Every year since 1964, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue arrives with, if not quite as much anticipation as the days when kids would rush home from school to see if their dad's copy was in the mail, then with still quite a bit of fanfare.
And every year, in recent memory at least, so begins the conversation about whether the SISI is an objectifying remnant of a Mad Men-era society in which men see pretty women as there for the ogling.
The debate over whether cultural institutions such as the SI Swimsuit Issue or beauty pageants or Playboy—which has brought nudity back, by the way—are helping or hurting women by showcasing skin in a way that's being counted on to titillate the opposite sex continues to rage. And often times those who would say (rightfully) that a woman's body is hers to govern as she pleases are the same ones who object to racy magazine covers or naked centerfolds—or, in this day and age, naked selfies or episodes of Girls or Game of Thrones.
Then there is of course the camp, which also includes plenty of women, who look at the opportunity to pose for either SI or Playboy as just another chance to empower one's self. Besides, what's there to be ashamed of?
As Playboy announced on the cover of its newest issue: "Naked Is Normal."
But who's right about so-called men's magazines, and whether a woman is helping or hurting her cause (because according to everybody, every woman's primary cause should be to be taken seriously) by posting naked pics of herself or dressing a certain way in public?
Perhaps, so long as a woman is making decisions that make her feel like all the woman she can be, that's your answer right there.
Getty Images; Instagram; Sports Illustrated; Playboy
Kate Upton, who after landing the cover in 2012 and 2013 joined an elite club this week by becoming only the fifth model ever to cover the SI Swimsuit Issue three times (not including Elle Macpherson, who holds the record with five), said on Jimmy Kimmel Live last night during the annual unveiling that it was important to her to look "strong and healthy" for what was yet another historic issue for the mag.
"Especially when this year's theme is about every woman of every age and every body type being accepted," she said. "It was inspiring to be asked to be a part of that issue."
In the magazine, Upton explains that, to get the look she wanted, she focused on strength training and started thinking of her body as more of a powerful machine "and less of something people can judge me on. People feel ashamed when they look bad one day, but it's OK not to love yourself every second of every day. Appreciate what your body can do."
Yu Tsai/Sports Illustrated
Isn't that fairly inspirational?
Yet the SI Swimsuit Issue's stigma of being a guy's naughty indulgence, rather than—as perhaps Upton and others idealistically think of it—a publication that's going to inspire real women the way an SI cover featuring, say, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team would, lingers.
On the three covers Upton shot for 2017, she's not wearing much of a swimsuit on any of them. In one, all she's wearing is a multi-layer mixed-metal necklace (by 21HM for $60) and some coordinating chains on the bottom that would be covering absolutely nothing if she turned slightly to her left. In another she's gone nautical with a few strands of rope. And in the third, finally some white bikini bottoms, paired with an open spangled jacket.
Overall, it's her hands that are doing all the work on behalf of her missing tops.
The SI Swimsuit Issue cover models have certainly gone topless—or entirely suitless—before, and some have been painstakingly painted into what looks like a swimsuit but is actually just—yes—paint for the shoot, which takes months, big money and an ever-growing team of people to put together every year.
At least, slowly but surely, the publication is making an effort to include more than just the slenderest of the slender with the roundest of the boobs in their iconic issue.
And ironically, this won't even be the most naked sports magazine cover of the year—ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue will be out this summer and it'll be full of butt-naked female athletes. However, it will also be full of butt-naked male athletes, a fact that has largely absolved ESPN of the same sin that SI is repeatedly accused of.
Yet some of those athletes have still had to stick up for their choice to pose for the "Body Issue" in response to critics who think that the ladies are undercutting their own power for exposing themselves in that way.
"The pictures are not meant to cause offense and to brand them as immoral does not take into account the context of the magazine," Polish tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska, who's been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, wrote on Facebook after Christian circles back home accused her of acting immorally in 2013.
"Moreover the pictures do not contain any explicit imagery whatsoever. I train extremely hard to keep my body in shape and that's what the article and the magazine is all about." She added, "The Body issue is a celebration of the beauty of the best athletes in the world," continued the tennis star. "It includes men and women of all ages and all shapes and sizes."
Williams+Hirakawa for ESPN The Magazine
And just as is the case with many models who agree to something and own it but still have their reservations, male or female, not every single one of them was 100 percent thrilled about being nude.
"It didn't dawn on me until right when I walked on set that I would have to be without clothes," Venus Williams said in 2014 about her Body Issue photo shoot. "If I would have thought about it before, there may have been a little less of a chance."
Still others had an evolving perspective on the issue, such as Ronda Rousey, who caught flak when she stripped for the 2015 Body Issue after criticizing the ongoing tradition of having half-naked women parade around the fighting ring between matches. Rousey, who would go on to cover the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (in an actual suit), famously chose to do the Body Issue after she caught a boyfriend, "Snappers McCreepy," sneaking naked pictures of her and decided to beat him to the punch before he tried to put them online.
ESPN The Magazine
Exploitation of women is of course still a very real issue and the top .10 percent of models and athletes who are courted for Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, as well as the celebrities who are trying to "free the nipple" on Instagram or make a case for see-through fashion, do not represent every woman's experience of being judged or looked at in a certain way, either by men or society in general.
It's also quite possible that the deck will never be stacked equally, or at least won't be for ages, when it comes to the portrayal of and the sheer amount of female nudity versus the sort of reaction that male nudity, a rarer occurrence, elicits.
