When Sports Illustrated Swimsuit placed plus-size model Ashley Graham and UFC fighter Ronda Rousey on its coveted cover in 2016, it seemed that the magazine had taken a turn toward being more inclusive. The magazine's editors framed it that way as well.
"Beauty is not cookie cutter," MJ Day, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's director, said then. "Beauty is not 'one size fits all.' Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year's issue."
It seemed like a monumental feat: One of the world's sexiest magazines recognized that women's bodies, no matter their size, are beautiful and worthy of covers.
However, 12 months later, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has fully regressed back its old aesthetic. The magazine chose Kate Upton, a 24-year-old white, thin, and blonde model, for their 2017 cover.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is selling the cover as a return to its roots. After all, the 24-year-old has been in the Swimsuit issue five times. She even appeared on the 2012 and 2013 covers.
Day said Upton's return to the cover is a "full circle moment" for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.
"We started Kate in her career, and you know, we watched her grow and become not only this worldwide, superstar phenomenon; she changed the direction of the modeling industry," she said. "Kate Upton was really this trailblazer that led the way for the Ashley Grahams of the world and everything you're seeing happen that's different in fashion right now."
Sports Illustrated included Ashley Graham, Serena Williams, Christie Brinkley, and Myla Dalbesio within the issue, but that doesn't excuse the magazine's intentional shift back to the white, thin, and blonde aesthetic that's dominated the special issue since 1964.
It took until 1997 for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit to put its first Black model, Tyra Banks, on the cover. Graham's 2016 cover made her the first plus-size model bestowed with the honor.
If nothing else, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's missteps show how easily it is to confuse diversity with inclusion. Diversity often boils down to tokenism, which is what Sports Illustrated Swimsuit achieved. After casting a few Black models and one plus-size model, the magazine touted its "groundbreaking" achievements without committing to making inclusion a permanent facet of future issues.
Inclusion is about intentional, repetitive, and purposeful intersectionality. Inclusion requires magazines, like Sports Illustrated, to continually consider intersectionality as they make decisions about their covers, content, and framing. It's asking the question, "what's missing?" and striving to fill those holes so everybody can see themselves.
Casting one Black and plus-size model does not solve the problem, but continually casting women across the intersections does. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit missed the mark this time, but there's always 2018.