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Baby Boomer Babes

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue tackles sex and the 57-year-old rich guy.

11:01 PM, Feb 27, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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WALKING INTO the News Room magazine shop in Farragut Square, I was stopped short by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. That issue generally stops me short, what with its contrarian insistence that beautiful women wearing hardly anything will be "in" this fashion season. But this one stopped me very short, because the cover is different from any that I've seen. The woman gracing it--Yamila Diaz-Rahi, and pardon me if I'm the last man in the United States to have heard of her--is a fairly normal-looking, if lovely, full-figured woman.

It's the "normal-looking" part that's newsworthy. At issue is the inhuman skinniness of Sports Illustrated's models, and in this there seems to be a two-year cycle to the pornography it peddles. (We're adults here; we can call it by its name.) In one year, columnists will rage at the magazine, complaining that the image of women it presents is unreal and anorexia-provoking. So in the next year, with all the disingenuousness at their disposal, the Sports Illustrated execs will feign remorse. Yes, they'll admit, we were idiots. The women were a bit on the skinny side last time around. In fact, they looked like famine victims. So now the editors trundle out women of identical body design, except this time with absolutely gargantuan breasts. ("You won't see tits like that in Somalia!" I can hear them proclaim.)

What's new about Yamila Diaz-Rahi is that, while slender, she has twenty to thirty pounds' more body fat than is strictly necessarily to keep her off a life-support machine. If she told you she ate three meals a day, you would not necessarily laugh in her face. Since we can exclude from the editors' motives contrition on the one hand and a desire to present women as human beings on the other, it's worth asking what their angle is. I have a guess.

For anyone who hasn't looked at the Swimsuit Issue since adolescence, the changes are amazing. Back in 1976 or so, the issue would have 10 pages of girly-pics tucked inside a magazine that was, as usual, preoccupied with Providence College's fast break, Dennis Hull's slap-shot, and the mighty bullpen of the Cincinnati Reds. Two weeks later the letters-to-the-editor column would be full of irate cancel-my-subscription! letters from, say, the nuns who ran the library at a Jesuit high school--included by the snickering editors of Sports Illustrated so readers could snicker along with them.

Today, the Swimsuit Issue is as fat as Vogue and as dirty as Playboy: 300 pages of wall-to-wall near-nudity. Only the most determined adolescent could work his way through it single-handedly. And now that it's outright pornography, of course, it's become a respectable American institution. It's like the Super Bowl of porn. Corporations run expensive ads that have still more near-nude models in (generally filthy) poses that evoke the issue's theme.

By "theme" (and this year's, incidentally, is Latin America), I mean exactly what I meant when I spoke above of "body design"; the women change from year to year only in the way that cars got longer tail fins from year to year in the 1950s. And in one feature in the present issue, the women are literally covered with ads, as race cars are covered with STP and Havoline decals. There are bikinis made of cigar wrappers, Colombian coffee beans, and Dos Equis beer caps. (In an act that probably merits a medal for valor, a model named Molly Sims has donned a suit made of jalapeno peppers.)

So it's worth asking what Yamila Diaz-Rahi's Saftigkeit provides that these advertisers want. Surely it's some kind of appeal to their most important demographic, which means Baby Boomers, who make up just under 40 percent of the adult public. That's been true for all the decades in which the consumer-product universe has revolved around them, of course. What has changed is that they have just begun to pass through the age bracket--the early fifties--that constitutes the red-hot burning core of a Western population's earning power and wealth.

On page 98 of this issue is an ad for the 2003 Dodge Viper that reads, "Grab Life By The Horns." It is the very opposite of the appeal to a dashing young man that you'd expect from such a pitch. It shows a stumpy geezer wearing a ring with a dollar-sign on it. (Such Herblockian subtlety!) He's clawing his new bride's rib cage with his wizened hands and standing in front of his new red Dodge Viper. In her wedding dress, the bride is perhaps the only woman in these pages who is fully clothed. She is, of course, about 60 years younger than he.