Barbie gets a star turn in SI's swimsuit issue [Commentary]

In a publicity stunt that is sure to irritate 13-year-old boys and feminist scholars, Sports Illustrated and toy-maker Mattel have teamed up for the magazine's 50th anniversary swimsuit issue.

Wearing an updated version of the black and white swimsuit she wore when she was introduced in 1959, Barbie appears on a giant billboard mock-up of the magazine cover and in a 4-page photo spread inside the magazine.


The doll will also appear on a special edition wrap-cover of about 1,000 issues, and the only ones happy about this will be the 1,000 mothers and wives who won't have to look at three unearthly beautiful topless models who will appear on the actual front of the magazine when it hits newsstands Tuesday.

It is part of Mattel's attempt to rebrand Barbie, who had a disappointing Christmas season. The updated swimsuit Barbie will go on sale at Target this week, too.


The campaign is titled "#unapologetic," a word that apparently gets used a lot around the office at Mattel, and the hash tag will make it easy for the company to reach out to all the millions of little girls who have Twitter accounts.

"A legend herself, and under constant criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic," the company said in a statement.

Now that's spin.

The campaign includes a behind-the-scenes video posted on the SI website of the Barbie photo shoot, during which legendary swimsuit photographer Walter Iooss Jr. declares rather creepily that Barbie is "hot."

The swimsuit issue began 50 years ago as something to fill the pages of the magazine between the end of football season and the start of baseball season. Since then it has become a money-making juggernaut in a business that isn't making much money these days. Seen by an estimated 70 million people, it brings in a reported $40 million. Vanity Fair magazine called it a "cash register in the shape of a girl."

The swimsuit cover has launched the careers of women you might also recognize by their first names, Christy, Cheryl, Tyra, Heidi and Elle. And, like Barbie, who went from being a "teen model" to having 130 different careers and running for president, several have gone on to be corporate or television powerhouses.

But there is no getting around the fact that including Barbie in an issue celebrating 50 years of half naked women officially links the two cultural icons that are most often blamed for the objectification of women and the corrosive body image issues in young girls.

Even as a ground zero feminist and then the mother of a teen-aged boy, I was never offended by the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, not even when they began painting the bathing suits on the naked and clean-shaven bodies of the models. I thought it was art. I approved of the fact that the models, chosen for their rounder bodies and fresh-faced good looks, were not painfully thin and hallow-eyed like much of what we see on the runway.


And I have never had a problem with Barbie. Certainly I don't blame GI Joe for the fact that my son grew up and went to a military academy. To her credit, Barbie was the first doll that allowed a little girl to imagine she was something other than a mommy with a baby. My daughter and her friend Joanna would play with their Barbies for hours and their chatter would hint at lovely flights of fancy.

Besides, there is more than enough out there to mess with the heads of little girls. Rihanna and Miley for starters.

Barbie's little shoulders are not broad enough for all the blame.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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