by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger
I’m grateful that I’ve reached a point in my life where the arrival of the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue on newsstands doesn’t aggravate me. Since I’m old enough now to be the mother of the models, my first reaction is always, “Honey, sit down. Have a little something. You’re getting too thin…”
No, what troubles me instead is the feedback from people like Laura Portwood-Stacer, a visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. According to The New York Times, her view is this: Magazines like the SI swimsuit issue teach women what our culture considers ideal.
Go ahead. Reread that. I’ll wait.
“Women learn on a daily basis, unconsciously but also consciously, how to carry themselves, how to present themselves in a way that will be deemed acceptable and attractive by others,” Ms. Portwood-Stacer said. “As such a major cultural institution, it makes sense that the swimsuit edition would be a sort of bible for that kind of learning,” she said. “Women are trying to see themselves in the images; they’re comparing themselves to these ideals of feminine sexuality.”
First, I’ve never once considered Sports Illustrated a major cultural institution—but maybe I’m wrong and that’s exactly what it is. Even if that’s true, however, it’s never been my “bible” about how to carry myself in a way that is “acceptable and attractive.” Second, when did we as a culture agree these images are the “ideals of feminine sexuality?” I missed the memo.
Third, let me simply say, with great love and kindness, to women I know and women I don’t know: If you look at the SI swimsuit models to try to see yourself in those images, call me. We have to talk.
But let’s leave aside Ms. Portwood-Stacer for a moment. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion, however misguided I think she is.
What troubles me the most about a story like this is its reflection of the conflicting messages we read daily about women and our roles in society. It’s no longer clear to me if women are really breaking glass ceilings or simply shining them up, if you will. Let’s look at the highest-earning men and women, according to Fortune. The man who ranked ninth on the magazine’s list of the top 25 highest-paid men in 2011 earned $51 million. The woman who ranked first on the list earned $51 million—at the same company by the way: Oracle. The man who ranked 25th earned $31 million as President and Chief Executive Officer at Walt Disney Company. The 25th place woman earned almost $9 million as chairman, president, and chief executive officer at Archer Daniels Midland. Apparently, running an entertainment empire that delights us is worth a lot more than running a company that feeds us.
Don’t get me wrong here. The women (and men) on those top earner lists are clearly talented leaders who are extremely well compensated, admittedly only one measure of success. But when I read news stories about an annual issue dedicated to models wearing what they swear are swimsuits, an issue that teaches us how all women can achieve the ‘tousled beach hair’ look to be more alluring, I have to wonder about those top 25 lists and our society’s “ideals.” I guarantee you not one man on the list grew up with an annual “major cultural institution” attempting to tell him how to carry himself in a way that will help him be acceptable and attractive to others. Every single woman on that list did.
I know I’m over-simplifying this and maybe connecting two things that are entirely separate. But I’d believe that more strongly if a professor of media, culture, and communication stated that women were inspired by the “bottom line” issue of Fortune every year instead of SI‘s bikinis.
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning Op-Ed column for The Morning Call, in Allentown, PA for almost ten years. Her essays have been part of two humor anthologies: 101 Damnations; A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells and Mirth of a Nation Volume 3, and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.