Dear 1997 SI Swimsuit Issue Advertiser:
At last... After years of media and public calls of foul play, even
Sports Illustrated is backing off from their infamous swimsuit issue
and publishing it as a separate "men's" magazine this year. Now
is the time for advertisers to back off on their support as well and redirect
advertising dollars to issues of Sports Illustrated that represent
serious sports journalism......and not demeaning and high risk "sport"
with women. It's time to respect the ability and dignity of all
athletes-- men and women, boys and girls. I hope that
by reading my letter protesting your advertising support of the Sports
Illustrated swimsuit issue, you will stop and think about the values
of sex being used to sell-- and what your support of this misguided
use of sex says about you, your product and your company's opinion of women.
Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue is socially irresponsible and sexually immature. SI virtually bypasses the many wonderful stories of women's hard-earned accomplishments in the sports world. Well under 10% of SI coverage is devoted to female athletes. The one major issue focusing on women is a centerfold rather than centerpiece approach. SI perpetuates in the male athletic community a view of women as valuable and worthy of coverage-- news coverage, that is-- only if presented in contorted and exaggerated sexual postures and scenes. SI's portrayal of women in scanty bathing suits, often with partial nudity, always in sexual poses, and for awhile, sharing the spotlight with nude and provocatively-posed children, is intolerable. This degrading stereotype of women and children is a disservice to the athletic community and fans, and a real danger to the female population, who in one year saw 683,000 of their rank brutalized by rape, many of them children. Some research findings indicate that such dehumanization as depicted by SI is an important disinhibitor of aggression and cruelty of others. Perhaps you are unknowingly contributing to one of the greatest problems facing American women and children today. Please support other issues of Sports Illustrated.
SI is the largest exclusively sports publication in the world, with a widespread national and international circulation. Highly respected and influential, its very legitimacy makes it easy for readers to accept the insidious mainstreaming of commercial sex. SI staff credit magazines like Penthouseand Playboyas "inspiration" for their swimsuit issue poses. SI gives the message that this flagrantly sexist and dehumanizing treatment of women is All-American and A-OK. It tells young readers that sex is disconnected and exploitive, and women are for sale to any and all consumers. (A study by the Kaplan Educational Center revealed SI is the teen male's favorite magazine.) New research and public opinion is showing that using demeaning sex to sell may not only be socially irresponsible, but also damaging to the best interests of advertisers. More and more, we're seeing naked women, but are they the most effective sales vehicles? Is America's #1 Consumer-- women-- getting the message you're selling? When you use demeaning depictions like this, you're selling a warped view of human sexuality and female value. Is this the message you want to send to your purchasing public? SI should recognize women and children as athletes, not sex objects.
I'm writing as a mother of two bright, talented, caring teenage daughters who participate in school sports. I'm writing as the spouse of one who's worked in college athletics for more than 30 years. I'm writing as a professional in the healthcare field. I'm writing as a member of the largest consumer population in the U.S.-- women. When you advertise in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, you're saying to the world that it's OK to devalue women, to objectify them, to see them only as sex objects for men. I'm asking you to say that it's NOT OK. Please don't support publications that sexualize children, reduce female sexuality to a commodity and devalue America's #1 Consumer. Please stop perpetuating this dangerous myth that women are best portrayed as commercial sex objects-- and children as smaller versions of the same.
In 1992, I distributed my letter to the swimsuit issue advertisers. It was part of a long and ongoing protest and education effort by countless concerned citizens across the country. I believe the culmination of these years of work, the ensuing national print, radio and television coverage calling foul on SI's dehumanizing objectification of women and unfair double standard, and hundreds of supportive letters and calls, helped publicize SI's discrimination against America's #1 Consumer-- women. SI's 1993 swimsuit issue ad sales dropped; many 1992 advertisers chose not to buy space. Hyundai Corporation demonstrated leadership on this important issue by pulling out with a public statement expressing concern over SI's misguided use of children in the 92 issue. Public response was overwhelmingly positive. SI issued a public apology of sorts, stating that in 92 they were "a little bit more aggressive". The 1993 issue was much more conservative and the compromising depiction of children was gone, despite SI management's view that the provocatively-posed children made the swimsuit issue "more wholesome". Each year since 1992 the turnover in advertisers has increased. And now, SI has gone one giant and significant step further and opted to publish the swimsuit issue as a "stand-alone" magazine. Even SI has joined the public and distanced itself from its own demeaning depictions of women. Can you blame them? What about you?
The press and public-- even Sports Illustrated itself-- are seeing this issue for what it is-- and isn't. It is NOT a vacation and fashion report. It IS the insidious and "legitimized" sexual subordination of women. Current and former SI and Time, Inc. employees have publicly admitted that they feel the swimsuit issue is unfair to women and cheapens the staff's editorial integrity; and yet, SI continues this irrelevant sexualized portrayal of women as sexual commodities. And they've gone on the attack. When called to task about their misrepresentations of women, they resort to what pornography panderers have done for years: they run ads questioning the normalcy of the men who call foul. This "real men don't protest" attitude attempts to bully male readers into the status quo. SI can't take the heat when diverse opinions, especially those by its own male readers, encourage them to stick to their original agenda: the celebration of athletics and sports-- for men and women. This tactic to emasculate the men who question the prudence of "winking" at SI's demeaning "babes for sale" mentality is offensive, but appreciated. We're glad SI finally admits that it's not just women who think their dehumanizing depiction of women is wrong-- men think it's wrong too.
Pornography-influenced media is a public health concern and a social justice issue. And we need to make a concerted effort to be sensitive to these issues, especially in publications with a significant juvenile readership, in this day and age with such serious problems as HIV, AIDS, rape and violence against women and children. How are sexual shenanigans portrayed by the swimsuit issue different from old school porn attitudes at their worst? They are all archaic and discriminatory. Even Sports Illustrated is embarrassed. It isn't good for sports, it isn't good for women, it isn't good for anybody. Sports are all about good health, fair competition, mutual respect, cooperation and character development. According to the book Sex, Power and Violence in Sports, one of the 11 strategies for improving sports include fighting sexism in sports media.
The final report of the comprehensive Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in March 1993 summed up the challenge perfectly. "The equity issue transcends athletic politics because it goes to the heart of what higher education is all about. Colleges and universities advance their intellectual mission by placing a premium on fairness, equality, competition and recognition of merit. These values are as important in the department of athletics as in the office of the dean. Keeping faith with student-athletes means keeping faith with women as well as men." What better way to keep the faith than to take a stand against this flagrantly discriminatory practice. How can a sports publication subscribe to what the Knight Commission stands for AND support a swimsuit issue? How can you? Don't buy into SI's old-fashioned but still harmful views of women. Make smart advertising decisions that don't discriminate against (and worse, possibly endanger) the most powerful purchasing population in the country. Don't advertise in the swimsuit issue. Support other issues of Sports Illustrated. Thank you. I've enclosed a brief booklet citing examples of the abuse we're trying to halt. I look forward to hearing from you, especially if you have any questions or would like additional information or materials.
Sincerely, Linnea W. Smith, M.D.