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.
Iowa Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
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Des Moines IA 50321