Oh Please, The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue isn’t “Empowering” Women Athletes

Sport’s Illustrated’s 2022 swimsuit issue includes some truly patronizing “inclusivity” and “firsts” meant to garner goodwill.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated announced one spread in its 2022 swimsuit issue — and fans of women’s sports were, seemingly, the target audience. This year’s magazine features five WNBA players: Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, DiDi Richards, Nneka Ogwumike and Te’a Cooper.

Their inclusion is one piece of a broader pivot the magazine has been trying to execute over the past few years. After spending decades crowning mostly white and blonde supermodels as the hottest of them all via photo shoots just risqué enough to be titillating, SI Swim is trying to blend its standard-issue objectification with a small dose of identity politics. 

Why, exactly, they think an institution (and it is an institution) that has long been shorthand for society’s unrealistic expectations of women’s looks is worth trying to redeem — years after the internet ate its market share on semi-respectable smut — is unclear. There must still be enough money in printed photos of hot women wearing little to try to bring the magazine back into the zeitgeist. 

The way they’ve elected to modernize it is to widely publicize a laundry list of “firsts.” As they celebrate “making history,” the magazine conveniently ignores that their own systematic discrimination and exclusion are the only reason that things like including Black and trans people are “historic” and not the status quo. It is unbearably patronizing to see the inclusion of a pregnant woman and a woman with a C-section scar (both women are thin, white and blonde, because of course they are) framed as “groundbreaking” when Sports Illustrated cemented the same ground it is now claiming to single-handedly break. Never mind that the usual rail-thin 18-year-olds staring coyly at the camera are available on the ensuing pages, once the requisite “diversity” and “#feminism” boxes have been checked by people digging deep to find something, anything that could count as a “first.” (Stay tuned for the first….non-profit president? First congresswoman? First woman not wearing mascara? The sky’s the limit.)

They’ve even started a new initiative among their advertisers, only accepting “brands who are helping drive gender equality forward” — whatever that means — into the swimsuit issue (one brand, for example, is Maybelline). Their name for these advertisers? “Changemakers” — funnily enough, the exact same mealy-mouthed term the WNBA has chosen to use for its sponsors. (Amy Odell explored the “Changemaker” initiative thoughtfully here.)

Through that lens, including WNBA players makes all the sense in the world — for SI Swim. Whatever nonsensical line they’re trying to walk between empowerment feminism and the commodification of women’s bodies finds a perfect fit in women athletes, who are both often hot (they devote their lives to working on their bodies, after all) and have, broadly speaking, embraced their role as “inspirational women.”

Nneka ogwumike WNBA la sparks

What is less clear, and more discomfiting, is what the league hoped to achieve with this spread. Across women’s basketball, I have sensed an incremental increase in the amount of praise and attention people and institutions are willing to openly bestow upon athletes’ looks. Photos of them walking into the arena are one thing, and obviously have their equivalents on the men’s side. But there are moments when the tone teams and leagues take overlaps with the tone of social media accounts like the deeply depressing @BeautifulBallers — offering overwhelming praise to athletes who go out of their way to conform to an oppressive feminine ideal. 

“We can do both [fire emoji],” the league shouted from its social media channels in posts about the SI shoot, not only reiterating the false notion that athleticism and femininity are inherently antithetical, but also in effect giving extra credit to those players deemed hot enough by the readers of SI Swim. The players in the spread include some of the league’s best — Stewart, Bird and Ogwumike are All-Stars — but the shoot also included Te’a Cooper, who was cut before the season started but has 1.5 million Instagram followers. She is not even on a team right now, yet Cooper is representing the league in this spread. It is impossible to escape the reality of what the WNBA is saying with that choice. 

This contemporary iteration of a hotness hierarchy is not often criticized because culturally, we’ve come around to this perplexing place where — as this smart thread put it — gender-affirming practices have been rebranded as “self-care” or “self-expression,” a form of “women’s empowerment” which is, of course, the league’s favored catchphrase. Yet there is almost always more praise and attention in store for those athletes whose self-expression and self-care makes them more attractive to cisgendered, straight men. To be “hot” in the way that hotness looks in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue or an Instagram thirst trap always requires work; it is a performance. 

Choosing to engage in that performance is fine, a personal choice. The challenge is when institutions that are ostensibly meant to create opportunities for women to succeed regardless of how they look embrace that performance and the attendant hierarchy it perpetuates. This isn’t the first time the WNBA has embraced pushing overt femininity as a marketing tool — a 2008 Chicago Tribune story, for example, describes how rookies were given “hour-long courses on makeup and fashion tips” as part of their league orientation. 

“We were sitting down like, ‘How do we help the league?’” Seimone Augustus told me last year of meetings she remembered participating in early in her time in the league. “They brought their ideas to the table, and they were like, ‘Y’all need to wear more makeup and fix yourself up.’ We’re like, ‘We’re playing basketball here!’ They wanted us to wear skimpier uniforms, and they snuck some in on us — the Adidas uniforms. Women are insecure about their bodies, why force us into that situation? Cleavage was exposed, and our backs… the shorts were hella short…and the girls were just like, ‘I don’t want to wear it.’” 

This spread, in that context, reads like a return to form. 

One of the most radical things about women’s sports, as I have written about in the past, is not only that they have often been an inclusive space for women who don’t feel like they conform to society’s expectations of them because of their gender identity, sexuality, or race, but that their “level playing field” extends to appearance. You can be great and your looks have nothing to do with it, which is exceedingly rare for women in any field. It is liberating, not in an expansive political sense but in an immediate, visceral one. Stepping on a court and dunking a basketball or stepping up to the plate and hitting a grand slam might be the only actually good kind of “empowerment,” and it feels just as powerful whether or not you’ve used the right setting spray. 

If that is the kind of genuine empowerment they’re fighting for — the fruit of the radical movements whose terminology the league has co-opted for marketing purposes — this move is a deeply embarrassing one for the WNBA and its players. The athletes who chose not to (or weren’t asked to) pose in bathing suits for a magazine that is largely marketed to men are not less deserving of praise and attention, and the league needs to seriously consider what it’s going to do to make that clear.