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.

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