Sports Illustrated's models may look good in their suits, but can they swim out of the voyeur's chamber?

By David Thomson

Published February 23, 2001 8:14PM (EST)

It's the time of year again when Sports Illustrated publishes its swimsuit issue. It has assembled a gallery of past covers this year on its Web site, moving from the snapshots of the 1960s, with women who hardly seem to know they're being photographed, to the massive, carnal statuary of the 1990s and the new century -- gazing with Amazon affront at the lens -- supermodels, superwomen, huge declaratory figures hanging out of their very sketchy strips of cotton. Impossible women.

The magazine goes on and on about how the swimsuit issue has become more and more famous. But the magazine has deteriorated in nearly every other way I can measure. It's hard to believe it persists with this issue, except as a way of attracting teenagers to its grinding ads. No one has really found a new way to design swimsuits, or photograph the women, in ways that would not shock the Middle American parents of those teenagers. And so the suits, the poses and the attitudes of the models have become increasingly armored, fanciful or absurd.

Remember swimming? Remember the real heat of summer days? Remember the feeling of water on and between your limbs? Remember the shock of the cold in those otherwise intimate and folded-up places? Can you still see the way the water tumbled off the scant, pale skin of some girl who'd gone skinny-dipping with the gang and for once in her uneasy life wasn't worried that she didn't look like Cheryl Tiegs, because she'd caught you noticing? (And, in the end, what counts is whether someone notices.)

Whereas the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is really a whispering in the kid's ear to take this glossy, sticky paper up to his room to be alone. It's something to be gazed at in private. Which is fine and OK and all very well, and may be the tacit function of the issue -- a way of teaching the kid what he can do for himself.

But the goddesses who have been depicted can only exist in that voyeur's chamber. In the warm light of day, close to the edge of real, murky water, I don't think they can swim or do sex. It wouldn't surprise me if water dissolved them the way it did the Wicked Witch of the West. They're made for having their pictures taken, and are no match for the slight, flat-chested girls with tufts between their legs like bursting peonies, who still have plasters on their ankles from ripping them on a bramble.

The very word "skinny-dipping" seems to me sexier than every swimsuit cover Sports Illustrated has produced. And to handle that impulsive sport properly you need cold sea, murky ponds, rivers with great drifts of emerald weed. You need water where fat fish may be swimming, so that if some body brushes against yours in the dark you have to exercise every last shred of nervous capacity to tell whether it has scales or goose bumps. And then you have to dive again, and dream of mermaids and mermen. And see a beloved face come up out of the water, crowned with bubbles and excitement. You have to feel that once we came from the sea, and that somehow we have kept the word to describe the thrill of looking. I pity those perfect amber bodies -- and love the luminous parts of ourselves flickering beneath the black cubism of cold water.

David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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