Another Open Letter to Sports Illustrated

To my friends at Sports Illustrated,

Here I am again, three years after I wrote my first open letter to you. When SI’s annual Swimsuit Issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday, I was reminded of my hope of engaging you in dialogue several years ago. However, I never received a response.

I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated for thirty-six years. I am just one of three million subscribers and twenty-three million people who read SI every week. The Swimsuit Issue accounts for 7% of Sports Illustrated’s annual revenue and generates more than a billion dollars a year for its parent company, Time, Inc.

I read Sports Illustrated from cover to cover every week. As an amateur athlete myself, I enjoy the variety of sports that I find in SI, but I especially like the quality and style of your writers. Clearly, SI has a huge platform in America and around the world. But along with great influence comes great responsibility.

I have a lover’s quarrel with Sports Illustrated because of the annual swimsuit issue, which you have published for over fifty years and which I refuse to read on principle. It does not escape me that the vast majority of SI readers are male, yet I am still puzzled. How is devoting an entire issue to scantily clad gorgeous models related to sports? Of course, I understand. The majority of ads are for alcohol, perfume, cologne, underwear, and DIRECTV. No doubt the bottom line is marketing, profit, and more subscriptions.

The 2017 SI Swimsuit Issue has one hundred and seventy pages of females modeling in various exotic locations around the world. MJ Day, who has produced the swimsuit issue for the past nineteen years, said in an interview in Us Weekly magazine, “This year’s issue will showcase the widest diversity of women in SI history. Women of all ages, and shapes, and from many different backgrounds. We want to celebrate strength, beauty, and more, so we want to know: What do you model? So I’ll kick us off. I model determination. I’m determined to get out the message that there is not a singular definition of beauty.”

I know that you have heard the complaints of readers over the years that the models are unrealistically thin and do not accurately represent the vast majority of women in our world. I applaud the increasing diversity of body shapes, age, and ethnicities in the Swimsuit Issue. Kate Upton is SI’s Cover Girl, and the magazine also features 63-year-old Christie Brinkley as well as Olympian gymnasts Simone Biles and Ali Raisman and tennis star Serena Williams.

Yes, I celebrate that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. There is great strength that comes with being comfortable in our own skin. However, SI continues to miss the heart of the matter, and that is the sexual objectification of women. The SI Swimsuit Issue feeds a very unhealthy culture that clearly caters to male readers who are most interested in the sexually provocative clothing and poses.

Promoting what I consider to be soft porn does not contribute to the health and welfare of girls and women, but it condones and even encourages men and boys to treat women as mere instruments of sexual pleasure.

I am sad that Sports Illustrated and its risqué cover is casting a blind eye to the objectification of women in our country and world. According to National Sexual Violence Resource Center statistics, one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives. 81% of women suffer significant long-term or short-term impact from rape, including PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Annually, rape costs more than any other crime in the US (127 billion dollars). One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to authorities.

Perhaps more insidious is the widespread effect of pornography in our world. The Internet pornography business is a multi-billion-dollar industry and is the cause of unimaginable heartache for individuals and families whose lives have been destroyed by this addiction. Pornography crosses all barriers and is even a problem for clergy. No one is immune. Do you see how even something as seemingly benign as the Swimsuit Issue can be a stumbling block for others?

As the resident Bishop of The United Methodist Church in Iowa and the mother of two daughters and a son and two young grandsons, I will continue to speak out about the way in which women are exploited in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as well as in American culture. It is virtually impossible for a girl to grow up in America or around the world without being sexually harassed or abused. Unwanted sexual or gender-directed behavior or discrimination is designed to humiliate, degrade, exploit the vulnerability of, or exert power over others.

  • A prospective employer asks a young woman if she intends to become pregnant in the near future. If she has small children, she is asked if caring for her family will interfere with her job.
  • There is an inappropriate focus in the workplace on a woman’s appearance, and derogatory comments are often made about clothing, weight, or body shape.
  • Crude sexual remarks are directed to women at a business party.
  • Sexually suggestive emails or text messages are circulated in the office.
  • Grabbing a person’s breasts or buttocks against their will is considered okay.
  • Women are pressured to perform sexual favors in order to retain their job.

