March 1, 2015
It’s been a long winter. We’ve been hit with record cold and snow, and I think I speak for many when I say that those of us on the East Coast are pretty tired of school closings, Thinsulate gloves, and short, gray days that end at 4:30 p.m. How lucky, then, that just as those of us who live in areas that have been blanketed by snow for the last six weeks are ready to stick our hands in a snow-blower set on “high,” the Girls of Winter have arrived.
I’m talking about the one-two punch of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and the Victoria’s Secret Bathing Suit Extravaganza Television Special. There’s nothing like these two heaping spoonfuls of well-oiled boobs and butts set against a tropical backdrop of palm fronds and white sand beaches to take your mind off the fact that we will be wearing snowboots and heavy wool sweaters for the rest of our lives, and that the temperature is never going to rise above the freezing mark, ever. Yes, just when you thought you might have to throw yourself in front of a snow plow, or plunge headfirst into a bucket of ice melt, the SI Swimsuit Edition and the VS Bikini Fashion show are here to drive away your dead-of-the-winter blues. So, if you’re someone who likes looking at impossibly beautiful women (barely) wearing exceptionally tiny bikinis whilst frolicking in the aquamarine surf, this is good news indeed. If you’re someone who’s kind of tired of the ceaseless objectification of women, however, not so much.
The SI swimsuit was the brainchild of some (male) editor at the magazine who, over fifty years ago, had a eureka moment when realized, simultaneously, that (1) nothing interesting happens in sports between the Super Bowl and the opening day of MLB baseball (because no one watches NBA basketball or NHL hockey – not anyone I would invite to my house for dinner, anyway) and (2) by the end of January, most Americans are so thoroughly sick and tired of winter that they will eat up anything that provides them some escape from the relentless dreariness of North America in winter.
So this genius – I think his name was Andre Laguerre—said to himself, “how about if we take photos of gorgeous women in bathing suits lounging around in places like Bali or the Caribbean or Mexico?” Thus, a great idea was born, and every year since, we’ve been treated to an annual parade of beauties sporting the latest in swimwear and showing off their flawless figures.
Not to be outdone, Victoria’s Secret, that bastion of push-up bras and barely-there panties, the same retail genius that first gave us the television lingerie runway show in which supermodels wearing precipitously high heels and very little else (aside from angel wings – and someone is going to have to explain to me, using small words that my tiny female brain can comprehend, the connection between haloed celestial beings and thongs), decided to go high-octane. This year, VS gave us a late Christmas present in the form of a glossy hour of television featuring supermodels in tropical locales sporting tiny triangles of lycra that barely cover the naughty bits network television isn’t allowed to show.
As between the two, SI is a little racier and has been known to show a nipple or from time to time (I’m thinking of the Cheryl Tiegs fishnet bathing suit that caused such a stir back in the seventies), but VS is perhaps a little sexier, what with the models rolling around in the sand and engaging in the kind of conversation that does little to intimidate the men to whom these sorts of productions are targeted. But as tired as I, too, am of winter, as much as I, too, am in need of some sunshine and mindless distraction, I feel compelled to say, as I gaze at the lovely Hannah Davis (who, from what I can tell, apparently had to pee just as they were taking this year’s cover photo – why else would she be pulling down her bikini bottoms?), Really? Still? In 2015, we continue to do this?
I’ve been aware of the extent to which woman are objectified by our society since my first year at Mount Holyoke College. It had not occurred to me prior to that time to question whether what I saw on the pages of fashion magazines or on television was normal or healthy, nor had I ever thought to ask who got to decide what constituted “beauty” or to get angry when the answer turned out to be, in most cases, men. But then I spent four years marinating in feminism and having my eyes opened to the rampant misogyny all around me, and by the time I graduated, I was pretty pissed.
But then I went to law school, and didn’t have time to be pissed anymore, and as I got older and had less time to ponder such questions, I stopped asking them and accepted that we’re all slaves to such societal pressures.
Then I had three daughters, and I got pissed all over again. It started with Britney Spears in the late 90’s, bumping and grinding her barely legal body into the life of my three young daughters despite my best efforts to shield them from what I considered the antithesis of the kind of women I hoped to raise. It didn’t end with Britney, and I’ve been fighting what feels like an uphill battle ever since. Britney’s been replaced by plenty of other scantily clad, gyrating young women, and the fashion industry has continued to push frighteningly thin models upon us while Revlon and Cover Girl show us flawlessly complected beauties and L’Oreal depicts glossy, unfrizzy, even-toned tresses.
I’m somewhat reluctant to tackle this topic because it’s such well-traveled territory that I wonder if there are any points left to be made, and I guess that’s a good thing. I’d argue, however, that if showing the top half of your vagina on the cover of a sports magazine is deemed an acceptable way to “market” bathing suits, not much has changed. I mean, when you’re supposedly “modeling” something, isn’t the focus supposed to be the actual item of clothing, and not the orifice it was designed to cover?
It’s no secret that our culture perpetuates ridiculously unattainable standards for “feminine beauty” and that there are about 23 women in the entire country who come even sort of close to conforming to those standards, and then, only after hair, make-up, wardrobe stylist, and Photoshop have worked their collective magic.
