Trailblazer: Australian model Robyn Lawley, first size 16 model to appear in Sports Illustrated. Photo: James Macari/Sports Illustrated
There's nothing the world loves to devour more than a fat woman. Whether for Schadenfreude or celebration, fat women's bodies in particular draw the majority of unasked for critique in a world that thinks the female form is somehow public property.
Consider the recent modelling contract given to Tess Holliday, aka Tess Munster. Covered in tattoos that are offset by creamy skin and with a 1950s glamourpuss aesthetic, Munster is a sumptuous vision. As far as models go, she's sublime to look at (which is kind of the point of models, after all). She also happens to be a size 24, which means that people would rather waffle pompously about her the 'unhealthy' lifestyle and example she's modelling (PUN INTENDED, YOU GUISE) than appreciate the perfection of her eyebrows and/or the political statement of refusing to be ashamed of her body. That Munster poses unapologetically while positioning herself as a fashion icon is, in the eyes of some people, akin to her slaughtering a goat in the city square and offering its blood up to Satan himself.
On the flipside there's Robyn Lawley, an Australian 'plus size' model who stands at 6'2 and is no more on the chubby side than, say, Natalie Portman, playing a tiny ballerina while fighting with Mila Kunis, also a tiny ballerina. Despite Lawley frequently rejecting the term 'plus size', the peculiarities of the fashion world still positions her as a tubby lardbutt simply because she doesn't sway like a river reed whenever a gentle breeze blows through town.
Editors seem to get very excited whenever Lawley does something, because it means they can write a lot of guff about the success of 'curvy' women with 'real bodies'. Unless this is the future and we've begun to successfully replace all of our body parts with machines, I've always thought that all women's bodies are real bodies. But that's just me. I'm a rebel. I don't follow the rules.
Still, the allure of the 'real body' continues, because magazine conglomerates enjoy pretending they have nothing to do with creating a culture in which women use their thighs as a yardstick for their own human value. Instead, these content creators will all squawk their heads off whenever they have the gumption to put someone who displays actual body diversity on a front cover, because they want us to think these decisions are normally controlled by a gnome king living in a mountain somewhere and thus out of their own hands.
This is why we're supposed to be excited that Lawley is to appear in Sports Illustrated's famed Swimsuit Edition. Not on the cover mind, but as one of its seven 'Rookies' on an inside spread. Hurrah! It's a massive win for women! A slightly larger than average, impossibly beautiful white woman has been chosen to stand alongside other impossibly beautiful women so that men can ogle them in their bikinis! FEMISMISINISMAISM!
Look, I get that Sports Illustrated has a very defined purpose, the swimsuit edition in particular. It's a magazine directed at men and as such it's full of images of bodacious babes doing very little of anything athletic aside from standing around looking absolutely gorgeous in their bathing suits. There's no secret to the formula.
But do we really need to celebrate the inclusion of supposedly plus size models (who aren't really that plus size after all, as it turns out) as some kind of progressive win for women? This is the same magazine whose latest edition has been touted (for good reason) as 'too risque' because its cover model, Hannah Davies, has been photographed posed in such a way that I can basically tell she has no pubic hair. And we're trying to get diversity into it….why? Because that will make it somehow less of an active cog in the giant wheel of objectification that keeps the entertainment industry moving along through a steady stream of bullshit?
And why celebrate the inclusion of any models in Sports Illustrated's pages at all? This is also a magazine that's featured female athletes on less than 5 per cent of non-swimsuit issue covers. In fact, over a period of 11 years, 716 non-swimsuit issue covers of Sports Illustrated were published and a woman was featured as the "primary or sole image" only 18 times. To extrapolate that even further, a study done in 2011 showed that in the 57 years since Sports Illustrated's debut, a woman had appeared on the cover of a non-swimsuit edition just 66 times. In contrast to this, and as this piece in the Atlantic points out, "Years have gone by in the magazine's history without a female athlete making the cover, but every winter since 1964 without fail, there's been a woman in a bikini." Basically, a woman is more likely to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated if she's just a model in a bikini than if she's actually, you know, someone who plays sport.
So forgive me if I can't get all that excited about Sports Illustrated handpicking 'Our Robyn' for their annual spankmag. It's not a win for diversity. It's not a win for women. And it's certainly not a sign that the magazine is becoming more progressive in its thinking, while still maintaining the illusion that women have no body hair.
On the other hand, put Tess Munster in a bikini on the cover of the swimsuit edition...and then we'll talk.