Fifty years ago, Sports Illustrated editors filled the sporting lull of the cold winter months by dedicating one issue to hot ladies in bikinis. But at NBC’s primetime special celebrating the Swimsuit Edition’s golden anniversary last night, swimsuit modeling itself was elevated to an extreme sport. Host Heidi Klum compared the cover shot to the Super Bowl. When Kate Upton accepted an honor for last year’s cover, in which she is technically wearing (part of a) swimsuit, she thanked her “team” for helping her brave the shoot’s subzero Antarctic conditions. In a montage of the magazine’s most perilous shoots, we saw a swimsuit model show off bruises after a crashing wave shot her onto a pile of rocks, heard Upton shiver topless on the tundra, and watched one model take an aggressive licking from a pack of sheep. Models detailed increasing demands on their bodies as the standard uniform got teensier and tinier until it totally disappeared. At one point, Klum and Rebecca Romijn argued over which model has demonstrated the most stamina in the body paint department. Klum asserted that spending a whole day in the paint constituted a feat of strength. Romijn one-upped Klum by invoking her months-long exercise playing the blue-skinned X-Men mutant Mystique. Then, Howie Mandel trotted out in a rainbow bandeau and bikini bottoms to prove that the female body really can achieve feats that men can't match.
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition has always demonstrated a tenuous link to the magazine’s overriding theme. But as the annual issue has evolved, it’s made a winking effort to justify the feature as an extension of legitimate sports coverage, even as its reliance on actual swimming equipment has been replaced by strategically-painted necklaces.
The magazine began featuring swim photos of athletes alongside its models in 1997. In theory, that addition ostensibly adds a bit of gravitas to the magazine’s focus on the female form, but in practice, it hasn’t translated to a celebration of female bodies trained to compete outside of the cheesecake arena. In a 2011 analysis of the content of swimsuit editions from 1997 to 2006, researchers at the University of Florida found that female athletes in the magazine were posed like “feminine fashion models”—they were, for example, much more likely to be photographed on beaches, touching themselves—while representations of male athletes deemphasized the physical appeal of their own bodies by always juxtaposing their images with those of scantily-clad models, wives, or girlfriends. (In that nine-year period, no male athlete was photographed solo.) One 2002 feature, titled “Behind every great athlete is a great swimsuit model,” featured male athletes in uniform next to spouses in swimsuits. In future issues, male athletes were left out of the edition completely, though SI still made space for female athletes, NFL cheerleaders, and players’ wives. And outside of the swimsuit issue, female athletes rarely inspire cover stories. Last year, researchers at the University of Louisville analyzed 716 Sports Illustrated covers between the years of 2000 and 2011, and found that only 4.9 percent featured female athletes; only 18 of the 35 covers featured female athletes without men by their sides. A previous analysis of Sports Illustrated coverage of female athletes between 1997 and 2000 found that female athletes were more likely to be portrayed in non-action poses in non-sports settings, while most men were shot in the context of their sports careers.
Meanwhile, the magazine takes care not to push its cover models too far into masculine territory. While behind-the-scenes peeks emphasize the extreme discipline it takes to have the body of an SI cover model—and it does—some models’ physical feats are still unfit for primetime. Last night, we didn’t hear Upton complain about temporarily losing her eyesight when her body failed after six days in the cold, or learn about model Alyssa Miller’s adverse reaction after inhaling her body paint’s “powerful chemical fumes.” (She vomited twice). In SI, pushing the model’s body to its limits does not extend to disability or disgust. And female athletes’ feats are softened in the magazine, too. A 2002 accounting of the coverage in Sports Illustrated and the short-lived Sports Illustrated for Women found that both magazines were more likely to focus their stories on the athletic accomplishments of male athletes, while female athletes saw an uptick in coverage about their personal lives, like a struggle with breast cancer or the trials of motherhood. Sports coded as feminine—like ice skating, tennis, and gymnastics—got much more coverage than female basketball stars and boxers. And the treatment extends to the management, too: “Although Sports Illustrated devotes very few pages to female athletes,” the researchers reported, “they found space (10 pages!) to cover the fact that Jerry Buss, owner of the Lakers, may hand over the team to his daughter, former Playboy model, Jeanie Buss. The article contained a full page, layout photograph of a naked Buss with two basketballs covering her breasts.”