Valentina Sampaio is the 23-year-old model creating waves with her ground-breaking feature in the 2020 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The Brazilian trailblazer has become the first transgender woman to appear in the magazine since its first edition in 1964. Sampaio, who has become the latest swimsuit “rookie” revealed for 2020, marks a turning point for the transgender community and Sports Illustrated. Whilst her Vogue Paris cover in 2017 was her first personal milestone, Sampaio has continued to succeed. In addition, in 2019, she became the first transgender model to walk in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Another huge breakthrough in a traditionally exclusive industry that is often set in its ways.
Alongside personal victories, Valentina Sampaio is helping to create change on a much broader spectrum. Using her platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and equality she is giving the community a voice. Having grown up in Brazil, mistreatment and injustice is common place for the transgender community. Sampaio hopes to show others that they can achieve anything. Granted, one woman cannot change an entire industry, society or culture. However, by breaking boundaries Sampaio has created invaluable opportunities for herself and other transgender women.
Empowerment or sexual objectification?
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is iconic and well renowned for embracing diversity. Yet, it still feels outdated. For instance, the majority of the models are tall, slim and beautiful. They grace the glossy pages wearing barely-there bikinis that leave little to the imagination. Arguably, this has nothing to do with celebrating athleticism, LGBTQ+ issues or diversity.
After more than two decades, in November 2019, Victoria’s Secret announced the cancellation of its annual fashion show. So, this begs the question; could the swimsuit issue follow suit? Victoria’s Secret has been criticised for not featuring plus size, advanced and transgender models. Unlike the lingerie retailer, Sports Illustrated has a consistent history of diversity. In the last few years, the publication has looked beyond swimwear to highlight issues like mental health, inclusivity and the Me Too movement.
The issue gives its models a huge global platform to advocate from. It raises awareness of the prejudices and discrimination that minorities face. Although the potentially sexy images themselves may seem archaic in today’s society, the message behind them is one of empowerment. The feature enables models and activists to use their voice and visibility to shine a light on women and their triumphs.
Moving forward, it would be powerful to see more than just polished images of models. Perhaps through unedited images with realistic backdrops. Or maybe, first learning about their stories and personal achievements before judging their appearance.
A marketing tool or genuine diversity?
Over the years the swimsuit issue has consistently featured a diverse range of models. Tyra Banks became the first Black woman to grace the cover solo in 1997. Banks launched herself as a brand and gained worldwide success for the hit series America’s Next Top Model. More recently, plus-size model and body positivity advocate Ashley Graham appeared on the cover as a “rookie”. Winnie Harlow, the Jamaican Canadian model and public spokesperson on the skin condition vitiligo also featured in the swimsuit issue in 2019. So, with a history of diversity, this year’s addition of Valentina Sampaio to the swimsuit legacy is no surprise. Amongst others, these activists have worked hand in hand with the iconic Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to create an inclusive and far-reaching platform.
Nonetheless, the large majority of the swimsuit issue models are white, heterosexual, privileged women. They continue to adhere to the unrealistic culturally prescribed standards of beauty. As we flick between the sandy, sun-kissed models in the swimsuit issue, ads noticeably fill the pages. This is a reminder that the magazine has a purpose beyond female empowerment and inclusivity. Ultimately, is money the driving force?
Perhaps responding to the zeitgeist and the economic benefits work hand in hand to create lasting change?
Despite the swimsuit issues misogynistic roots, being a magazine made by men, for men, this is changing. A wider audience, thanks to a ground-breaking range of models, has raised awareness of key problems faced by LGBTQ+ and minority communities. This provokes us as readers to start conversations around diversity and creates voices for women in every community. By giving all kinds of women a voice, the issue becomes much more than just a swimsuit advertisement. We can start to see long term change.
As ambassador for the Pride Live event and a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, Sampaio can use her platform to amplify support. She can vocalize stories from the community and help create systemic change.
Whilst we can’t all create the same noise as Sampaio, social media has given us the reins to make a difference. We can diversify our feeds and educate ourselves. We can support the basic human rights demanded within the LQBTQ+ community, and we can treat others with the respect they deserve.