February 12th was definitely an auspicious occasion: the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. When I read about the contributions of each, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection caught my attention.
Nicholas Wade of the Times recently discussed Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and his fascination with the peacock’s tail: “Showy male ornaments, like the peacock’s tail, appeared hard to explain by natural selection, because they seemed more of a handicap than an aid to survival,” wrote Wade. Darwin’s worry about the “problem” of the peacock’s tail led him to “the idea of sexual selection, that females chose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring.”
Fast forward to the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, published each February. I picked up a copy by chance just before boarding a flight to Florida. As I put the magazine on my lap, I became uncomfortably aware that a boy about eight years old was sitting next to me. I looked down at the cover showing model Bar Refaeli on Canouan Island in the Grenadines, wearing the skimpiest bikini I have ever seen. Then I saw the cover line: “Bikinis or Nothing” and began to fervently wish that I could quickly slip the magazine into a brown paper bag. Since I didn’t have one, I compromised by holding the magazine at a 90-degree angle, so the eight-year-old could only see the back cover.
Darwin was on my mind, and I looked through the photographs only to discover that, in this case, he was wrong, wrong, wrong about who was attracting whom. Almost all the men in the issue were completely clothed in very conservative coats and shirts—even when on the beach—while the women wore nothing but the flimsiest coverings on their breasts and pubic regions. Now, I know this isn’t really about sexual selection; it’s about who’s getting paid to strip down to the bare essentials, but just stay with me here.
The women were gorgeous—make no mistake about it—and the cover headline kept its promise: “Bikinis or Nothing.” (In fact, if this was a contest between bikinis or nothing, I’m really not sure which side would have won.) The gals certainly won the peacock tail contest, though. They put the guys in the shade. Had Mr. Darwin seen the 2009 swimsuit issue, I wonder whether he would have had to go back to the drawing board with his theory of sexual selection. At the very least, he’d have to say that both women and men wear tail feathers to attract the opposite sex. What a difference 200 hundred years make.
Perhaps it was because I was sitting by the 8-year-old boy that I felt concerned about the swimsuit issue and its possible effect on preteens and teens. Millions of households must receive copies of this issue, and I wonder what parents say to their children about the way women are depicted. What messages do these images send to young people, who are just barely out of puberty?
For girls, is the message, be what I am? Is it, aspire to be a swimsuit model and make a gazillion bucks? Is it, if your body isn’t like those in the magazine, then you are seriously deficient? For boys, is it, only go after the girl with the beautiful breasts? Are the girls who are willing to bare almost all more desirable and worth pursuing than those who are covered up? Do the models have the ideal American female body (and did they achieve it through starvation, plastic surgery and Botox injections), and is anything less, undesirable? I could go on a long time with a lot more questions.
I wish school officials would allow sexuality educators to use the swimsuit issue to trigger conversations about the body issues that are so critical to self-esteem. But most teachers taking a copy of the issue into a classroom would have to fear for their reputations, particularly if they don’t have tenure.
I wish the models themselves would talk openly with young women about body image and how they developed the (high or low) self-esteem to be photographed with hardly any clothes on. More and more young men are struggling with body image issues as well, so there’s plenty of reason to have a group discussion. But since teachers or models will probably not be able to discuss the ramifications of this issue and its effects on body image, then parents should use the magazine as a vehicle for talking to their own kids.
In the meantime, Mr. Darwin, how would you attempt to explain sexual selection and the swimsuit issue of 2009? Have any good ideas?