If you’re a sports fan, you’re well-acquainted with Sports Illustrated. The magazine has millions of subscribers and provides in-depth information on your favorite stars, including their Sportsperson of the Year. And of course, the Swimsuit issue is one of the most highly-anticipated editions.
However, the Swimsuit issue isn’t always smooth-sailing for the magazine. Several photos have shocked and angered loyal SI fans over the years. Here we rank the most controversial Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos ever published, including the infamous fishnet outfit donned by an iconic model (page 10).
16. Sailor Brinkley Cook’s nude photos
The 2018 “In Her Own Words” photo shoot, which involved models posing nude with empowering words of their choosing written on their bodies, struck nerves all over the internet. And famous supermodel Christie Brinkley’s daughter, Sailor Brinkley Cook, received plenty of backlash for the shoot. Critics said the 19-year-old objectified herself and sent a bad message, according to Fox News.
In response, Cook wrote on her Instagram that the backlash hit her emotionally. “This project, for me and for the other girls who CHOSE to participate, was about TAKING OUR POWER BACK,” she wrote.
Next: The 2015 cover model’s pose nearly reveals it all.
15. Hannah Davis’ scandalous cover
Sports Illustrated rarely shies from the risqué, but one cover in particular outraged many. The 2015 cover featured a 24-year-old Hannah Davis yanking her bikini bottoms to a dangerously low degree, Business Insider reports. The responses on social media were similar all around, with many calling the photograph “pornographic” or “outrageous.”
The model doesn’t regret the shoot, however. When Davis talked with Matt Lauer about the cover, she said, “I think you’re making it look a lot naughtier than it really is.”
Next: Everyone could spot this model’s bad airbrushing.
14. Kate Upton’s airbrushed body
Kate Upton’s known for her voluptuous curves — it’s what readers expect out of her Sports Illustrated covers. But one of her photos caused many to scratch their heads and resulted in a lot of backlash.
New York Daily News notes this cover in particular shows Upton looking unusually petite, especially in the bust area. Her stomach looks uncharacteristically flat and defined, and she has a “strangely absent nether region.” Even Upton’s face looks rather bland and unlike her real features, clearly showing just how much airbrushing goes into perfecting these photos.
Next: These gymnasts participated in a sexy shoot many saw as inappropriate.
13. Simone Biles and Aly Raisman’s shoot
Sports Illustrated broke from their usual mold when they featured Olympic athletes in their swimsuit issue. Aly Raisman and Simone Biles showed off their muscular frames in the 2017 edition and received tons of backlash from this departure from their usual leotards. Many expressed disappointment due to Raisman and Biles’ young fans who view the gymnasts as role models rather than sexualized women.
Despite criticism, US Weekly says the athletes and editors are proud of the shoot. “Aly and Simone represent all that is beautiful and strong and inspiring in women today. I love seeing them shine in an entirely different way,” SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day says.
Next: The curviest SI model ever angers some readers.
12. Hunter McGrady’s unedited photos
Demand for unedited photos of real women caused Sports Illustrated to make brave new moves. While the “In Her Own Words” photo shoot in itself caused backlash for the magazine, the shoot features totally unedited takes of women from all walks of life. And Hunter McGrady, a size-16 model, is one of the women featured.
McGrady says the shoot was “a very personal, intimate,” and “empowering” experience, especially because she was told countless times she’d never make it as a model, The Independent reports. But of course, as SI’s curviest model, not everyone thinks she should have a place in the magazine. Some say the body positivity movement is normalizing dangerously overweight bodies.
Next: This shoot was dangerous to the model’s health.
11. Kate Upton’s sultry (and dangerous) Antarctica shoot
The 2013 swimsuit issue featured models in different continents representing cultures worldwide. Kate Upton’s shoot took place in Antarctica, the driest and coldest place on earth. This didn’t stop the model from posing nearly nude in the cold climate, however, even though Upton said her body started to shut down from exposure to the elements.
Once the photos released, many criticized Upton’s curves, saying she was too big to be on the cover. In response, she said, “My curves are natural. They’re not going away no matter how hard I work out,” USA Today reports.
Next: This famous tennis player was called “a hooker” for this shoot.
10. Serena Williams’ Sportsperson of the Year shoot
This photo session wasn’t specifically for the swimsuit edition, but the severe backlash Serena Williams felt as a result of her sexy shoot is still worth noting. In 2015, the magazine dubbed Williams Sportsperson of the Year. She then had a photo shoot that showed off her legs in a sultry pose.
Bloggers and columnists were quick to judge Williams, saying she looked like “a hooker” and that she “wants one thing, and it’s not a chat with the line judge,” The Independent notes. Several feminists came to Williams’ defense afterward.
Next: Many didn’t see this coming from Sports Illustrated in 2018.
