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Then and Now: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

kate upton 2017 swimsuit issue cover
Kate Upton, 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Cover Model. (See Upton interview here)

Warning! PG-13, slightly adult conversation ahead!

I have on and off over the years subscribed to Sports Illustrated (SI). Published weekly, SI features stories about athletes and sports leagues. One issue every year is devoted, not to sports, but to the wonders of the female body. The Swimsuit Issue, as it is called, is chocked full of photographs of bathing suit-wearing models. SI chooses exotic locations for the photoshoots. The photographer part of me lusts over what can only be described as a dream gig — splendid locations and beautiful women. What’s not to like, right?

Over time, the bathing suits have become skimpier, reflecting our society’s increasing comfortableness with nudity. Every year, Evangelical groups express their outrage over the Swimsuit Issue, and every year countless Baptist preachers rush to the mailbox so they can preserve their SI copy before their wives get a hold of it. But, of course, Evangelical morality police are not the only people who get a self-righteous hard-on over the Swimsuit Issue. So do Catholic groups such as Catholic Youth Apostolate (link no longer active):

That takes us to the other half of your question, one of swimsuit models on magazines. Again, the real question here is one of intent. Swimsuit catalogs exist to sell swimwear for women. One could safely say that these kinds of images should be harmless to someone striving to live chastity [sic]. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (we use this example because the SI Swimsuit Issue is the highest grossing, most widely distributed issue of their magazine every year… interesting, for a magazine that is supposed to be supporting a culture of sports fandom) exists to sell supermodels to men. No one purchases that particular issue of SI in order to buy a new swimsuit for his wife. The women in those magazines are styled and posed in such a way that could easily lead anyone viewing them to lust – they’re often topless, sometimes naked; posed not to show off the swimwear, but their bodies.

One might say, ‘But I’m just admiring their beauty, what’s wrong with that?’ The problem lies in JPII’s quote above – you can’t admire their full beauty as a human person, because you don’t know them. All you have to admire is their physical form, separate from their heart, mind, and soul, so it’s impossible not to objectify them. Furthermore, the women in those magazines don’t express the wide variety of God’s beauty in all men and women – all the women in those magazines are roughly the same size and shape, a cultural standard of ‘beauty’ that simply means ‘sexy’ and is impossible for the average woman to achieve. Beauty is much broader than the images displayed in magazines. It’s not that these images show too much, but too little.

Does this mean that if you happen to catch a glimpse of the cover of the SI Swimsuit Issue in the check-out line at the grocery store, you have sinned? Probably not. But in order to grow in the virtue of chastity, it would be wise to not pick it up and flip through the pages. In as little as two-tenths of a second, an image can be emblazoned in one’s memory for years. And Jesus would rather you not risk it, since he said that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28). Again, make no provisions for the flesh…

This could just as easily of been written by an Evangelical preacher.

Back in my Evangelical preacher days, I would watch for the Swimsuit Issue to be delivered so I could throw it in the trash before one of my teenage sons or I was led into horrible sexual sin. One particular year, the magazine never arrived. Hmm, I thought at the time. I wonder what happened to it? Months later, while working on a vanity light in our master bathroom, I found the missing issue hidden above the cabinet. How did this magazine get here? I wondered. Come to find out, one of my sons had intercepted the magazine and hidden it. I made sure my mag-stealing son knew that he had sinned against God, and then I tore the magazine up and threw it away. Today, we heartily laugh about this story, but at the time, absconding with the magazine was viewed as a serious act of disobedience to God. I felt it my duty to ensure that my sons were not exposed to pornography, be it Playboy, Hustler, or the SI Swimsuit Issue.

Fast forward to 2017. The SI Swimsuit Issue arrived in our mailbox. I spent 20 minutes or so looking at the magazine while we were driving to Defiance for our granddaughter’s basketball game. I didn’t have lustful thoughts or feel the need to masturbate or engage in sexual intercourse. Shouldn’t I have been filled with lasciviousness as I dared to gaze upon the exquisite bodies of the fairer sex?  What’s changed between now and twenty years ago? Gone is the fear and guilt caused by the teachings of Evangelical Christianity about sin — especially sexual sin. As many former Evangelicals will attest, once the fear and guilt are no longer a part of the equation, things once considered “sin” can be enjoyed (or not, depending on one’s tastes and desires) without feeling like the reader just committed a heinous crime. Now that God, the Bible, and Evangelical moralizers no longer have my attention, I am free to be a normal, healthy heterosexual man. What is most interesting is that, once something is no longer taboo, it often loses its power and draw.

