For 55 issues a year, Sports Illustrated produces solid, mature writing that rises above sports cliché and hyperbole in such an inspired way as to justify the magazine’s continued existence in the age of instant information and sock-drawer opinion.
Then, come February, the chicks are in the mail.
The arrival of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is like coming home to discover that your normally sober great-aunt is slapstick, manhandling, showtunes drunk: it’s completely out of character, it’s equal parts embarrassing and appalling, and yet you can’t help but stare in fascination and the secret hope that something will pop out.
The marketers call it the most anticipated issue of the year. If “anticipated” is a synonym for “awkward,” then yes.
My son’s subscription copy has remained on our kitchen table since it arrived in the mail last week. No one really wants to claim it, yet it can’t be entirely ignored. It’s kind of giving off a hum. It may actually be throbbing.
It’s like a guest wearing too much perfume but everyone is too uncomfortable to say anything.
Everyone, that is, except Abby.
My 11-year-old collected the magazine at the post office last week and carried it back to the car, staring at the pile, walking slowly, enthralled, a traffic hazard.
“Her boobs are showing,” she said when she got back in the car, model Kate Upton all air-brushed and cushiony on her lap.
“No they’re not,” I scoffed, glancing over. “It’s just a lot of cleavage.”
A lot of cleavage.
Trying not-at-all-awkwardly to change the subject, I added, “I heard them talking about this on the radio. They shot this cover in Antarctica! Can you believe she’s dressed like that in Antarctica? Look: icebergs!”
No, really, I was pointing at icebergs; it wasn’t a euphemism.
Abby flipped through the pages as we drove home. I kept peeking over, just to monitor what she was looking at, you understand.
“This is porn,” she said.
“It’s not porn,” I said. “It’s just nudity.”
“It’s totally nudity porn.”
There was no way I was going to get into what constitutes porn, nor was I going to launch into a dissertation on the Nipple Threshold in Contemporary Western Culture. I was going to be cool about this.
“They’re just boobs,” I said. “I mean 50 percent of the world’s population have them, so what’s the big deal, right?”
“But why are they in a sports magazine?” Abby asked.
It’s a good question. Back in the day (ahhh, Elle MacPherson…), the swimsuit issue was the shy guy’s girlie mag, its acceptability rationalized because it was a “sports” magazine. Today, though, unlike SI’s usual smart sportswriting, the swimsuit issue ain’t got nothin’ that the Internet isn’t giving away for free.
Plus, we supposedly live in a more enlightened age, making the swimsuit issue feel somewhat archaic, quaint, even embarrassing, which may explain why our copy is still unclaimed and pulsating on the kitchen table. I’ve barely flipped through it more than four or nine times, and that was solely for research purposes.
“I don’t know,” I answered Abby, “it’s pretty silly, really. It’s supposed to be about modeling swimsuits, but it’s just… well… people [men] sometimes [always] like to look at [ogle] beautiful [half-naked] women [Kate Upton].”
At this point you have to understand that it was very important for me to keep talking to avoid the “Do you like to look at beautiful women?” question. Most men would rather define what constitutes porn than answer that question from their daughters. Brilliantly, I quickly steered “awkward conversation” into “valuable life lesson”:
“But you know, the problem with this type of magazine is that young girls like you see these models and think that’s what all women should look like, even though very few women do. It gives them unrealistic expectations and can make them feel unhappy about their bodies. But women come in all sizes and shapes and are just as beautiful.”
We pulled into the driveway. Abby had by now flipped to the centre pages featuring more photos of Kate Upton frolicking starkers in Antarctica.
“But why? Why would women do that?” Abby asked.
“Well,” I said, “the models make a lot of money to pose, and, you know, it’s her choice to do what she wants with her body.”
“No, I mean she must be cold!”
To my credit, I refrained from saying, “Yes, she does look a little nippy.”