If you’re a sports fan, you know Sports Illustrated. Millions subscribe to the magazine, which provides info on your favorite athletes, including their Sportsperson of the Year. And, of course, you likely know one of the most anticipated annual editions, the Swimsuit issue.
However, several photos from the notorious issue have shocked and angered loyal SI fans over the years. Here we rank the most controversial Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos ever, including the ignorant images that angered critics and went too far (page 9).
1. Hunter McGrady’s unedited photos
Demand for unedited photos of real women caused SI to make new moves. While the 2018 “In Her Own Words” shoot in itself caused backlash, it features unedited takes of women from all walks of life. And SI chose to photograph Hunter McGrady, a size-16 model.
McGrady says the shoot was “personal, intimate,” and “empowering,” especially because she was told she’d never be a model, The Independent reports. But not everyone thinks she should be in the magazine. Some say the body positivity movement is normalizing dangerously overweight bodies.
Next: This famous model’s airbrushing confused us all.
2. Kate Upton’s oddly altered body
Famous model 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, resulting in a lot of backlash.
New York Daily News notes the 2012 Swimsuit cover 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: How much crotch is too much crotch?
3. The torso seen ’round the world
Sports Illustrated rarely shies from risqué, but the 2015 cover in particular outraged many. It featured 24-year-old Hannah Davis yanking down her bikini bottoms dangerously low, Business Insider reports. Social media responses were similar all around, with many calling the photograph “pornographic” and “outrageous.”
The model doesn’t regret the shoot, however. When Davis talked with Matt Lauer about it, she said, “I think you’re making it look a lot naughtier than it really is.”
Next: This Sports Illustrated ad was seriously bizarre.
4. 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 help but agree.
Next: Did SI take advantage of these barely legal athletes?
5. Simone Biles and Aly Raisman’s Swimsuit issue debut
Sports Illustrated featured Olympic athletes in their 2017 Swimsuit issue. Aly Raisman and Simone Biles showed their muscular frames, receiving tons of backlash from the departure from their leotards. Many expressed disappointment due to Raisman and Biles’ young fans who view the gymnasts as role models rather than sexual women.
US Weekly says the athletes and editors are proud of the shoot, however. “Aly and Simone represent all that is beautiful and strong and inspiring in women today,” responded SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day.
Next: Readers will never forget the holes in this swimsuit.
6. Cheryl Tiegs’ infamous fishnet outfit
During her Swimsuit issue photo shoot, Cheryl Tiegs’ fishnet top showed more skin than ever published in prior editions. The white one-piece suit’s fishnet material made her torso, breasts, and nipples completely visible.
Originally a throwaway photo not intended for publication, it caused so much controversy that Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell tells CNBC he wouldn’t even consider putting it out there today.
Next: Topless photo shoots evolved over the years.
7. Veronica Varekova appears on 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: Female readers want sex appeal, too.
8. A call for male swimsuit models
After model Hannah Davis’s SI cover reveal, CNN published an opinion piece calling for equal objectification of their cover models. Journalist Peggy Drexler argues that male models appear on the cover of men’s magazines for a male readership, so why can’t SI give their female readers a similar offering with a model swimsuit model? Drexler wrote:
Why has no one created a counterpart magazine featuring a scantily dressed man? Why are men so rarely offered up as objects to behold? Men aren’t the only ones who like to “appreciate the beauty” of the opposite sex.
Next: This entire Swimsuit issue enraged critics.
9. The issue deemed ‘racist’ and ‘ignorant’
Sports Illustrated took a serious misstep in 2013, when the models posed on all seven continents, being photographed next to people who represented the countries. Jezebel explains SI’s “editorial decision makes the ‘native people’ tantamount to exotic props.”
One example Jezebel gave involves a shot on a river in China, with a white, blonde model posing next to a elderly Chinese man in a raft. They explain how this makes China look impoverished and colonial, “not the world’s second largest economy where the majority of people live in cities.”
Next: Many didn’t see this coming from Sports Illustrated in 2018.
10. 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: Can you be curvy and healthy at the same time?
11. 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 it off.
Next: The world didn’t know what to do with the first Swimsuit issue.
12. The inaugural Swimsuit issue debuts
When Babette March appeared on the cover of the premiere Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the models only got five pages and still shared space with the athletes. Despite the lack of coverage compared to these days’ Swimsuit issues, readers cried, “What does this have to do with the sports?”
SI acknowledged a loss of subscriptions, but carried on, printing angry letters to the editor and capitalizing on each year’s controversy, making the creation was it is today.
Next: Major curves combine with extreme cold.
13. Kate Upton’s hypothermic Antarctica shoot
The 2013 swimsuit issue featured models in different continents. Kate Upton’s shoot took place in Antarctica, the driest, coldest place on earth. However, this didn’t stop the model from posing nearly nude in the freezing climate.
The controversy was twofold. Upton had said her body started to shut down from exposure to the elements. Many critics believed she should not have been put in those hypothermic conditions.
Second, many readers criticized Upton’s curves. Some believed she was too big to be on the cover. She responded, “My curves are natural. They’re not going away no matter how hard I work out.” Keep in mind this issue took place before the push for curvier models and fewer airbrushed images.
Next: Capitalizing on sexual harassment doesn’t help.
14. The ‘tone-deaf’ #MeToo photo shoot
Women broke their silence about sexual assault in 2017, inspiring SI’s shoot about the #MeToo movement. Women like Aly Raisman, Sailor Brinkley Cook, and Robyn Lawley posed with empowering words written across their naked bodies. However, many readers weren’t inspired.
Some claimed words on nude models don’t do anything to empower women. The New Yorker said the images look like “butcher-shop cartoons of an animal divided into cuts of meat.” The publication went on to call SI’s attempt at relevance “spectacularly silly, not to mention tone-deaf.”
Next: This famous tennis player was called a “hooker.”
15. Serena Williams’ Sportsperson of the Year shoot
This photo wasn’t specifically for the swimsuit edition, but the severe backlash Serena Williams received is notable. In 2015, the magazine dubbed Williams “Sportsperson of the Year,” shooting the tennis star showing off her legs in a sultry pose.
Bloggers and columnists quickly judged 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: This older supermodel hesitantly posed nude.
16. 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 photoshoot with a second-generation SI model goes awry.
17. 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.
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 inclusion of this famous child’s toy shocked readers.
18. 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.
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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