Confidence. Story. Success. These are what Sports Illustrated editor M.J. Day wants readers to take away from this year’s Swimsuit Issue, but is it possible to see anything beyond the pages and pages of scantily clad women?
Day thinks so and said this year’s selection of three women for three different covers — entrepreneur and model Tyra Banks; U.S. Women’s Soccer player Alex Morgan, and SI Model Search winner Camille Kostek — represent plenty beyond being a female posing for a largely male audience.
“Look, you have Tyra, who is the epitome of success from this franchise, she’s the absolute definition of model to mogul,” Day said. “She is what I hope for every woman period and for every woman who is a part of this brand. Just because you’re a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model doesn’t mean you can’t teach at Harvard or get an MBA.”
Besides it being a launching pad for models getting into business or becoming brands on their own — something SI helped along by being the first magazine to include models’ names in cover lines — Day said a woman like Morgan can make it a place to show off not only changes in female sport, but also ideals of female beauty.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve worked with athletes for so long, and in the past, they’d often be like, ‘Oh, make sure my arm doesn’t look too big,’ or ‘I don’t want to look too ripped or too masculine.’ I would get a little frustrated, but I always let the talent guide me,” Day explained. “What I noticed this year, which is so incredible, [Morgan and two teammates she posed with inside] were like ‘I want you to see my abs!’ ‘Look at my leg definition!’ They were so proud of themselves. It was a very rewarding moment.”
But there’s no doubt that the cultural changes taking place around feminism and #MeToo, with a lot of media taking pains to move away from some traditional portrayals of women, has been difficult for a magazine that created the Swimsuit Issue to titillate its male subscriber base. Some of the change is clear with this year’s covers. Banks, Morgan and Kostek are all posing much less suggestively than covers past, and all have the entirety of their bikinis on. No arms being used as nipple covers. No bottoms being pulled off or untied.
“This shift is work and it’s not painless, but it’s worth the pain because we’re affecting positive change,” Day said, noting Morgan flew from Paris for her SI shoot the day after Women’s Soccer revealed its gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, over pay equity and working conditions. And this year’s Swimsuit Issue will also include a two-day event, with panels with models and editors discussing their platforms and work and the story of the Swimsuit Issue, which started in 1964.
Although the women in this year’s issue are an array of shapes and colors and backgrounds, Day admitted that the issue traditionally has focused on the male gaze, and with highly sexualized results. But she said the magazine is “evolving” and that the criticism of the issue objectifying women is “subjective.”
“I expect to hear things like that…I don’t have a problem with differing opinions,” Day said. “It creates conversation and the more conversations we can have, the more minds we can change. I know every single woman we have does it for herself, not for men. I’m there and you don’t drag anyone kicking and screaming onto the set.”
An area where Day is a bit less certain is where Sports Illustrated as a magazine is headed. Its current owner, Meredith, put it up for sale a year ago, along with some other former Time Inc. titles that didn’t fit its core family-friendly lifestyle magazine portfolio, but it’s had some trouble finding a buyer. The price is said to have dropped from an initial asking price of $150 million to around $100 million and the most recent party interested is said to be Authentic Brands Group, which is likely to close the title and make it a pure licensing play.
Day said she didn’t go into this year’s Swimsuit Issue thinking it could be her last and that she’s been keeping her head down and working without the “noise” of who could be buying the magazine getting in her way. Something she does have are “notebooks full” of ideas for things Sports Illustrated can do, if it gets an owner who wants to build it.
“Swim is such a lifestyle; the women and the brand is so far reaching — it’s fashion, it’s fun, it’s food, it’s mental health, adventure, inspiration, it’s so many things,” Day said. “Once this thing has the wings it needs and a new set of people investing, wanting to make it great, it’s positioned to do really wonderful, impactful things.”
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