A Feminist Response to the Swimsuit Debate

Comments are closed on this post over at Aid Watch (a great blog which has also closed). I commented on the post, and another reader left an interesting comment in response to me that I’d like to respond to. But since I can’t, I’ll just write it here, after a little background on the post itself.

Professor and economist William Easterly of NYU (author of The Tyranny of Experts) said of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue in 2011, “Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.”

I said in a comment, “… I get harassed and talked down to all the time and it seems to me that it’s to do with a general attitude that doesn’t take women seriously or doesn’t value women as equals. Those people’s perceptions of ‘hot’ women in bathing suits will be different than those who are respectful of women but still look at a swimsuit cover and think damn, she’s hot.”

In other words, you can be misogynist and think she’s hot at the same time, but your perception of her (and her “hotness”) will be very different from that of a totally normal, respectful dude that also thinks she’s hot. That’s what I meant by that.

Another commenter, Brett, said, in response to me, “That’s what I find weak about Easterly’s claim. He’s basically saying that appreciating the hotness of a model on the cover of a magazine somehow inclines men to treat all women disrespectfully, and that doesn’t really follow. It’s quite possible for men to appreciate the hotness of a model and realize that that’s not exactly the everyday standard of beauty, and that you shouldn’t treat women solely by their appearances.” [emphases in original]

I really want to respond to this comment. First of all: “… you shouldn’t treat women solely by their appearances” is hardly something to stand up and applaud for. It’s the bare minimum of decency. And I should hope that sentiment goes for the rest of humankind, not just women.

But what really doesn’t sit well with me is when he says that Easterly is “basically saying that appreciating the hotness of a model on the cover of a magazine somehow inclines men to treat all women disrespectfully…”

This statement inadvertently makes the assumption that “appreciating hotness” is the same as, or tantamount to, “treating disrespectfully.” It implies that, well, of course we’re disrespecting and objectifying the models on the cover of Sports Illustrated when we ogle them. (Or in other magazines, or porn, or department store advertisements, etc.) That doesn’t mean we disrespect all women that way.

But Sports Illustrated models also deserve respect as human beings.

Renoir, "The Bathers" (est. 1918; PD-1923). Just to reiterate that "beauty" is socially constructed; assuming Renoir found these women beautiful.

Renoir, “The Bathers” (est. 1918; PD-1923). Just to reiterate that “beauty” is socially constructed; assuming Renoir found these women beautiful.

Being physically attracted to someone is not the same thing as disrespecting or objectifying that person (is that really such a hard distinction to make?), and “hotness” is relative; men in the US generally have a much more diverse sense of what “beautiful” is than our media culture would have you believe.

Another problem SI has is that the corollary of only featuring women on the covers of swimsuit issues is an assumption that only hetero men (and, maybe, LBTQ women, though I doubt SI execs think of them as a market) are interested in sports. I think this is a gross miscalculation. Maybe the next SI swimsuit issue should feature 18 – 21 year old boys, in skimpy swimsuits and revealing Speedo briefs, with svelte abs and flawless skin and soft sultry eyes and impossible physiques, and in poses as homoerotic as the cover of this last one. It would be a nod to their hetero female readership, who are interested in sports but also enjoy a little eye candy every so often.

But that is a childish reaction on my part. I know that constraining beauty standards for men, putting pressure on them, and sexualizing them in similarly harsh ways is not the way to move forward. And that doing something like that may serve to make many male SI readers — the homophobic ones, anyway — even more uncomfortable than they already are with their own sexuality (although maybe that would be a good thing). I’m aware that there are a host of problems with this idea.

But, really. (I mean really?) We are like a nation of teenagers who still haven’t figured out how to tell the difference between sex and love, or between attraction and disrespect. Maybe turning the tables once in a while will make the absurdity become a little more visible and help us us figure it out.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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