9. Brenna Huckaby, the first featured amputee
In an attempt to empower and feature women from all walks of life, the 2018 swimsuit issue is the first to show an amputee in the spread. The Independent says Brenna Huckaby, a snowboarder and Paralympian, was excited to have the opportunity to promote body positivity with her shoot. Huckaby lost her leg to bone cancer in 2010.
The 22-year-old says the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and many women have reached out to show their support. Even so, with any big step for Sports Illustrated, there’s guaranteed to be some backlash from those who unsubscribe.
Next: This Sports Illustrated ad was seriously bizarre.
8. The Sports Illustrated DirecTV ad that confused us all
There was a time when the swimsuit models didn’t only grace the covers of Sports Illustrated. Business Insider explains popular SI models Hannah Davis, Chrissy Teigen, and Nina Agdal also appeared in a DirecTV ad campaign. Unfortunately, it fell flat with viewers and received a ton of backlash.
The campaign has the models dressed as frumpy moms, crazy cat ladies, and women serving lunch. And many people thought the photos were sexist and demeaning to the working class. When we look at the images, we can’t but consider this, too.
Next: We’ll never forget this fishnet outfit.
7. Cheryl Tiegs’ infamous fishnet outfit
Known as one of the most famous modeling photos ever, Cheryl Tiegs’ fishnet top shows more skin than many were prepared for. The white bathing suit wasn’t a bikini — but the fishnet material made her torso and breasts completely visible. When this photo was released in the ’70s, it’s no surprise it received some backlash.
The photo caused so much controversy, in fact, that Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell tells CNBC he wouldn’t even consider putting it out there today.
Next: This model showed off her curves — and another model didn’t care for it.
6. Ashley Graham’s plus-sized cover
Sports Illustrated broke from the norm in 2016 when they introduced Ashley Graham, a plus-sized model, to the cover. Though many praised the publication for featuring a woman with a more common body type, not everyone was happy. CNN reports Cheryl Tiegs, a former model featured in the magazine multiple times, said Graham’s inclusion glamorized being overweight.
“Her face is beautiful … But I don’t think it’s healthy in the long run,” Tiegs commented. She tweeted an apology later, and Graham brushed off the rude comment.
Next: We’re nearly numb to topless shots these days, but in 2004 …
5. Veronica Varekova appears on SI’s first topless cover
The Czech model has participated in eight SI Swimsuit issues, but her most controversial was 2004’s topless cover image. The shoot, which took place in Montauk, New York, features Veronica Varekova holding her swimsuit top rather than wearing it — and people freaked out. Many critics wondered if the Swimsuit issue even needed swimsuits anymore. These days, however, readers seem more concerned about other controversies.
Next: This older supermodel hesitantly participated in this photo shoot.
4. Paulina Porizkova’s revealing pose at 52 years old
This famous supermodel may be the oldest participant in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, which caused quite a stir. Paulina Porizkova took part in the 2018 issue’s “In Her Own Words” shoot along with stars like Cook and Aly Raisman.
Daily Mail Online notes she was hesitant to join the shoot with models half her age, but she did it anyway. It’s risky to pose nude for a magazine catered to men used to seeing women in their mid-20s, but Porizkova loved the message behind the movement and wanted to participate.
Next: The inclusion of this famous child’s toy shocked readers.
3. Barbie finally got her close-up
Not every issue of the swimsuit edition featured real women. In 2014, Barbie took center stage in the “unapologetic” issue, which featured the doll alongside supermodels Christie Brinkley and Brooklyn Decker. Mattel’s senior vice president says giving Barbie and other models who are under constant criticism a platform is an opportunity for them to own who they are.
Fox Sports notes many folks hated the Barbie edition, claiming it makes young girls feel even worse about their bodies. Others were concerned that a magazine meant for grown men featured a child’s doll.
Next: This photo meant to empower women fell flat.
2. The #MeToo-inspired photo shoot as a whole
Women everywhere are joining forces to break their silence when it comes to sexual assault. And Sports Illustrated joined the conversation with the “In Her Own Words” shoot, inspired by the #MeToo movement. As noted before, women like Aly Raisman and Taylor Ballantyne posed with empowering words written across their naked bodies.
Not everyone was impressed or inspired by the shoot, though, NBC News notes. Readers criticized the sexy poses of those featured in the magazine, claiming words written on naked models doesn’t do anything to empower women after all.
Next: This entire issue is a modern-day nightmare.
1. The issue everyone thought was racist
The magazine took a serious misstep in 2013, when the swimsuit issue showed the bikini-wearing models posing in countries around the world. Trouble arose when the models were photographed next to people who actually represented the countries. In essence, The Huffington Post explains the natives are pictured as “exotic props.”
David Leonard, a professor who studies race and culture, says the people in the images next to the models “are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment,” making the photos particularly problematic.
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