Model Myla Dalbesio reveals first-hand how she's been liberated, not objectified, by posing for SI Swimsuit.
It was Marisa Miller in the jeweled bikini. Well, less of a bikini and more of a big necklace (was it even that big?) strategically placed to cover her nipples. The magazine had arrived at our apartment unceremoniously. My boyfriend, taking advantage of a seemingly last ditch effort by the publishing industry to save the future of print, had purchased a bundle deal on magazine subscriptions. Thusly, we had copies of various weekly publications jammed into our mailbox until the post man had to ring our bell for us to come down and get them. Time, The New Yorker, Science, Sports Illustrated. All shuffled into our dingy, lumpy carpeted Bed Stuy apartment, stacked on the counter, thumbed through and water ringed for far too long before being tossed in the recycling.
I did not grow up in a household with sexy lady magazines stashed in a father’s dresser drawer or next to the armchair in the basement. I don’t think we had any magazines, really, save for a stack of National Geographic that my father kept leaning against the wall next to his nightstand. He was a sports fan, but not of the illustrated variety, and certainly there were no bikini-clad babes. These images of women remained a nebulous idea, fascinating me in stolen snippets of time at friend’s houses and gas station magazine racks, and for days afterwards, running through my mind in moments of boredom during school and hours of imagination at night, waiting for sleep to overtake me. In furtive childhood glances I found these women powerful and intoxicating. I both wanted them and wanted to be them.
I was never given “the talk”, never even handed a book about my body and what it meant to become a woman, so the bikini babes were a species completely unknown to me and far beyond my realm of understanding. Even after moving to New York and signing as a model to Ford, it wasn’t until Marisa Miller was jammed into our overstuffed mailbox that I finally spent some time with the magazine. It’s hard to remember what my initial reaction was. As I dive deeper into my current feminism, I strive to be accepting and non-judgmental towards all kinds of women. In my early 20s though, this goal was less prominent. Jealousy quickly morphs into bitchiness and hate, and I can only assume my first time paging through the issue was accompanied by smug judgments meant to assuage my own feelings of ineptitude. And yet, weeks later, while it may have been thoroughly rumpled and water ringed, this issue stayed stacked on the counter. It lived there for far longer than any other magazine that had been shuffled through our apartment, probably for months, and it wasn’t of my boyfriend’s volition. Something about it grew on me, something about the girls, the poses, the settings; it wiggled its way into my mind and I couldn’t let it go.
A traditionalist may imagine that identifying as a feminist while simultaneously desiring to be a near-naked model in Sports Illustrated must bely some level of cognitive dissonance. Two seemingly conflicted ideas, standing in opposition to one another. You can’t fight against the oppression of the male gaze while simultaneously volunteering yourself as subject to it. Or can you? The first time I went in for a casting I struggled with that very question. It was 2012, Kate Upton was on the cover and Crystal Renn was contorting inside. I was channeling my frustration with the industry-imposed limitations of my modeling career into performance art, posing as a stripper and performing durational topless faith-healing sessions in the back of a Chelsea art gallery. I was skeptical and angry, annoyed with years of being told I was too fat, then too thin, with photographers and agents and empty promises of change, only to incur disastrous arguments when I tried to assert myself. I had just terminated my relationship with my acting agency, after they expressly chastised me for turning down an audition for an Axe commercial that I thought was demeaning. My modeling agents were practically frothing at the mouth when they told me I had been called in to see Sports Illustrated. For the first time since Marisa Miller, I revisited the magazine. I clicked through the photos online. I watched the (not SI-related) video of Kate Upton doing the Cat Daddy and rolled my eyes. This was not for me, I decided. But I was scared to jeopardize the relationship with my only remaining agency (and source of income), so I threw on a bikini, grabbed my book, and headed uptown to the Time-Life building to meet some man named MJ, who would probably have me strip down and spin in a circle for him, maybe bounce up and down for a minute, and send me on my way. A simple Google search could have prepared me for the surprise that awaited, but I was too busy passing judgment on a perfectly sweet and intelligent woman who was the victim of a perky photographer releasing a silly behind-the-scenes video without her consent (see: 2015-era revelations regarding said Cat Daddy incident).
