Shapeling Ellen writes in:
Last night I ran across a picture of the 1965 Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover. I was so surprised by the difference between then and now in terms of what is considered “ideal” that I created a side-by-side comparison of 1965 vs. 2008.
[Click here for larger version.]
I’ve never understood the hoopla over the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — or rather, I’ve always been amazed at how incredibly mundane the whole idea is: let’s take a magazine that is, for most of the year, about sports, and for one magical week, we’ll just put softcore porn in it instead. It’s not quite like the infamously pornalicious Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, which do more blatantly what most advertising does, which is to buy your attention with half-naked bodies. Sports Illustrated does the same thing, but without the premise of selling you something (though I have no doubt that it makes a mint from the ads in the swimsuit issues). This issue comes out every year, and we all know what it’s going to contain — mostly naked women on beaches, in poses that perform “sexiness” in comically predictable ways. It’s a big wankfest, is what I’m saying, and it’s a boring wankfest at that.
Which is why the graphic Ellen made is so illustrative. What is considered blandly inoffensive wank material in 1965 versus 2008? There are some very obvious similarities between the two women: both are white, (dyed) blonde, and thin; both look directly at the viewer in an inviting, not hostile manner; both are showed from the front, emphasizing their hourglass figures. So: thin white blonde hourglass women who want you to look right at them, who invite your gaze. They’re on the beach to be looked at; neither has so much as a single damp lock of hair. Many aspects of the ideal wank stay the same in these two images.
However, there are striking differences. For one thing, the actual amount of swimsuit featured in this swimsuit issue is drastically different. In 1965, the swimsuit is actually kind of an interesting design (a bit Jetsons-y, don’t you think?) and covers most of the model’s torso, and it’s the only thing she’s wearing; in 2008, we see only the bottom of a bikini, and the model’s nipples are covered by beaded necklaces which would be incredibly impractical on the beach (she’s also wearing a pendant in there somewhere). This contrast — between a woman who might conceivably be swimming at some point, and a woman who could not possibly swim without strangling on her own tacky accessories — is heightened by the backdrop: the 1965 photo looks like it might actually be taken on a beach, given that we see the shoreline at a middle distance behind the model. In 2008, by contrast, the model appears to be floating on water, Christlike. In other words, she may be wearing a swimsuit, but this cover photo doesn’t even attempt to create the illusion that she’s wearing it for any reason but to please you, the theoretical male viewer. The way I see it, this contrast in framing — “oh hey, there happens to be a pretty lady on this beach” versus “HELLO SAILOR” — also extends to what is probably the most glaring difference between these two otherwise rather similar models: the way their “ideal” figures are displayed. The 1965 model smiles her apple-cheeked smile, while the 2008 model does the “my lips are open because I am ready to blow you any second now” Sexy Face that’s now standard posing fare. The 1965 model has only a little cleavage, and she has visible chub at her underarms, hips, and thighs that would be ruthlessly photoshopped out today. Even with no bikini top, the 2008 model’s breasts are perkier than her 1965 counterpart’s; her pose is chosen to emphasize her rack and her hips; and any hint of fat, wrinkles, hair, or any other sign of humanity have been digitally removed. The 1965 cover looks like a very conventionally attractive woman you might see on a beach; the 2008 version looks like a standard issue item from the Wank Factory.*
This comparison is a great example of how beauty standards that start out extremely narrow (white, thin, blonde, hairless, a certain kind of curvy) have become narrower over the last few decades. The 1965 model looks, well, kind of chubby compared to the images of “ideal” women we are used to seeing now. No doubt if they put her clone on the cover today, we would be subject to hand-wringing editorials about obesity and bad examples as straight men pile up on the fainting couch.
It’s instructive to look at this kind of image not because there was a golden era of wank fodder which was somehow okay and empowering;** there clearly wasn’t, and the swimsuit issue is a grossly overcelebrated tradition of straight-up objectification. But in a visual culture that depends on the assumption that women’s bodies are available for men’s pleasure at all times, it’s striking to see the continuities and changes in the images that work to explicitly reinforce that assumption. Vanishingly few women look like the model in the 1965 cover; no one looks like the woman in the 2008 cover, including the model herself.
**Further reading: Joan Acocella’s review of a coffeetable book of Playboy centerfolds over the years. Sample quote: Six hundred and thirteen women are represented, but there is one basic model. On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield. Playboy was launched in 1953, and this female image managed to draw, simultaneously, on two opposing trends that have since come to dominate American mass culture: on the one hand, our country’s idea of its Huck Finn innocence; on the other, the enthusiastic lewdness of our advertising and entertainment. We are now accustomed to seeing the two tendencies combined—witness Britney Spears—but when Hefner was a young man they still seemed like opposites. Also, I can’t resist including this part: At the same time, many of these nice little girls are fantastically large-breasted. Strange to say, this top-loading often makes them appear more childlike. The breasts are smooth and round and pink; they look like balloons or beach balls. The girl seems delighted to have them, as if they had just been delivered by Santa Claus.