The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue features female athletes again this year, in addition to the models. The good news is that appearing in sexy garb, it seems, is no longer a threat to a woman's image as a serious athlete. This is progress — but true sports-sexuality equality won't be reached until we see male athletes in the swimsuit issue.
Hurdler Michelle Jenneke and surfer Alana Blanchard are among those in the 2013 swimsuit edition, and while their photos are undeniably sexy, they're unlikely to get the kind of criticism that Anna Kournikova got for appearing in music videos and commercials. The same goes for soccer star Alex Morgan's turn as Katy Perry in this year's ESPN Music Issue.
In large part this is because sports (and non-sports) media have begun to acknowledge the physical attractiveness of male athletes. ESPN's Body Issue features both men and women for equal-opportunity objectification. And outlets from Jezebel to BuzzFeed Sports have made public the ogling of male athletes — which, of course, plenty of fans were already doing in private.
Now that posing in scanty clothing is something all athletes do, not just women, female athletes can do it to enhance their image and recognition as athletes, not necessarily just as an effort to transition into spokesmodeling. This wouldn't be the first time something women did became acceptable only when men started doing it, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with athletes showing off their impressive physiques, and if sports stars of either gender want to do it, they shouldn't pay a career penalty. It's also good to see the stereotype that strong, athletic women can't be sexy break down a bit — although the women featured in the Swimsuit Issue so far have mostly been shaped like conventional swimsuit models, ESPN has highlights female athletes of varying body types.
We're still a way off from full Sexiness Equality, though. Female athletes may not pay a price for appearing in the Swimsuit Issue, but we have yet to see any male athletes in there. Slate's Amanda Hess thinks that's because SI "would risk turning off the issue's heterosexual male audience" if it published guys in Speedos. Which might be true — but the magazine claims 18 million women buy the issue, and we're long past pretending that women don't want to look at attractive, barely-clad men. Given the homophobia that still surrounds professional sports, it might be a good idea for male SI subscribers to get a little more comfortable with the male form. SI's gay male readers might appreciate it too — and the magazine has always thought of itself as having a social conscience, something they've demonstrated lately specifically in reference to gay rights.
The obvious choice, should SI decide to go this route, would be the man 30 Rock christened a "sex idiot" and Jezebel's Erin Ryan called "America's sexiest douchebag" — Ryan Lochte, of course. He's already America's most objectified male athlete, and posing for SI might even be good for his image, making him seem less douchey and more forward-thinking. It could even help him in the transition to general celebrity that he seems intent on making (a neat gender reversal of Anna Kournikova's path).
SI likely isn't going to give up its cover to a man any time soon. But surely they can spare a page in 2014 for Ryan. It's just the right thing to do.