More than one of my closest friends and family has been sexually abused and will bear those scars for the rest of their lives. I have heard the stories of dozens of other women who were sexually abused by relatives, neighbors, friends, business associates, or church members. Many of the perpetrators were trusted by the girls/women and were never held accountable for their actions. Millions of abused women around the world suffer in silence until someone empowers their voice to be heard.

I am especially disappointed in this year’s SI Swimsuit Issue because it comes on the heels of a statement made by now President Donald Trump about a 2005 video released during the presidential campaign. Suggesting that his extremely inappropriate and sexist remarks about groping women were merely “locker room talk” diminishes the outrageous assumption that men can have whatever they want from women because, after all, they are simply objects.

Producer MJ Day said about the SI Swimsuit Issue 2017, “The celebration of sexuality is in a really weird place right now. People will always have passionate opinions, and I welcome that. But I’m passionate about getting the message out that we’re not just that.”

I agree with Day in that we humans are far more than sexual objects. Where we disagree is what responsibility the media has to refuse to glorify sexuality in a way that provokes objectification of women. We only need to remember the Women’s March on January 20, when millions of pink-clad women, girls, men, and boys gathered around the world to protest the degradation of women and honor the beauty and potential of all people.

Thank you, Sports Illustrated, for some positive changes in the SI Swimsuit Issue. However, as I did three years ago, I again issue an unapologetic challenge to Sports Illustrated. I ask you to publish a swimsuit issue in 2018 that features ordinary people who are making a difference, both male and female, none of who are professional models and none of whom are scantily clad or sexually suggestive.

  • A little boy with Downs Syndrome playing in the water
  • A teenager who was the last one picked for the soccer team
  • A man playing baseball with his children
  • A girl with cerebral palsy participating in a wheelchair race
  • A young adult who lost a leg to cancer riding a bike
  • Children of different nationalities playing together on the playground
  • An elderly woman walking with her grandchild in a stroller

Don’t do it just because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Do it because you have an extraordinary platform to promote self-esteem, confidence, and real beauty. Do it to celebrate the fact that each person in this world is a unique, one-of-a kind child of God. And one more thing. In your next issue, please don’t forget to include a cover picture and feature story about the Connecticut women’s basketball team, which won their 100th straight game on February 13. Make my favorite magazine even better.

Sincerely,

Laurie Haller
Resident Bishop
Iowa Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
2301 Rittenhouse St.
Des Moines IA 50321
bishop@iaumc.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laden with the Gifts of Circumstance

A week ago, I was utterly and completely exhausted when I drove home from the office in the late afternoon. I’d had a hectic travel schedule the past few weeks and assumed I was just sleep-deprived. I changed my clothes, headed out for the walking trail, and reflexively checked my email and Facebook on my phone, wondering what the new crisis or breaking story of the day might be. After all, it’s important to stay on top of current events.

The farther I walked, the more distressed I became until I finally turned off my phone. Enough. Attempting to discern what was going on in my spirit, I realized that I was inadvertently taking on the collective anxiety of our country and world.  

Being outside in creation always has a way of grounding me. In unpredictable times, the timelessness of the laws of nature provide solace. As I often do when walking, I prayed, “Here I am, Lord. Speak to me. My heart is open.” And this is what I heard God say, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” (a saying from one of the 4th century desert fathers). So, figuratively speaking, that’s what I did all week when I wasn’t working. I read, prayed, and walked.  

 

Sitting in my cell, I heard God calling me to solitude. When I was a child, I would take long walks in the woods and have always known that being outside keeps me centered in God’s grace and hope. I also spent long hours as a teenager practicing the organ in an empty church. Solitude helps me to listen for God’s voice as well as my own heart. These words from poet Wendell Berry spoke to me last week.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.” (“Healing,” Stanza V, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)

It is in solitude that I can see my true self most clearly, let go of ego and pride, gain perspective, and recover my passion to make a difference in the world. Over the past ten days, I have seen bald eagles in two different parts of Iowa. One eagle soared above me in the woods, and the other was sitting on the path just a few yards away as I turned a corner. “Pay attention,” they whisper in my ear.

