On July 21, the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue will hit the stands, and for the first time it will feature a transgender model. But will the inclusion of Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio help boost trans acceptance, or simply to help promote a publication that many believe objectifies women?
After being announced as one of the magazine’s 2020 rookie models, Sampaio took to Instagram to celebrate the achievement. “I am excited and honored to be part of the iconic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue,” she wrote on Instagram. “The team at SI has created yet another groundbreaking issue by bringing together a diverse set of multitalented, beautiful women in a creative and dignified way.”
The selection as a Sports Illustrated model continues Sampaio’s track record of groundbreaking modeling assignments. In 2017 she was the first trans model to grace the cover of a Vogue publication, posing as the cover model for the French edition. In 2018 she became Victoria’s Secret first openly trans model. However, her selection as a Sports Illustrated model will likely introduced her to an entirely new audience of readers who are likely not familiar with the 23-year old model, in particular, the largely male audience of Sports Illustrated.
Simply by her selection, Sampaio is already elevating awareness of the prejudice and violence that many trans individuals’ experience. In the United States, there is also a troubling trend of violence against trans individuals. According to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in 2019 at least 27 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed by violence. 91% of the victims were Black women and 81% were under the age of 30.
Just as concerning, the rate of murders of transgender and non-conforming individuals has dramatically surged this year. HRC has counted 21 murders of transgender individuals in 2020, including at least 2 since the start of July. On July 3rd, Bree Black, a 27-year-old Black transgender woman, was found fatally shot in Pompano Beach, Florida. A day later, during a Black Femme March in Seattle, Summer Taylor, a 24-year-old white non-binary person, was fatally struck by a vehicle. This comes after the recent deaths of Merci Mack, a 22-year-old Black transgender woman, who was shot to death in Dallas and 32-year-old Black transgender woman Shakie Peters, was killed in Amite City, Louisiana.
For her part, Sampaio sees her platform on Sports Illustrated as a way to bring greater exposure to the challenges facing transgender individuals.
“Being trans usually means facing closed doors to peoples’ hearts and minds,” she continued in her Instagram post. “We face snickers, insults, fearful reactions and physical violations just for existing. Our options for growing up in a loving and accepting family, having a fruitful experience at school or finding dignified work are unimaginably limited and challenging. I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and my intention is to honor that as best I can.”
But is the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue the right forum to do so? The annual magazine publication, which first started in 1964, has rightfully been criticized for its sexualization an objectification of women. The publication has strived over the years to foster a more inclusive e approach to representing beauty, for example including models that reflect different body types and ethnic backgrounds, including last year’s edition that included a woman in a hijab and burkini. Yet, many have criticized the magazine’s approach to these developments as mere efforts of tokenism intended distract from the troubling aspects of promoting revealing photos of women.
Nonetheless, if the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue will continue to exist, including transgender models like Sampaio is an important approach to introducing the largely male audience of SI to transgender inclusion. While some might feel it does so so in a sexist and objectifying way, it is important to remember that the models themselves that have the ultimate power to determine how and who their bodies are seen by, and for what purpose they are seen.
In that sense Sampaio is not only an important ambassador of transgender models, but of transgender individuals generally. In breaking another barrier, and doing so in a way that harnesses her own strength and perseverance, Sampaio is not only boosting trans acceptance, but also modeling a type of leadership we can all follow.
Regardless of whether we are wearing a swimsuit.