Aly Raisman Was Far More Empowered Wearing Clothes Than She Was Stripping For <em>Sports Illustrated</em>

Aly Raisman Was Far More Empowered Wearing Clothes Than She Was Stripping For Sports Illustrated

With women understandably frustrated about sexual harassment in the workplace, Sports Illustrated decided to capitalize on it in the guise of caring about it.
Britt McHenry
By

The image of Aly Raisman in court wearing a slicked-back ponytail on a head held high in front of sexual abuser Larry Nassar is unforgettable. In fact, women may never forget that now-iconic image of female empowerment in this lifetime. The former Team USA gymnast, along with more than 160 of her peers, spoke intelligently and confidently while standing up for women across the world.

She didn’t have to take her clothes off to do it, either.

This week, Sports Illustrated released its annual Swimsuit Issue. The once-iconic magazine edition has fallen significantly in popularity and relevance due to an ever-abundant supply of half-nude and naked women on social media. But the yearly edition still provides a cash cow for the magazine. In 2016, reports indicated SI Swimsuit accounted for about 10 percent of the magazine’s total income. With advertising down for Sports Illustrated, the Swimsuit Edition branched into its own division last year with hopes of expanding into a swimsuit and lifestyle brand.

All of this statistically explains what you already know: Hot women sell. As Alexandra Schwartz aptly described it in The New Yorker, “What is the function of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue? Back in the day, it was reliable masturbation fodder, a late-winter gift to the flesh-starved straight-male gaze, though there’s now so much of that to go around on the seasonless Internet that the issue’s lustre as mainstream smut has faded.”

Therefore, with plentiful options of attractive women on the Internet, Swimsuit editors realized attention-grabbing is the way to ensure center stage. Throughout the years, the scantily clad women have become, well, even less scantily clad, to the point where calling it a swimsuit issue appears laughable.

So enter the #MeToo movement. With women understandably frustrated and intolerant of sexual harassment in the workplace, Sports Illustrated decided to capitalize on it in the guise of caring about it. This year’s Swimsuit Edition features a campaign called “In Her Own Words,” designed as an aesthetic tribute to sexual equality. It features women naked with nothing more than words written all over their bodies. Words like “nurturer,” “caring,” and “natural,” (the latter a bit ironic given the Photoshop edits all magazines employ) appear on the limbs of a group of models. Raisman is one of them.

Public Nudity Isn’t as Empowering as Some Think

Now, this isn’t an argument against women posing nude or provocatively. Every woman is entitled to freedom of expression and control over themselves. Before this gets misquoted or misinterpreted, let’s be clear: No man should ever make unwanted advances on a woman because of what clothing she is or isn’t wearing. A victim of sexual abuse is never, in any way, responsible for it.

With that said, why does a woman need to pose naked or accept nudity as a standard to spread female empowerment? If feminists really champion the acceptance of all female voices, then they shouldn’t repeatedly attempt to silence certain viewpoints from women. On Twitter, I shared these thoughts on the Swimsuit Issue’s campaign, and golfer Paige Spiranac responded in an exchange.

Spiranac is a former professional golfer who’s amassed quite a social media presence with 1.3 million Instagram followers. At one time she ranked as high as eighth in the world, then had some turbulence in her career. During a press conference for the Omega Dubai Ladies Classic in 2016, Spiranac was asked about cyber bullying she faced after shooting 77-79 and missing the cut for the Ladies’ European Tour event in 2015. She called the cyber harassment “the hardest experience of my life,” and reportedly stayed off social media for three weeks.

Those apprehensions apparently faded with her decision to pose completely nude. Spiranac told Sports Illustrated, “I’m going to show you sexy, and I’m going to do it my way.” In a Barstool Radio interview, Spiranac confessed she agreed to the shoot for personal reasons and to feel confident. She said she advocates women’s rights, but Spiranac and I philosophically disagree in using nudity to push that advocacy.

Look, I’m not here to criticize Spiranac’s position of wanting the freedom to look and dress provocatively. I wear makeup, post pictures of myself, and promote whereabouts on social media. Women should feel free, like men do, to embrace their appearance in constructive ways.

But own that without masking it under a civil rights movement. Spiranac and any other models posing nude should admit it is still done, to varying degrees, for male attention, fame, and publicity. Please, stop trying to connect your personal exhibitionism to large-scale female empowerment.

The only time in recent memory that a brand came close to actually encouraging women through visual means is the Dove Real Beauty campaign. Dove featured women of all shapes and sizes and from all ethnic backgrounds without airbrush editing, a stark comparison to chiseled athletes or lanky bikini models in the buff. Call me crazy, but the latter doesn’t necessarily push widespread body confidence, although Spiranac claims it will.

In a culture that’s now so accustomed to seeing the latest Kim Kardashian nude selfie, we’ve become desensitized to the shock value of nudity. Let’s move towards perhaps something more shocking: Buttoning up the clothes for equality in the office, classroom, and bank account. Let’s hope more women want to emulate Raisman’s strength taking on the world in the courtroom for women’s advancement, rather than taking off their clothes for fleeting Instagram likes or magazine publicity.

Britt McHenry is a journalist based in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter @BrittMcHenry.

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