In Native American thought, eagles encourage us to have the courage to stretch our limits, soar into the unknown, and continually expand our view of ourselves and others. Sitting in the cell of my intimate connection to the earth and to God, I claimed the words of the prophet Isaiah 40:29-31, “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I am content to wait.

Sitting in my cell last week, I also realized that, laden with the gifts of circumstance, God is calling me to action. The self-integration that accompanies solitude also calls me to enter into the fray of human life in order to advocate for healing and wholeness for all of God’s children.

 

Last Tuesday was Legislative Day in the Iowa Annual Conference. We began with a prayer breakfast at a nearby United Methodist Church where five legislators were able to join us.

In our conversation, they reminded us of the power of voting across party lines and that the voices of citizens who take the time to call, write, and advocate on behalf of issues are heard. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, they said. Your voice matters, and we want and need to hear from you. We laid hands on our legislators, surrounding them with prayers of encouragement for the challenging work they face every day.

Walking into the Iowa State Capitol for the first time, the sacred nature of the political process overwhelmed me. Hundreds of citizens were milling about the rotunda, many prepared to advocate in committees for bills that were up for discussion. A phrase from Wendell Berry’s quote came to mind again, “Laden with the gifts of circumstance…” The word “laden” can mean “burdened” or “weighed down.” Many of us feel laden by the divisions in our country right now. Yet another definition of “laden” is “fully charged.” Could it be that God invites us to see the circumstances of our lives as gifts that can fully charge us to for action rather than as heavy loads that slow us down?

As a hundred United Methodists split up across the Capitol building to advocate for what Jesus stood for, I realized how important it is to be grounded in the grace and hope of Jesus Christ before acting.

Finally, sitting in my cell last week, I heard God calling me to stand in solidarity with and learn from the very least of God’s children. On Thursday night I had the opportunity to preach at Women at the Well, which is a United Methodist congregation located within the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. Led by pastor Lee Schott, Women at the Well says this about themselves, “We are a diverse community composed of women incarcerated at ICIW, men and women from around the State of Iowa who choose to worship with us, and many volunteers who regularly support our ministries and programs. We gather together to share the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to experience the life transforming Spirit of God.”

The vision of Women at the Well is “to lead the church in love that breaks down walls.”      Laden with the gifts of circumstance, what could I possibly share with these seventy women, many young and others old, some imprisoned for months, others for many years, some with family waiting for them, others with nobody on the outside. Sitting in my cell, I realized that there was only one sermon that I could preach: grace.

I was both overwhelmed and fully charged by the gift of this circumstance. The joyful singing rocked my spirit. The fact that this congregation of women, who earn 50 cents an hour working in the prison, could donate $34.00 for Breast Cancer Awareness, moved me to tears. The gift of a painting by an 81-year-old “lifer” invited me to enter into full communion with my sisters. We sit in our cells so that Jesus can teach us the way of love and we can break down the walls together.

A part of me will always yearn for the solitude and restfulness of my cell. At the same time, laden with the gifts of circumstance, I emerge fully charged to see the circumstances of the time in which we live as opportunities for witness, advocacy, grace, and hope.

“From the order of nature we return to the order – and the disorder – of humanity. From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it. One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human. And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness.” (“Healing,” Stanza VI, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)

We All Get to the Peak Together

“We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” These words were a defining moment in the acclaimed movie, Hidden Figures, which has been nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go as soon as you can.

Hidden Figures is the adaption of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same name. The movie is based on the true story of three African-American women mathematicians who were employed by NASA during the race between the United States and Russia to send a man into space. On April 12, 1961, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel in space, thus putting the US behind.

The first American astronauts were all white men, as were the members of the elite Space Task Force. However, they were also supported by a group of black women who served as human computers, doing math computations by hand in the West Area Computers Division of the Langley Research Center in Virginia. These “hidden figures” were segregated from all of the white employees in a separate building.

