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Funny how quickly a paradigm shift gets absorbed into our culture, how easily the unimaginable becomes the new normal.

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that Aussie plus-size model Robyn Lawley was breaking barriers with her appearance in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition? Wasn’t it just last year that the unstoppable Ashley Graham elbowed other beach babes out of the way on her march to the cover of the notoriously piggish magazine, crushing stereotypes in her path?

Now it’s 2017 and there’s another edition of the annual fleshfest and this time the cast is so broadly diverse and inclusive it makes it easy to forget how long it took SI to get here. Sports Illustrated has at long last embraced diversity with real conviction, so let’s give credit where it’s due.

Sure, there’s the usual assortment of international supermodels among the 31 women featured, and sure fantasy girl Kate Upton gets the cover again, spilling out of a bikini that’s two sizes too small … nothing new there. But SI’s editors have worked diligently to assemble a cast of models that is more representative of the vast panorama of contemporary women — something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

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For 2017, there’s not one token plus model, there are four — Robyn, Ashley, Myla Dalbesio and Hunter McGrady — demonstrating how that badly-labeled category is also a diverse one that includes many different body types.

There are teenagers (Simone Biles, Sailor Lee Brinkley) and 63-year-old Christie Brinkley (above) along with women from all corners of the world and many different ethnicities.

Most significant, though, is SI’s embrace of its own publishing DNA by including an unprecedented number of female athletes. There are three tennis pros (including the awe-inspiring Serena Williams) and two tiny but equally chiseled gymnasts — all women who are global symbols of strength, determination and performance, better known for their accomplishments than for how they look in a bikini.

It’s tempting to view all this as stunt casting (and heaven knows there’s enough of THAT going on these days) — add a token senior citizen here and a token big girl there and maybe the haters will get off your back — but there’s more reason to believe the editorial team at SI is serious about joining the dialogue about women’s bodies in a meaningful and respectful way.

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In an essay released yesterday in the newsletter SI Swim Daily, model Myla Dalbesio talks about the “cognitive dissonance” of being a feminist while also wanting to be in the SI Swimsuit Edition, and how she learned to overcome her own “smug judgments” about women who appear in those pages. When the plus-size model is invited to audition, the magazine’s editor MJ Day reminds her of the uphill battle to change the narrow focus of SI Swim, saying: “It’s tough to push back against a system of men that are scared to take chances.” It’s a powerful read, and one that openly acknowledges the magazine’s own shortcomings in the past.

Meanwhile, Hunter McGrady (above), part of the rookie team and the most voluptuous model in this year’s crew, saluted the strides made by the magazine in opening up it casting. In an Instagram message, she had this to say: “Women, for anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable or insecure because of rolls, or stretch marks, or cellulite, or acne, or felt like you didn’t measure up because you weren’t represented in the magazines — THIS IS FOR YOU!”

But before we get too carried away with the high-fives, let’s remember that the SI Swimsuit Edition has a long way to go to reframe its public image. And it doesn’t help that the 2017 edition backslides repeatedly into a few bad old habits: the photoshoots are still too fake-looking and heavily photoshopped, and it’s still infatuated with creepy sexist tropes like models tugging at their bikini bottoms and those grotesque body-paint swimsuits (which really aren’t the masterpieces the magazine would have you believe they are).

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SI also stubbornly continues to put a premium on looks over substance, which is the kind of thing that can undermine all the progress it’s made this year. Canadian tennis ace Genie Bouchard (main photo above) bares a lot of skin in a sexed-up shoot and Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman (above) performs enough cheesy porn-fantasy poses to set her sport back a couple of decades — proving once again that serious, professional, high-achieving women can be objectified and reduced to demeaning stereotypes just as easily as anyone else.

Of course, the SI editorial team tries gamely to get its models to reveal their inner depths in accompanying articles and videos, but sometimes the substance just isn’t there. One member of the rookie class (you can find her yourself), for example, turns out to be a pretty model who looks good in a bikini and says she enjoys parties and playing video games … and that’s about it. It’s hard not to conclude that, regardless of how sexy she may be, she’s the one who seems out of place in a 2017 class that includes world-conquering icons like Ashley and Serena and Simone.

But maybe that’s part of SI’s message in this year’s big, broad canvas of contemporary womanhood: that, in the world’s infinitely deep talent pool of strong, sexy, empowered women, there’s a place for girls from the shallow end too.

Posted in Insight

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