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Women Appear on Less Than Five Percent of Sports Illustrated Covers

A recent analysis of 11 years of SI covers shows that if you take out the swimsuit issue, women appear just 4.9 percent of the time

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Left, Brett Favre. Image: David Erickson. Right: Elle MacPherson. Image: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station

Every year, Sports Illustrated comes out with its famous swimsuit edition. But without the bikini, women aren’t as welcome on the magazine’s cover. A recent analysis of 11 years of SI covers shows that—if you take out the swimsuit issue—women appear just 4.9 percent of the time.

Even when they do appear on the cover, they’re rarely the focus. “Of the 35 covers including a female, only 18 (or 2.5 percent of all covers) featured a female as the primary or sole image,” the study explains. “Three covers included females, but only as insets (small boxed image), or as part of a collage background of both male and female athletes.”

In fact, women showed up on more covers of SI between 1954 and 1965 than they did between 2000 and 2011. A lot more. Those early years of the magazine had women on the cover 12.6 percent of the time.

Pacific Standard points out that just putting women on more covers doesn’t solve the problem either (as the SI swimsuit edition clearly shows):

Then again, if women athletes were on SI’s cover more often, they might have to sacrifice their dignity for the publicity. A recent survey of Rolling Stone covers found 83 percent of female musicians were portrayed in a sexualized fashion (often wearing minimal clothing), compared to just 17 percent of men.

This, of course, happens on Sports Illustrated‘s covers too. A few years ago, the Atlantic wrote a piece on how women can get on the cover of Sports Illustrated more often, including tips like “get famous before 1962″ and “be a cheerleader” and “put on a bathing suit.” Take the Anna Kournikova cover from June 5th, 2000. The authors of the new study describe how the tennis star is “lounging on a pillow in her street clothes, peering seductively into the camera, and clearly not prepared for any sanctioned sports activity. Even the author of the interior story suggested  she was not on the cover for her athleticism: ‘She won’t win the French Open, but who cares? Anna Kournikova is living proof that even in this age of supposed enlightenment, a hot body can count just as much as a good backhand.’”

Women do, in fact, play sports: there’s no dearth of female athletes to feature on a sports magazine cover. But if any of those talented women hope to make the cover of SI, their best bet might be to go swimming.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Saudis to Send Women to London Olympics After All
Dominique Dawes’ Guide to Watching Gymnastics

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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