Diversity in SI Swimsuit Issue is Great But Does it Cross the Line?

Sports Illustrated’s new swimsuit issue is touted as a “diversity issue” intended to celebrate female models of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and figures.  But in featuring plus-size models, does diversity threaten to go too far?

On its face, any movement toward diversity in modelling is admirable – contemporary models of all stripes generally still skew too young, too white and too thin.  And where these models are insufficiently perfect, Photoshop exists to make them even more wrinkle-free, fairer and skinnier.

Luckily, there has been a movement in Europe to rectify at least one of these issues.  Via “skinny model” legislation, France, Italy, Israel and Spain have banned models from working if they are underweight.  In France, penalties for agencies and brands breaking this law range from jail time to hefty fines.  French law also mandates a fine for firms if they fail to clearly note within ads if models have been digitally altered.

From a health perspective, European countries appear to be serious in their attempts to rein in advertisers, designers and photographers.  This is great news –this year’s rookie Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Myla Dalbesio  echoes a concern voiced by many models – that industry-imposed parameters can be arbitrary and demeaning with years of being told that one is “too fat, then too thin”.  Movement toward regulating an industry which, for far too long, has promoted eating disorder-derived emaciated looks such as “heroin chic” deserves oversight and regulation.

However, we must now ensure that the pendulum does not swing too far the other way.  In promoting a wide range of models, Sports Illustrated should emphasize the promotion of health rather than physique.  While it is true that body types differ and that plus-size models can be beautiful, normalization of unhealthily obese models comes with very real risks.

In terms of individual risks, obese women deal with higher rates of heart disease, premature death, poorer quality of life, greater back pain, swings in body chemistry leading to depression, virtually certain onset of type-2 diabetes and knee and hip degeneration, just to name a few downsides.  With regard to societal and economic risks, in 2008 the CDC estimated that direct medical care costs of obesity in the United States were $147 billion with related obesity-related productivity costs ranging from $3.38 billion to $6.38 billion.

These totals are significant and will only grow in the coming years.  The public health epidemic of obesity threatens to devastate American families, and their wallets, for generations to come.  Luckily, being overweight is generally not an immutable characteristic.  With effort and support, it can change for the better and hopefully Americans will strive for a healthy middle ground before it’s too late.

Until then, just as we did (belatedly) for underweight models, it is up to us to remain vigilant against the normalization of obesity in popular media so that it does not proliferate and lead to unhealthy body standards for generations of women. This is not to say that diversity in physiques and imperfections should not to be celebrated in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.  Seeing a wide range and cross-section of women who are fit and confident should alleviate pressure on young girls and women to live up to an unrealistic, airbrushed ideal.

But that obesity kills is not an alternative fact, it is simply reality.

Jason Chung is a researcher and attorney at NYU School of Professional Studies Sports and Society, an interdisciplinary think tank dedicated to the study of social issues through sports.

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