When Sports Illustrated went with “Hannah Davis Goes Down South to a Blackberry Farm in Tennessee” for the cover of the latest swimsuit edition, I’m sure there was no winking and nodding with “south” and mentions of a fruit that grows on a bush. Well, technically it’s a shrub, but the distance between a bush and a shrub is about as narrow as the distance between the top of that bikini bottom and the source of debate about that Sports Illustrated cover.
The picture, in which Davis isn’t quite as covered as many would prefer, is definitely risqué; Sports Illustrated should have dressed her in yoga pants. Alas, they did not and now we’re here, trying to decide if the picture is truly controversial or if the controversy is ridiculous.
First things first. A quick technically-suitable-for-work-but-I wouldn’t-click-if-I-were-you Google search reveals this wasn’t the first time Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition has swum these waters. But this does seem to be the first year we’ve decided to have a national conversation on it, because progress, so there’s a panoply of criticisms to choose from.
Starting at the top, Jennifer Weiner at The New York Times is super concerned about this fresh focus on the mons pubis. As Weiner explains, covers like this and the concomitant attention it will drive to that area means that soon surgeries, exercises, diets—hell, a whole cottage industry—will arise to service the mons pubis. If Weiner expressed similar consternation over the vajazzling trend a few years back or the possible ageism in the Times’ own nickname, I cannot find it.
Over at Us Weekly, Candace Amos was focused more on the facts than explaining how the picture is going to have a profound effect on women worldwide. She merely offered a poll and some examples of similar poses. She also did the yeoman’s work of finding the exceptionally similar Bar Rafaeli cover from 2009 that mysteriously didn’t cause society to implode. Perhaps it’s the final quarter inch Davis ebbed in the ever-retreating distance from navel to top of the bikini that made this year different. Or perhaps there’s something else at work altogether here.
Even A Blind Squirrel Occasionally Finds an Acorn
There’s an expression that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn. And one of the squirrels at Jezebel, Tracy Moore to be precise, may have just found herself an acorn.
It’s all part of our weird shame spiral of Puritanism and prurience, and these sorts of pictures in mainstream, ubiquitous places make us squeamish. That’s pornographic! And it’s not over there with the porn where it’s supposed to be! What’s she doing there, making me uncomfortable?
And this is the weird rock and a low-slung bikini place we put women in when they traffic in their own sexuality as a commodity. But the models are just doing their jobs—it’s us who needs to stop being so dumb about it.
Okay, I may have oversold it a bit. If you really thought Jezebel could drop some serious knowledge, then you need to take a spin through the old shame spiral. But Moore is right that part of the problem is the juxtaposition of Puritanism and prurience. We enjoy a little salaciousness, but we also like the opportunity to use our imaginations instead of having salaciousness thrust upon us.
Everything Old Is New Again
Except remember that Kelly LeBrock Cosmo cover from 1981? I don’t. I was 6. My memories of LeBrock are more about “Weird Science” than Cosmo. And “Weird Science” was a great, wholesome movie with no scenes of southward drifting unmentionables. This scene definitely ended up on the cutting room floor. This one of the sexy high school gym coach, while marked by much more clothing, didn’t make it, either. So we’re still dealing with a rather recent phenomenon when it comes to prurience and exposed flesh.
That is, as long as we ignore Victoria’s Secret, which is a little more reserved and behind the curve than was “Weird Science.” Nevertheless, Alessandra Ambrosio was tugging on her bikini bottom back in 2008. And much like Rafaeli and 2009, there was no controversy. Maybe it really is a problem of inches.
Or it could just be that some people have too much free time, don’t pay enough attention to history, and expend way too much energy when it comes to finding things to be outraged about. Imagine the sturm und drang that would have exploded had the Internet had been around when this Roman woman with strategically placed water dish was sculpted. Or the panic that would have ensued when Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova gave us “Odalisque with Slave.” Let’s not forget Picasso and “Two Nude Women.”
Of course, Serebriakova and Picasso only get us back to the nineteenth century. If we go back farther, to the fifteenth century and Sandro Botticelli, we find “Birth of Venus.” Talk about salacious! And Venus didn’t even bother with an itsy witsy teeny weeny black and sparkly gold bikini. She just employed her hair and a forearm.
To be fair, Sports Illustrated might have invited this extra scrutiny. This swimsuit edition was especially noteworthy, as Sports Illustrated included “plus-size” model Robyn Lawley. While it’s true that she’s taller than a mountain, “plus size” isn’t exactly an accurate description of Lawley. She also pulled at her bikini bottom, but it was a rather gentle pull, especially when compared to Davis’s. Maybe that’s what this is all about—that extra quarter inch lower that Davis went than went Rafaeli (which was several inches lower than the other models who have posed similarly).
The Swimsuit Bottom As a Limbo Pole
Perhaps it really is a game of inches, of a bikini pulled a little lower than normal and at a moment when we have time and energy to focus on what’s not being revealed. As Davis herself said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “The fact is, you can’t see anything. So all we’re talking about is what you cannot see. That’s why I think it’s funny.”
She continued, “For the people that think it’s too risqué, it’s probably just not the right magazine for them. I’ve been hearing, ‘Yes, but it’s on newsstands.’ And I’m like, ‘So is Playboy and FHM and porn magazines.’ If you’re talking about your child seeing that image, between social media and anything else these days, I think it’s the least of your concerns.”
She’s right. We have limitless amounts of real porn at our fingertips; its ubiquity is undeniable. If our concern is the onslaught of salacious images, Sports Illustrated is among the least of them. If all our national conversations were about itsy witsy teeny weeny black and sparkly gold bikinis, then we’d actually still be having this one. But that’s a good thing. Every now and again, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s something almost endearing about the throwback of just a swimsuit magazine and the old-fashioned opportunity to use, or not, our imaginations.