I passed through the security checks, gave my name to a man at the front desk, and after waiting 10 or 15 minutes, was called back to the desk and informed, “She’s ready for you! Head on up.” She? Had I heard wrong? No, I hadn’t. What was wrong were my assumptions heading into it, my misplaced judgement and general bad attitude. I was met at the elevators by a bubbly brunette, all smiles and compliments, and ushered into an unassuming office plastered with modeling comp cards, the telltale bikini babes, and in between, family photos. “Hi! I’m MJ,” said the woman behind the desk, grinning at me and taking my hand. She was sweet and freckled, strawberry blonde and brimming with the kind of energy that makes you feel better just by being in it’s proximity. “I’m so happy you made it!” she exclaimed. “Thanks so much for coming out.”
There’s something about MJ that, like the girls in the magazine that she runs, is slightly intoxicating. The moment you step into the room with her, you are already friends. After years of stumbling through castings, standing awkwardly while someone flips through your book and silently judges you, you come into MJ’s office and are invited to sit and chat. She gives you real time, looks you in the eye. She asks you questions, she listens, she smiles, you laugh, and without trying, you feel she is on your side. MJ is like the cool girl from high school who lets the nerds take her to prom. She’s the one who makes room for everyone to sit at her table. When I meet MJ she tells me about how much she loves women, how hard she is pushing to change things in the industry. “I want more for us all,” she tells me. “More diversity. More sizes, more shapes, more races. It’s hard here,” she says. “Even if I love someone for the magazine, we have to get everything approved by so many rounds of people, and it’s tough to push back against a system of men that are scared to take chances.” I nod. I am slowly being converted. “But I won’t stop trying,” she says, smiling. “I know we’ll get there. I’m going to change things,” she repeats. And I believe her.
I was right to believe her. Three years later, size 14 beauty Robyn Lawley becomes the first model over a size 6 to grace the pages (save for vintage issues). The next year, size 16 bombshell Ashley Graham is on the cover, along with Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson, displaying three very different body types. The entire structure of the magazine is changing, putting more emphasis on the featured models as multi-dimensional people - promoting their outside interests, giving them a voice and a platform. This time when I go in for a casting we talk about the progress that has been made with the magazine. Things with me have changed as well. Perhaps it’s the explosion of the sexy Instagram selfies, perhaps it was a change in my relationship, but I am no longer scared of using my body as a tool in my work. In fact, as my relationship with my body and the way I work with it has changed, my relationship with other women has changed as well. Judgment begins to fall away. I recognize that we all want to feel pretty, to feel sexy, to feel appreciated. If posting a provocative photo of yourself makes you feel that way, who cares? Women are powerful and sexual beings, and we don’t need society to dictate when it is okay to express that. This is something MJ knew all along.
It’s hard to hear someone say that I am being objectified by participating in things like the Swimsuit issue. It feels insulting, implying that I am somehow being taken advantage of, that I am not empowered in my own decisions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I embrace my body and celebrate it, and for me that is what this issue represents. When I strip down and roll around in the sand, I’m not doing it for men, I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it because I worked for a decade to get here, went through countless trials and tribulations over my body image, and now I am proud to represent women my size. I am proud to show that you can be strong, smart, and sexy. I am proud to defy outdated and incorrect expectations of what feminists look and act like. I can be serious about women’s rights and flaunt my curves in a swimsuit (or out of one) at the same time. I hope that by doing so, I can help other women that look like me (and even those that don’t) begin to appreciate and love their bodies more. And I want women to know that feminism, as defined by the dictionary, means “the belief that men and women should have equal opportunities”. That’s it. It does not dictate the type of person you are, what you are allowed to do or say or wear, or what magazine you decide to show your ass in. My recent casting ends in a similar way as the first one. “I’m going to change things,” MJ tells me again. I still believe her.
BONUS: See some of Myla's career highlights below!