I will leave it to Evangelical men to guiltily shuffle into the darkness with a flashlight to look at their copy of the Swimsuit Issue. I no longer need to deny myself pleasures, wants, and desires. I know that the Swimsuit Issue is not everyone’s cup of tea. Each to his own, right? No one is forced to look at the magazine. People are free to subscribe, not subscribe, or cancel their subscription over what they believe is Sports Illustrated’s promotion of “soft porn.”

leyna bloom
Leyna Bloom, 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Cover Model

2021 brings us an SI Swimsuit issue featuring a Transgender woman. Evangelical culture warriors are losing their collective shit over this. OMG, how dare Sports Illustrated portray a transgender person as “normal.” In their minds, this is just another sign of the collapse of Western Civilization, a sign of the imminent return of Jesus. Perhaps, SI should do a Women of Faith swimsuit issue. Would that make Evangelicals happy? Finally, “modestly” dressed women to lust over. Or maybe they should do a Gay Men of Faith swimsuit issue for all the repressed gays in Evangelical churches. Here’s what I know. Preachers Bobs all across America will buy the latest SI swimsuit issue so they can gather “information” for next Sunday’s sermon on the LGBTQ people. And with only God and Satan listening in, these preachers will lustfully say themselves, “I wonder if she still has a dick”?

Did you, or your father, back in your Evangelical days, subscribe to Sports Illustrated?  How was the Swimsuit Issue “problem” handled? Did your pastors preach sermons about the Swimsuit Issue? Do you know of anyone who committed adultery or fornication after perusing its pages? Do you know of anyone who, after viewing the scantily clad models, turned to pornography? (You know, the Swimsuit Issue acting as a gateway drug of sorts.) Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Never saw one when I was little; was too busy trying to find Hustler’s, lol

    I remember in 6th grade when one of my closest friends secured a copy, we were THRILLED!! The three of us all took turns taking it home & “examining” it, lol

    Amazingly, my mother never found it, for if she had, I would not be here typing this right now ??

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    It is a balance of what is revealed and what is not that is that is the mojo as I see/don’t see it! I have mentioned before that as a young adolescent I saw a black and white pic in Time magazine of a mini-skirted girl climbing up the back window of Billy Graham’s car. I was smitten, utterly slobbering at that picture. It is really a rather tame photo but it hit me like a truck, praise his holy fame! Best thing the Graham family ever did for me!
    Oh, no Sports Illustrated in my house and no sports on Sunday!

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    When I was a little girl I was always with my head in fashion catalogues. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer and I was often drawing clothes for my paper dolls. It is only since a while, years and years later – I only truly realized I was gay a few years ago – that I know I was also looking at the beautiful women themselves, not just their clothes. I often checked out the women in their bikini’s too; thinking I was looking at bathingsuits – you know, the colors, the shape, halterneck or otherwise: things like that…. I was quite good at deluding myself that way 😉

    There was this one moment that had puzzled me a long time though. There was this picture of a beautiful woman – black curls, white tank top and a jeans – that kept drawing my eyes. I kept going back looking at that picture and it puzzled me. It wasn’t very fashionable. The clothes were not that interesting, not to draw for my paper dolls anyway, far too simple. Yet the picture drew me like a magnet and I didn’t understand why.

    Incidently it was realizing that I was gay that made the largest dent in my faith. I’d been trying to please God for so long – as a woman, even as a Christian feminist – being gay just was the last straw. I knew I’d never be able to truly please God as I was and it made me so angry at Him! I’d never be able to love, to marry, only because of some ancient God who hated women, who hated gays, who basically hated nearly everybody, and because of some old stupid book I’d never be able to have a loving relationship. It made me realize that if I could never truly please this grumpy God, should I even want to? It made me realize that perhaps I did have a choice in serving Him; that I could possibly walk away…

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      Melody, Thank-you for the eloquent comment, for being here. I had a relationship with a another man in my early twenties and it made me realize that although I was more hetero, I was also gay. I guess that makes me bi, is what I thought at the time and it puzzled me. The Bible was no help at all of course and the preachers were boring on the subject. What it made me see was how silly all the demarcations are with regard to sensuality, the desperate boundaries that are so shallow black and white. I am so grateful that I had that relationship and that it showed me myself in another way, undid my limits and allowed me to see that feelings come and go quite naturally and are not first perhaps even anything to do with male or female or other designations but to do with something more fully human, more open to the world and not defined by ignorant men with law books covering their hearts and eyes. When I walked away, when I said no to the book of laws, I felt such a relief, such a weight lifted. What glory there is in life! What joy in just being human! What misery in seeing the harm we can so easily do to one another and ourselves. We have a choice and we take it. I often wonder about why some people clearly fall back into denial after waking up for a bit, why they succumb and marry denial. How did you get so lucky as to be honest with yourself, to believe in yourself and not play out the self-hatred laid out in a life of service?

