Tablet Life & Arts

‘Sports Illustrated’ and Barbie aren’t only villains here

The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is out — along with the usual debates about objectifying women as sexual beings, modesty as a lost value and the undeniable fact that beauty is a random gift distributed by the fickle hand of an unfair God.

This year, the swimsuit issue marks the 50th anniversary of what began as a desperate attempt by the magazine to shore up circulation during the dearth of sports news in the winter. The idea turned out to be so popular that frolicking beauties with almost nothing on became as much of a sporting event as the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Olympics — but not without a corresponding chorus of critics.

Detractors complained, sometimes rightly so, that these airbrushed examples of femininity contributed to girls’ distorted body images. The ruckus, however, has done little to curb sales. By some estimates, the swimsuit issue accounts for 11 percent of the magazine’s annual revenue and attracts mucho, mucho attention, the kind of buzz money can’t buy.

So it should come as no surprise that SI pulled out all the stops for this milestone birthday. The 2014 issue, as thick as a small city’s phone book, has three models on the cover instead of one, a whopping 112 pages of advertising, a record number of sponsors, and Barbie posing as one of the hot babes.

Yes, Barbie, the buxom plastic bod that started it all. And by “all” I mean that Barbie has served as lightning rod in the decades-old discussion about the lessons we’re teaching our daughters. Many believe that Barbie, with her impossible body measurements and infinite good hair days, whispers the wrong message into the ears of our impressionable little girls.

I’m not one of those people. I also don’t believe that playing with an ugly doll will necessarily change the way a girl thinks of her body. So much more goes into the complex way we women view ourselves. Blaming a doll with gravity-defying body parts for the unreasonable and unattainable notions we have of the female figure is simplistic. Insulting, even.

Censure should be spread among the shapewear makers, the miracle bra inventors, the Photoshop and airbrush artists, the store mannequins, the cosmetics industry, the diet pill manufacturers, the plastic surgeons, the advertisers and copywriters, the fashion designers, the divas and actresses and celebrities. And of course we, too, must carry the blame for every little dig we utter about sagging breasts, big butts and widening waists.

But because Barbie’s body has the same relationship to reality as the odds I have of looking like Christie Brinkley at 60, a doll is the perfect addition to SI’s swimsuit edition. In a brilliant marketing move, Mattel gets much-needed attention at a time when its sales are slipping and SI creates more than your average outrage for its annual issue. The latter has already happened.

The former? I guess we’ll have to wait on the toy company’s financial statements.

Instead of pointing the finger at Barbie — or at SI, which reportedly reaches 17 million women — I’d like to suggest a different strategy, one that requires more thought and less knee-jerk reaction. Swimsuit model is just one of the 150 careers Barbie has practiced in her 55-year lifespan. And that underscores this wonderful truth: A little girl can be whatever she wants to be, bathing beauty or engineer or teacher or astronaut. Or, yes, a newspaper columnist.

After all, in the genetic lottery that is life, an expansive brain lasts longer than a tiny waist.