The SI cover debate

What does a picture say?

If it’s the Sports Illustrated cover of it’s Winter Olympics preview featuring Lindsey Vonn, quite a bit. A brief post critiquing the choice of photo for the cover by Nicole M. LaVoi, a sports psychology and sports sociology professor at the University of Minnesota drew so many comments and such ire in the cyberworld that it crashed the distribution site Women Talk Sports.

LaVoi’s post discussed the traditional nature of Vonn’s cover shot — one which plays of up her femininity rather than her athleticism. Take this in the context that Sports Illustrated woefully under-represents women’s sports in it’s pages and on its cover and the message can be read that the only female athletes worthy of attention are those who are beautiful (in traditional ways).

The comments slammed Dr. LaVoi back, arguing that the pose was not “sexualized,” that it was a typical “pose” for a downhill skier, that Vonn is one of the best American skiers of either ender and that LaVoi was being too politically correct and too sensitive.

At the risk of not having an opinion, I find a mix of feelings about the selection for the cover shot.

First, I’m disappointed in the SI cover photo. Why? Because it sends a message that for women, beauty comes first. It’s a glam shot. I do not think that it’s sexualized or a case for pure objectification. The question for me is: Would a male athlete be posed to play up his good looks? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. But the female athlete is almost always posed so that we can see her face and emphasize her looks in addition to her athletic skill. It’s an apologetic female athlete stereotype — I may be a really tough athlete, but I’m still a pretty girl so don’t be too intimidated. What critics like Dr. LaVoi point out is that Vonn could still be the cover girl, but with a shot of her actually competing in her event, rather than something that’s posed.

But there is a second point for me, too. One that says there is a fine balance between the apologetic female stereotype and a backlash against female athletes who embrace their femininity. My knowledge of Vonn is limited but she has been inserted into the “sexy or sexist” debate. To me, it’s a false choice because it says we need to make a choice — that you either enjoy playing with traditional feminine markers or you are a serious athlete making serious strides for women’s sports everywhere.

There are a thousand shades of gray in the world. And we each get to choose what is right for us. What feels authentic and real.

If Vonn is comfortable with the presentation, if this is her fun and authentic self then I can celebrate that with her even if I would rather Sports Illustrated show a more varied, more representational portrait of all female athletes.


~ by amymoritz on February 5, 2010.

6 Responses to “The SI cover debate”

  1. Great take, Amy. Here’s another thought:

    How can we be surprised about the cover shot when in just a few weeks (if not already) there will be a hot, wrapped in paper swim suit issue which has little relationship to serious sport.

    In 1968 at the age of 10 I first became interested in SI when I saw my brother’s magazine with Peggy Fleming on the cover. Yes, she was skating but she was also beautiful. This was before Title IX and talk of equality was just a dream.

    Did the cover of Michael Phelps with his millions of medals draped perfectly on his bare chest cause men to jump up and declare their outrage over the sexual overtone of the posed picture?

    I personally took no offense to the cover…my husband and I talked about it just this morning…why can’t we all just lighten up?

    Jude Russo Caserta

  2. There’s something that’s just not right with her bum blocking out half of the word “illustrated”. My first impulse is to laugh! SI certainly got my attention. Maybe it’s the old adage at work, “there’s no such thing as bad press”…

  3. Thanks Amy, you provide additional insight into what has become a hot debate. -nml

  4. Has anybody this bothers ever skied. Lindsey Vonn is a downhill racer and we all need to hope she can hold that tuck and win gold at Vancouver. I am a male skier and I think it is great that skiing, downhill racing and especially women’s downhill is significant enough to make the cover. Again, Lindsey, good luck in Vancouver….don’t let this noise distract you…keep them pointed downhill and go as fast as you possibly can. We are excited for you to have this great opportnity. MLF

  5. SO… “THEY”( have a problem with a “provocative” photo of an attractive female skier out in her environment. Have they looked at their own website and seen the ad on the left for a book titled “Playing with the Boys” in which a female soccer player is sitting in a “provocative” pose with bra strap showing, a short skirt, and legs facing toward the all male football team? **Why is it that these “controversies” are almost always started by some small group that never see the whole picture. **The SI cover is a beautiful work of art with great colors, contrast, and yeah, an attractive woman bent over in a full tuck ski position. **If it was a male skier, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. **”THEY” should go fight the porn sites that use pics of female athletes in a FAR more controversial manner!!

  6. Jeff – just to be clear, doesn’t have a problem with the SI cover. The site publishes posts by a wide range of writers with varying points of view and serves as a forum for all topics related to women and sport.

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