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        I’ve lived in denial for a long time too, I think. When I was in my early twenties I fell in love with one of my friends, but didn’t want to acknowledge that to myself. I kept on telling myself I just loved her as a friend nothing more, but in hindsight that was clearly a lie. I just wasn’t ready to accept who I was.

        The lies you get told about gay people when you’re an Evangelical are really insidious, I think. I believed them to some extent and couldn’t accept or love myself as a result. It makes me pretty upset that. That a big part of the self-hate had to do with that, with the lies I was told by others.

        “even anything to do with male or female or other designations but to do with something more fully human,”

        Yes, there is something that draws you and it does not necessarily have to do with any kind of designation but more with a feeling or sensation that stirs you inside. Sexuality can be fluid too. I’ve heard being bi described as not falling for a man or woman but for a person. It’s the particular person that draws you in and it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman.

        All that obsession of preachers about the sex you’re not supposed to have makes me sick. They’re far more obsessed over sex than the heathens they condemn, that’s for sure.

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          I concur… with all you state here. Also, let it be known that the freedom and relief known by walking out of the gulag of evangelical fundamentalism is very similar to the freedom in sensuality known upon being freed from strict hetero/homo ideas. We are wholly human and not just pigeon-hole categories. All the obsession of preachers not only makes you sick, Melody: It makes the preachers sick and sicker too. Jimmy the Swag had to get his mojo at motels with women he paid. I felt so sorry for the dick as he wailed his apologies on stage aferward: I haved sinned against you! Such a crock of shit that makes people ill and more ill. This kind of Christianity is a long long illness in the world that goes on. Gestapo man Trump has tapped into it and is using it like a bully uses a bat now. The latest I have heard is that his people have denied some of the press to be a part of briefings. The bully is greatly loved for his harm done. My question is, will war break out in USA before a war is started elsewhere? It will not be long before the blood is flowing now. Trump will be equally merciless with American protestors as with those from other countries, or so-called illegals.

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            In Europe we’re worried about Trump too. He already got into a row with Australia, who knows what will happen with other leaders? But then there’s also the upcoming elections (Netherlands, Germany, France) that are worrisome because of nationalistic right-wing candidates doing quite well. Trump’s election has emboldened them even more.

            It feels like the world is making a turn for the worse. I hope that’s not the case, but it sure seems to be.

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            I agree completely. I would like to add that those who dont learn from history are bound to repeat it and unfortunately people should probably read up on the lead up to both WWI And WWII. While there is a linear progression to history, in many ways it is also cyclical and eventually the pendulum will swing back again. Hopefully people will come to their senses before shit goes down the hole. I can only hope people will realize that compromise moderation and civility should be at the center of political discourse, not demgogues, extremists and twitter tantrums. Unfortunately that doesnt look likely in today’s polarized political climate.

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      Melody, thank you very much for sharing your story.

      I could see part of myself in it. In my case, it was the male underwear section in the department stores. And being too fixated on the story of David and Jonathan, certainly way more than my peers are.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    When we were first married, my husband subscribed to Playboy for a few years. It didn’t bother me, except that back in those days it came with scratch-and-sniff perfume samples and stank to high heaven. Ghastly smelly thing, and clearly not designed to cater to ***my*** hormones. To each their own.

    Then Husband saw a demonstration of how those images are Photoshopped professionally, and how the models in reality never, ever look that good. It ruined it for him. He declined to renew his subscription, and we haven’t had porn in the house for years. Now, a lovely woman he might encounter will still catch his eye. But he simply doesn’t care for the manufactured stuff.

    For myself, I’ve never been turned on by men who were merely good-looking, and photos of handsome guys do nothing for me. When I think back over the years about the men who caught my eye, I knew all of them at least slightly. I’d caught all of them in acts of kindness. I have no idea what attracts me, but it is some combination of personality and how the man carries himself. Three were not heterosexual, even–except for my husband, none of these were men I dated. A couple had physical features that our culture would deem extremely unattractive, and yet my body declared otherwise.

    So for me, porn is a total waste of time and money, and my husband seems to think the same way. YMMV.

