As well, my husband of 22 years has always treated me as the object of his desire, even while joking that I'm his "atrophy" wife. Lasting attraction depends on respect and companionability, traits not captured in photographs. Finally, I've figured out that the passive pleasure that comes from being liked, admired or sought after is nothing next to the active pleasure that comes from doing -- reading, writing and running, to name some favorites. As my Iranian cabbie said the other day, "You are so lucky you were born in this country! You don't know how lucky you are!" Indeed I am, even without an Amazonian frame or dewy skin.
Thumbing through the magazine today, I feel nothing but mild curiosity. What have they got for us this year? The continents, Easter Island, a white horse, waterfalls and beaches -- the usual irrelevant backdrops to the main event, skyscraper-tall women with tousled hair and exposed skin, all in predictable poses. And Kate Upton, the cover girl with the mammoth bust, who I kind of like for some mysterious reason. I wish she'd steer clear of that creepy photographer who filmed her dancing in a bikini and do more photo shoots with puppies and ducklings and men dressed as unicorns. Rather than ignite envy or anger, these images of Upton and her supermodel compatriots now summon my motherly instincts. Sure, they're glam and perfect and all, but I bet what they really want is a soft towel and a cup of tea.