We should know by now that none of us measure up to the absurd (not to mention narrow) ideals of perfection we see in magazines and on billboards, on television and red carpets. Pick the most beautiful woman you can imagine, be she supermodel, actress, or reality television star, and I can probably hunt up, in under half an hour, some picture on the internet showing her without her make-up and in sweats, looking decidedly normal. Give me an hour, and I can probably find one with pimples or cellulite. Bottom line? Even the most perfect women aren’t so perfect.
And we all know that, or at least we should, and so one would hope (at least I do) that we, as a nation, would stop pretending that what the media portrays as the ideal of female physical perfection is realistic, or even desirable, so that we could focus on more important things, such as, how does one get a job as a koala wrangler, or, why all the sudden interest in zombies? But here we are, almost thirty years since I graduated from college, and we’re still being sold the same bill of goods—that is, that unless you’re 5’10”, 115 pounds (more or less), with long, flowing locks, a lovely face, and a flat stomach, you’re pretty much a troll who might as well just put on a burka and accept your lot in life, which is to be unlovely and, therefore, unloved.
I want to be clear that I think these women are beautiful – my god, they’re gorgeous. Would I like to look like Kate Upton, what, with my 4.0 GPA cup size? Of course I would. I don’t begrudge these women their beauty. And, to be perfectly clear, I have no problem with the naked female body (or the naked male body, for that matter). As well, I have no issue with taking pride in one’s appearance or wanting to look one’s best—male or female. I own more than a few lipsticks and eyeshadows, I like wearing heels, and I regularly pay a significant amount of cash to hide my gray roots.
But there is no denying that how we present ourselves is in large part guided by what society tells us is attractive, and that the reason most of us take pains to look our best is because of the extent to which we are evaluated solely based upon our appearance. Thus, it becomes necessary to either accept this fact and do the best we can with what we have in the name of moving successfully through our professional and personal lives, or to take a militant stance by eschewing all the trappings of what magazine editors and the Fashion Police tell us is acceptable, consequences be damned. Who even knows what we would wear, or how we would style our hair, or whether we would shave our armpits or pluck our eyebrows, if not for fashion magazines and cosmetic companies? If there ever really was a zombie apocalypse (which, I understand, generally results in poor hygiene, a lack of beauty products and electricity, and the more pressing concern of not being fed on by the undead), I guess we’d have to throw aside all those notions about Botox and bikini waxing. We’d probably be less attracted to Pilates abs and more intrigued by biceps toned in more honest pursuits – that is, wielding machetes and kicking zombie ass.
It’s sort of sad that it would have to come to that for us to rid ourselves of these deeply-entrenched notions of what is and is not beautiful. I’m encouraged that, unlike in the 1980’s, when I was having my eyes opened at college, we’ve expanded our ideas about beauty to include women of color and, in some cases, women who weigh more than 120 pounds. I guess it’s progress that “plus size” is no longer quite the fashion death sentence it once was, though many of the models who identify as such don’t look much different (to me, anyway) than most of the women I see in the course of a normal day. I suppose I should take comfort when Huff Po features yet another article revealing how extensively Photoshop is used to create images that bear little relation to reality, and how about Keira Knightly, my personal hero, who recently agreed to pose topless only on the condition that her modest breasts not be enhanced, as they were in a poster for an upcoming movie.
So, yes, there’s room for a modicum of optimism that men and women in America may be less inclined to blindly accept whatever vision of female perfection the media tells us we ought to aspire to. It troubles me, however, that SI and VS think that we, as a society, are so stupid (justifiably so, it turns out) that we are all willing to pretend that the Swimsuit Edition and VS television special are actually about swimwear fashion, when we all know perfectly well that both should come with a container of lotion and a box of tissues, because the people at whom they are targeted don’t wear (or buy) bikinis and wouldn’t even notice if every model in every edition was wearing the same swimsuit, year after year after year. They’d never figure it out.
SI and VS will continue to foist these lean, long-limbed beauties on us for years to come, because sex sells. For my part, I’ve tried to raise daughters who care more about their character than their appearance, and I’m hopeful that they will pass the same message along to their children—male or female. I suppose I should be heartened that my oldest daughter was a bad-ass hockey player at college, that my middle daughter can control an 800-pound horse at a full gallop, and that my wee youngest is working on her black-belt in karate. While I have to admit that I think my girls are just as beautiful as those SI and VS models, I’m more proud of the fact that in a zombie apocalypse, they, and women like them, would probably be running the show, that’s probably more important than looking good in a bikini.
I’m hopeful that in thirty years’ time, we’ll be laughing at the SI swimsuit edition and the VS bathing suit fashion show the same way we now chuckle over Barbie and those home ec books from the ‘50s where women are admonished to greet their husbands at the door with a martini and slippers, hot meal waiting on the table and children fresh-scrubbed and docile, but I doubt it. I have a feeling that as long as there are men who like to look at scantily clad women, we’ll be treated to the SI S