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      The photoshop thing bothers me somewhat from a feminist perspective: it often makes (young) women unsure of themselves and their looks (women’s magazines, fashion stuff) because these images are picture perfect. Ordinary people simply cannot aspire to that, not really. It does not build your self-esteem.

      They once did this research where they had put a group of men inside a house for a month or two and gave them the same amount of input that women receive on a daily basis of perfectly shaped men. Muscles, sixpack and so on. Their self esteem took a pretty big hit and they became more aware that this could be the case for the women in their lives too.

      On the other hand, I do enjoy beautiful pictures of people, nature, what not. Aesthetics and things that are pleasing to the eye will catch our eyes, it’s human nature. And what is deemed beautiful will change throughout time and cultures. Rubens is a nice example of this.

      It helps to remember that it is the realm of fantasy, of aesthetics.

      At the LGBT forum that I’ve spent some time at they might call what you’ve described being demi-sexual : that you first need a personal connection to someone before you begin to fancy them. That attraction is made up of more than just visual stimulation but is much more about an emotional connection and personality. Just a thought.

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    Yeah, it seems like forbidden fruit is the tastiest. I’m sure all those Evangelical guys find the SI swimsuit edition so hot, well, you know, they can’t control themselves (they think). And I imagine they hate the beautiful transwoman because they feel attracted, which pisses them off. Good grief.

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    This must cause a lot of christians to have multiple head explosions. First, a head explodes because it’s the porn swimsuit addition. Then some christian guy grabs it and sneaks off, lusting after the hot cover girl, only to find out she is trans. Boom. Others will have heard the SI put a trans woman on the cover..Boom. Some will hear that SI has desecrated their favorite issue, which they lust for every year, with a trans woman.. Boom. AND THEN they find out she is gorgeous and sexy. Boom. Then they will sneak off anyway.. big badda boom.

    Queue the reactionary homophobia/transphobia. Watch man run out to do something manly to recover masculinity – what little there was to begin with.

    By the way, christians, I want to point out that you want legislate that this girl must use the proper bathroom – the men’s room. I know it’s a hard question, but try to think it out – do we see any problems with this idea?

    You also want her in the mens locker room….also a bad idea. One must ask just why you would want that? Hmmmm

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    I have mixed feelings about things like the SI Swimsuit edition. As a woman, I don’t want anyone to try to police my body. I both want to be sexualized and don’t want to be sexualized – and how does that make sense? From a young age, I recall my body being an issue in some way, whether by size, shape, covering, health, function, etc…. Somehow through the years I learned that both in the religious and secular worlds, being as small and silent as possible were the preferred traits a woman could have, only being visible when others wanted to see her in the way they wanted to see her.

    As a 51 year old woman, I have struggled with how I view my body, how I want others to view my body, and how I think others view my body. My body is mine. I feed it, take care of it, work it, train it. It has served me pretty well, though I wish it would move faster. Sometimes I think it looks and performs well. Other times I think it is misshapen or am frustrated at how it performs. It has birthed and fed 2 humans. It has completed numerous running and obstacle course races, and thousands of workouts. Sometimes I push it too hard, and it rebels.

    As I mentioned earlier, I both want to be sexualized and don’t want to be sexualized. I guess I want it on my own terms. I want to be perceived as hot, fit, powerful, intelligent, successful. Most people wouldn’t know some of these things without getting to know me.

    I want women to be perceived how they want to be perceived. I don’t know how we get to that place.

    Religious people don’t want to see me the way I want to be perceived. They want to stuff me into a box, to let me out when they want to see me as long as I exhibit myself in the ways they deem acceptable. They don’t want me to own myself. The secular world isn’t much better with regard to its treatment of women.

    • Avatar
      Barbara L. Jackson

      Yea, I could never live up to what was considered beautiful. I am 61 years old and I am still trying to lose weight and tummy fat. My body shape never conformed even when I was young and thin.

      My husband worries less about this than I do.

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        Barbara, I feel this. When I was young I looked great but was too insecure to enjoy it. And then lost my health and gained a great deal of weight etc etc. I did recently lose weight and at age 62, discovered that losing weight is better for my health, but that didn’t mean that my body snapped back into perfection…oh, no. Not. At. All. And my husband is like yours, and loves me for who I am as a totality, and not how my body parts are configured. And I feel the same towards him.

        I feel like we deserve to be free of the bullshit of the beauty culture at our ages. Being healthy is the main thing. If ordinary people can’t relax their beauty standards a bit after age 60, then when? Give me a good, kind, loyal person no matter how they look.

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