The annual Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit edition is best known for the next-to-nothing that models wear. So why would this year’s issue feature a model who’s covered up from head to ankles?
It doesn’t seem to fit the swimsuit issue’s long history. Most of the year SI is a magazine that could be found without controversy on the coffee table of a sports-minded pastor. But in a bid to boost sales it has been featuring an annual swimsuit issue since 1964. Each year again editors try to figure out how they can display as much skin as possible, while still giving its mostly male readership some means of denying that what they have in their hands is mere smut. That’s why the models almost always wear something, though it’s the sort of something that leaves nothing to the imagination – body paint, fishnets, strategically placed hands, floss.
Again, why has an annual issue devoted to ogling decided to include a model wearing a swimsuit that has more material than everyone else’s combined? Halima Aden is Muslim, and the swimsuit she wears is a “burkini” – an ankle-to-wrist wetsuit combined with a head-covering hijab, its name a combination of “bikini” and “burqa.” As SI shared and hundreds of mainstream media outlets passed along, this was a “historic first” – the very first time SI has featured a burkini-wearing model in its pages.
The magazine has touted other “historic firsts” in the past: the first African American to be featured on the cover, the first plus-size (ie. regular-size) model, and the first amputee. But while they might have been innovations, a barely clad black, or disabled, or regular-sized woman remains a barely-clad woman, and all fit with the issue’s objectifying theme.
A covered up woman doesn’t. So what’s going on this year? SI editor MJ Day offered an explanation of sorts, saying that her and model Halima Aden:
“both believe the ideal of beauty is so vast and subjective….Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”
But what if you aren’t wild about either sort of swimsuit? SI has embraced these two choices, but their issue won’t show any others. If this was really about diversity then SI would get inspired by and follow through on Babylon Bee’s satiric headline:
“Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Features First-Ever Baptist Model In Floor-Length Denim Skirt”
It’s clear then that this was more publicity stunt than anything else.
From a Christian perspective what’s interesting is how both Aden’s burkinis and everyone else’s buck-nakedness share something in common. They might be polar opposites but both are rejections of God’s Truth.
The one type of rebellion is obvious: you only have to get three chapters into the Bible to know God doesn’t want fallen woman and man displaying all He gave us for any and all to see. God’s design for sexuality involves modesty. SI’s swimsuit issue does not.
The problem with the burkini is that in addition to modesty and charity, God also calls us to self-control (Prov. 25:28, Titus 2:6). The burkini – and the burqa it is based on – cover up women in a way that no man is required to dress because this style of dress presumes women have self-control and men really don’t. Thus women have to cover up to save us males from acting on our animalistic instincts. Sadly this man-as-a-Cro-Magnon view is echoed in some Christian circles when lustful thoughts are excused as the unavoidable offshoot of fashion that trends towards tighter and curvier. But make no mistake men, we are called to control ourselves and there is no putting off that responsibility on others.
From a worldly perspective, the latest SI swimsuit issue doesn’t make sense. It’s an incoherent muddle, celebrating both brazen and repressed sexuality. But the incomprehensible becomes understandable when we view it through a Christian lens. When we know there is a God-given Truth, and there is an Adversary trying frantically to undermine it, then it’s no surprise when we see him, in desperation, launching attacks from two opposite directions at once.