It may seem a bit trivial to have a conversation about a plus-size model gracing the cover of the new Sports Illustrated magazine, particularly when Americans are struggling with record inflation, mothers can’t find baby formula, illegal immigrants flood the border, and little children are being sexually groomed at public schools. And to some degree, it is. But the issue touches on something deeper that deserves a thoughtful discussion on the matter: beauty.
This is what Jordan Peterson hit on when he infamously tweeted, “Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that.” He followed this with another tweet: “It’s a conscious progressive attempt to manipulate & retool the notion of beauty, reliant on the idiot philosophy that such preferences are learned & properly changed by those who know better.”
With good reason, Peterson believes that the progressives at Sports Illustrated are trying to invert beauty standards and convince the general public that overweight women, not the usual busty-yet-svelte models who usually appear in their swimsuit editions, are the ideal. A similar argument was made by conservatives a few months ago when Victoria’s Secret changed out their usual lineup of lingerie models with a group of women who were not conventionally beautiful.
A good question to ask is why these companies, which have come to set the standard of female beauty in the popular mind, decided to make this move. True, their given reason is that they want to advocate “body positivity,” the notion that all bodies are beautiful, even ones that are unhealthy or grossly disproportionate. Body positivity is the intersectional Left’s response to “fat-shaming,” which makes so many women unjustly feel bad about their appearance.
However, there is a problem with this. Is plastering pictures of half-naked, overweight women on billboards, posters, and magazine covers really going to change the hearts and minds of women who struggle with their self-image and the people who unfairly judge them—or will it do nothing for women’s self-esteem and upset the general public by subjecting them to ugliness and encouraging unhealthy behavior. Considering that the entire body positivity movement seems like cheap virtue signaling intended to stir up controversy and win approval from leftists who abhor all standards of excellence, it’s probably the latter.
In all likelihood, the editors at Sports Illustrated are making a last-ditch effort to stay relevant in a pornified culture that they themselves helped to create. In those dark days before the internet, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was a lustful outlet for men who didn’t have easy access to pornography. Sure, everyone seemed to excuse the magazine as being mainly about sports and athleticism, but the Swimsuit Issue was all about ogling the models and satisfying the libido.
Now, with everyone having high-speed internet in their pockets and easy access to all kinds of smut (as well as sports news), there is really no reason a magazine like Sports Illustrated should exist, much less the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Predictably, subscriptions to the magazine have steadily dropped for the past two decades. So, the creators of the magazine decided to take a new approach and shock the world with a plus-size model in a bikini—apparently, they tried showcasing models in burkinis (burkas that work as swimsuits) but with little success.
In all likelihood, this strategy will go nowhere, and as Peterson rightly notes, it will do precisely nothing to change people’s standards of female beauty. Not only is this because these standards are largely hardwired into human beings, but also because Sports Illustrated never set the standard in the first place. It didn’t celebrate the beauty of its models so much as it exploited the lust of its audience.
However, in making their case against Sport Illustrated and the body positivity movement, conservatives and Christians need to be careful. Simply complaining about fat models in bikinis and longing for the good ol’ days of more sexually appealing models sounds more like a defense of satisfying the libido than upholding aesthetic standards.
Nor is this really helped when critics of body positivity invoke health concerns and call for a return to fat shaming. Even when fat shaming was more socially acceptable, the rate of obesity continued to rise in both men and women. It’s difficult to think that body positivity will do much to change this, except perhaps make people slightly less ashamed.
So, how should Catholics and conservatives respond to plus-size models on Sports Illustrated magazine covers? First, they can take heart in the fact that this effort to change beauty standards will go nowhere and that the semi-pornographic magazine will soon be no more. The supermarket magazine stands and shoppers’ souls will be better for it.
Second, they can use this story as an opportunity to meditate on what is truly beautiful. For Catholics, beauty is not a means to an end but an end in itself; it is teleological and objective, not conditional and subjective. Therefore, beauty in an object is that object fulfilling its nature. In the same way, beauty in a person is that person fulfilling his or her nature. Put simply, a beautiful woman is a woman who looks the way she should.
But how should she look, and who is responsible for setting the standard? These are questions that have challenged philosophers and artists throughout history, and answers differ. However, if one adopts a teleological approach, then physical beauty concerns health and proportionality, not sexiness or relatability—neither the malnourished model with silicone implants nor the overweight model with airbrushed curves would apply.
Concerning who upholds this standard, this would be everyone in society—particularly Catholics, who enjoy a long tradition of appreciating and promoting beauty. Just as society enforces standards of conduct through laws and education, something similar should happen with our current standards of beauty. These rules of beauty need to be articulated as part of one’s education. People should be surrounded with beauty and taught to contribute to it. When this doesn’t happen, ugliness, both physical and spiritual, will fill the void.
[Image Credit: Getty Images]