Thursday 19 January 2017

Caitlin McBride: Who would have guessed Sports Illustrated would become a trailblazer of body confidence in 2016?

Published 11/02/2016 | 11:56

Ashley Graham features in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Picture: Ashley Graham/Instagram via Sports Illustrated
Ashley Graham features in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Picture: Ashley Graham/Instagram via Sports Illustrated
Nicola Griffin stars in the Swimsuits for All campaign. Picture: Sports Illustrated
Kate Upton covered the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2012 and 2013
Christie Brinkley covers the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1979
Ashley Graham/Instagram
Robyn Lawley in the 2015 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

It’s about time.

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After dozens of issues in 52 years, the editors at Sports Illustrated have finally heard our cries for more equal representation and outdid themselves with the most relevant issue they’ve produced in years.

Hot girls in bikinis sell magazines – they also sell ads, get clicks and will nab you thousands of Instagram followers. But the definition of what’s considered ‘hot’ is changing. It’s not all six packs and thigh gaps in these early days of 2016. Now, some cellulite and love handles aren’t reason enough to cover yourself in a potato sack every time you leave the house.

And this promising change of female representation  comes from the unlikeliest of body confidence trailblazers – the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

Much like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the annual swimsuit issue has come under fire for exclusively featuring an array of impossibly long and lean women in barely there bikinis on a beach in St Barths.  Since 1964, when the first covergirl Babette March graced its pages, the bar was set. And it was set impossibly high.

Over the years, we’ve seen world famous beauties Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs and Tyra Banks land career-changing covers, and more recently, curvy Kate Upton nabbed the coveted spot in both 2012 and 2013. Upton hit headlines for her “crazy hot” physique, namely her 34D bust.


Fast forward three years and we’ve been gifted with three separate images with three equally beautiful women, representative of a larger proportion of the population outside of the genetically modified Amazons filling catwalks around the world.

There’s Nicola Griffin, a 56-year-old model who wore her first ever bikini during the shoot and Philomena Kwao, a British/Ghanian model who is both a curve model and woman of colour and then there’s self-described “body advocate” Ashley Graham, a size 16 superstar in the making.

Griffin is characterised  as “the oldest women ever” to feature in the mag (a tag which she said “made her feel  80”). Unless you’re Helen Mirren, women over a certain age are encouraged to cover up at the beach – and in life.

“People think you lose your sex appeal as you get older — but that's a myth; I've never felt sexier. I have two daughters and I'm so proud they get to see me looking sexy and confident in a bathing suit," Griffin said in a statement after the campaign images were released.


In a credit to the magazine’s crafty PR team, Kwao and Griffin don’t actually appear in any of the editorial pages, but rather for a Swimsuits For All campaign. But Graham is the real star of the show. She landed a nod for Rookie of the Year – a term which means nothing to us mere mortals, but a win can be a game changer for a swimsuit model’s career.

She’s the first ever curvy woman to grace the pages of the magazine and she’s doing it for all of us. If you’ve been too scared to wear a two-piece or avoid seeing yourself naked at all costs, Ashley is trying to change that by preaching self-confidence.

One small step for bikinis, one giant leap for woman kind, eh?


Christie Brinkley covers the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1979

No individual, in the public eye or not, is responsible for anyone else’s confidence levels, but by putting the right message out there, we’re taking strides in the right direction.

In an ever increasing politically correct world, the much-criticised Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is one of the few who got it right. While the fashion world can’t seem to find the middle ground between publicising both over and underweight models, both equally unhealthy role models, Graham has been breaking down barriers behind the scenes since 2008.

Sure, it helps that she boasts the same gorgeous features of size 6 supermodels  - the pearly white teeth, bouncy hair and glowing skin; but unlike the Victoria’s Secret Angels, she’s a size 16. She works out regularly and swears by green smoothies, but will “try anything” when it comes to food.

In 2015, SI featured its first “plus-size” model – a term I use loosely because Robyn Lawley is a size 10. She also looks a hell of a lot better in a bikini than I do and sure, I’m a size 14, but so is the average Irish woman.


Robyn Lawley in the 2015 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

As magazines struggle to keep up with the changing digital media landscape, a magazine published once a year must outdo itself to translate legacy into sales. It’s the same reason Anna Wintour put Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue in 2014 -  SI’s inclusion of diverse women is a cultural movement so influential, it can’t be ignored.

And it shouldn’t be. 

We all need to see women like Graham in a position of such public prominence – getting the seal of approval from editors of what has long been accused of being slightly prehistoric in its representation of women.

It’s okay to have cellulite and love handles, and no matter your size, be healthy and own it. Now it’s only two months into the year, but for once, I'm not dreading hitting the beach this summer.

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