But the perspectives of the women who are willingly showing off their bodies or who enjoy expressing their sexuality in a certain way should not be dismissed. Just because we've seen a woman scantily clad or entirely naked doesn't make her perspective any less valid. Everyone's naked under their clothes, after all. (Also, even more importantly, posing naked once doesn't mean it's open season on a woman's privacy, or that she can be expected to show skin forever after.)
Gavin Bond for Playboy
The new SI Swimsuit Issue just so happens to have hit newsstands right after the return of nude pictorials to the pages of Playboy, less than a year after the 64-year-old magazine announced it was doing away with nudity in an effort to modernize its content.
Well, as it turned out, even with all the almost inescapable nudity in the media—whether it's online or on HBO—people still missed it when Playboy did away with it.
"I'll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake," Cooper Hefner, Chief Creative Officer and son of Playboy Enterprises founder Hugh Hefner, explained about the decision to return to form with the March/April issue. "Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn't a problem. Today we're taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are."
Cue the concern.
"A lot of people don't realize that Playboy has been rebranded," Australian model Bridget Malcolm, Playboy's Miss January 2017, told Australia's Daily Telegraph in response to the not entirely positive response she'd received for posing nude.
"It is no longer porn, they use high fashion girls, so once I explained that and explained the shoot is not soft porn, it is actual fashion, it's fine." Describing her pictorial as "light and celebratory," Malcolm added, "I want to remind people to live each moment in 2017. You don't want to wake up one day and regret having never truly lived."
Hugh and Cooper Hefner might argue that Playboy has never been "porn," soft-core or otherwise, but if the magazine wanted to be seen as moving with the times—along with the women who are emboldened rather than embarrassed by showing skin—then mission at least somewhat accomplished.
"There are several great reasons why female celebs line up to shoot Playboy: finally a woman gets paid more than a man for comparable work, she gets to set the rules, gets to be in a real team work with other women, as many key positions at Playboy are in fact held by women," Joanna Krupa, a two-time Playboy cover girl, told Fox News in 2009.
"She brings in her creative ideas, gets involved in the photo selection and ends up with something she co-created through and through."
Krupa acknowledged that the magazine didn't always invoke "a warm, fuzzy feeling" for women, but "many of the Playboy photos end up in the most praised photo and art magazines and in critically acclaimed photo exhibitions."
And if that was an overstatement, plenty of other nude photos of men and women—some celebrities, some not—have become iconic, from Annie Leibovitz's famous shot of John Lennon cuddled up to Yoko Ono taken hours before he died, to Demi Moore's naked-and-pregnant cover portrait for Vanity Fair (also by Leibovitz).
More recently, certain celebrities have made an art out of posting their own selfies on social media—none more so than Kim Kardashian, who curated her own archive for her picture book Selfish.
Perhaps no one has taken more heat in recent years than Kim for flaunting what she's got on TV, in magazines, on the red carpet, on Instagram or on Snapchat.
But with the criticism (Piers Morgan, for instance, is reliably irked when Kim posts a racy selfie) has come a flock of supporters, those who appreciate Kim's iron-tight grip on her own narrative and are all for a woman being proud of her body and wanting to shield her from those who would shame her for showing it off.
Emily Ratajkowski, who paid homage to a throwback nude Kim posted that garnered a lot of attention (including from Piers) and then joined the E! star for a selfie à deux, explained to London's ES magazine last summer why she rallied to Kim's defense.
"[Morgan was] talking about the fact Kim is 34 and a mother and that we're over seeing her in a sexual light, which I had a lot of problems with," said the model and actress, who first rose to fame as the scantily clad star of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video and has become somewhat of an unexpectedly profound defender of a woman's right to express her sexuality.
"He also implied that her husband was writing her tweets, as if she isn't capable of writing them herself, which to me is incredibly sexist."
Asked about the accusation that the "Blurred Lines" video set feminism back a few years, Ratajkowski argued, "Like any art, there's a million ways to interpret it. All I can say is that when a woman is naked, that's not immediately anti-feminist. I have no apologies for it, and I'm not ashamed at all."
"Why, do my t-ts bother you?" Rihanna, no stranger to the sexy selfie, joked with reporters who asked if she was in any "trouble" for wearing a Swarovski crystal-studded yet entirely see-through Adam Selman dress that showed her breasts at the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards, where she was receiving the Fashion Icon Award. Selman described the dress to Style.com as "just fishnet and crystals and a couple of fingers crossed."
Perhaps because fashion is still seen as the purview of women and gay men, women aren't as lambasted for their choices, whether it's to strut down a runway with their nipples showing or flash those very nipples on a red carpet. But show off their curves for a magazine that is historically purchased by men of the whistling-wolf variety, and all of a sudden they're walking a fine line between modeling and exploitation, as if—at least nowadays—a bunch of women don't work at Sports Illustrated or Playboy, or as if the models don't quite understand what they're doing.
Not every woman who's taken off her clothes in front of a camera lens—whether on print or in film—has done so willingly, and far fewer have been richly rewarded for their efforts.
But the battle over the proper treatment of women shouldn't be fought in an arena full of women who are enjoying showing off their bodies, many of whom are trying to share the more identifiable parts of their experience—their struggle with body image, with keeping fit, with feeling judged—with people who'd like to hear about it.
If the concern is that a woman wearing next to nothing on the cover of a magazine that sells millions of copies is giving too much power to men, then don't diminish her even further by stripping her of the courage of her convictions.