The movie focuses on three women: Mary Jackson, who was NASA’s first African-American female aerospace engineer; Dorothy Vaughan, an early pioneer in computer processing and NASA’s first African-American manager; and Katherine Johnson, an expert in analytical geometry who was promoted to a position as the only woman in the Space Task Group.

It was Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to do a sub-orbital Mercury-Redstone flight on May 5, 1961. When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, Glenn requested that Johnson personally recheck the computer calculations before his flight. In 2015, President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

You need to see Hidden Figures because this movie provides wisdom for the most important issues facing our world today.

  • God calls each one of us to lead by encouraging others to develop their gifts in order to make a difference.

The movie opens with a scene where Katherine Johnson’s parents realize that their youngest of four children was a math prodigy. At a time when public schooling normally stopped at eighth grade for African-Americans, Katherine’s parents drove her 120 miles away so she could go to high school. She graduated from high school at age 14 and attended West Virginia State College, a historically black college. Katherine graduated from college at age 18, having taken every math course available.

Who knows what Katherine’s life would been like had her gifts not been nurtured? Who are you helping to make full use of their God-given potential, especially those who might not have the same opportunities as others?

  • Sometimes it takes a “majority” person to recognize, admit, and move beyond their own prejudices by opening the door for the hidden figures of the marginalized to reach their full potential.

After Katherine’s gifts are recognized at NASA, she is promoted to the Space Task Group. NASA chief, Al Harrison, a semi-fictional character taken from personality traits of three NASA past chiefs, discovers during a critical moment that Katherine is not at her desk. When Katherine finally returns and Harrison expresses anger at her periodic disappearances, she says, “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Harrison proceeds to tear down the COLORED WOMEN bathroom sign and then says, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

Who needs you to advocate for them?

 

  • God hopes that we will see each person in this world as a child of God and not as a thing or a number or a loser.

Mary Jackson is determined to go back to school and get a degree in engineering, but there are no places nearby that allow African-Americans to enroll. Mary goes to a judge and asks for permission to attend a whites-only school. “I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?”

We go first by having the courage to do the right thing.

  • God is delighted when we believe in our own belovedness and tap into our inner strength to speak out against injustice wherever it is present.

Dorothy Vaughan has supervisory responsibilities in the West Area Computers Division,  but there is never formal recognition of her skills or a raise in salary by her white supervisor. But Dorothy knows that she has gifts, so she takes it upon herself to keep learning. She goes to the library and teaches herself to be an expert on FORTRAN, a programming language necessary for transition to computers. Eventually, Vaughan is promoted and brings thirty of her women to the new department.

Who do you know who needs to be reminded of their belovedness?

  • Our country and our world will flourish when we put our energy into working together for peace and prosperity for all, rather than just for some.

When Al Harrison finally addresses the inequality of Katherine Johnson’s treatment in the Space Task Team, he says, “We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” As 7.4 billion human beings living in one world, we are all in this together, so it’s time to start caring for one another. As 322 million Americans in the United States, it’s time that we begin working together to create a future of hope for every person. As 12 million plus United Methodists around the world, it’s time that we resolve to model what it means to be the body of Christ by honoring and celebrating our differences so that all may participate in the reign of God.

There is a scene in the movie where John Glenn meets all of the NASA workers who are preparing feverishly for his historic flight. Glenn’s handlers are eager for him to move on, but he insists on greeting and shaking hands with the hidden figures, all of the African-American women in the West Area Computers Division.

On the day of Glenn’s flight, Johnson has been moved to the Research Department.

However, when a problem arises with computer calculations for the flight, Glenn asks specifically that Katherine do the calculations by hand because he knows how skilled she is. Johnson provides the necessary information, and the flight is a success.

Who are the hidden figures in your life? Who are the hidden figures in your community? Who are the hidden figures in our country and world? What greatness is hidden inside of you? How is God calling The United Methodist Church to reach out and engage the hidden figures of our world with the grace and hope of Jesus Christ?

We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.