Myla Dalbesio on what it means to be both an SI Swimsuit model and a feminist.
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It’s a tricky time to be a bikini model. A tricky time to publish a swimsuit issue, a tricky time to exist, in general. Powerful things are happening here, now, every day we wake up in America. Every day we wake up in the world. A wave of change and revelation is sweeping through our communities, with women rallying and speaking truths that have long needed to be heard. Major concepts of consent, harassment and women’s overall roles in society are being questioned, discussed, analyzed from all angles. Institutions are being toppled, monsters are being defeated, heroes are brandishing their voices as swords, their words cutting deep into the flesh of our culture. So in the midst of this, when you think about a magazine’s annual swimsuit issue, doesn’t it kind of seem… beside the point? Or worse, is it antithetical? Is it bad for the movement? I have thought about this question for a long time, it’s something I’ve considered since before the #MeToo movement even began. Is the Swimsuit Issue anti-feminist? In short… no. It isn’t.
I was in Aruba shooting with Sports Illustrated when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. As the shoot went on, the story began to gain speed, and by the time I arrived home he was fired, we had passed the tipping point, and the #MeToo snowball had begun rocketing down the hill. I woke up each morning and pored through the news, clutching on to every account I found of a woman using her voice, telling her story, slaying another beast. It was like a drug I couldn’t get enough of — not the fall of men, but the power of women. My mind obsessed over my own history, terrible experiences from my teens and troubling encounters from my professional adult life. I couldn’t count on one hand the number of times I have been harassed by different men in the 12 years I have been working in New York, from inappropriate comments to invasive phone calls to unwelcome touching to propositions to being cornered in my own artist’s studio and having a stranger’s tongue pushed down my throat.
Last year I wrote an essay on the topic of reconciling my feminism with my modeling career. Some of the feedback I received, while not surprising, was disappointing. “You are selling sex, and there is nothing feminist about that.” “Amusing to hear model Myla Dalbesio blast males 4 gawking when she appears scantily clad on mag cover.” I am a strong person who holds fast to my point of view, but shit starts to wear on you after a while. Thoughts start to infiltrate. Although I never “blasted males 4 gawking” (at least in that essay), it did make me think. There is a certain amount of bullshit we (as models) endure that we have to accept comes with the territory. Internet trolls are a given. Body shaming, slut shaming, we really get it all online. But the real-life stuff, the assumptions, the propositions, the touching, what role does my career choice and point of view play in that? If I present myself in a certain way in photos or my art (i.e. in a bikini, or even *gasp* nude), should I be surprised when someone at work makes certain assumptions about me? Did I bring this on myself?
Fuck. No. Because a job is a job, and, teeny tiny bikini or not, I deserve to be respected. Period. There is a definite fear post-harassment that if you address what happened, you will suffer severe repercussions for it. Will the perpetrator retaliate? Will you be fired? In fashion, you fear that you will be blacklisted, that clients will never book you again. You fear that by telling the truth, people will perceive that you could sell them out at any moment, that working with you means they might someday get thrown under the bus. You fear that if you did tell your story, people would say, “Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. Look at the image you present to people.” That fear can paralyze you into staying silent forever. But sitting on my kitchen floor after Aruba, contemplating my own history, I felt that fear start to fade away. I thought about the love and support the entire team at Sports Illustrated shows for the people they work with. I thought about the respect I receive from them, I thought about the power of the other women that appear in the magazine with me, and that power gave me my own strength. It’s easier to feel like you’re ready to fight when you know there is an army backing you up, a safety net to fall into if you tumble off that cliff. Sports Illustrated gave that to me, and that helped give me the strength to start telling my own stories, and to understand, for good, that these experiences were not my fault. Fuck a blacklist, I’ve got warriors on my team.
This feeling was emphasized when I was asked by Sports Illustrated to take part in the body-painting project, “In Her Own Words.” Don’t let the simplicity of the project fool you, this is powerful stuff. Let’s put aside the beauty of the images, the strength in the words each subject chose, and let’s focus for a moment on the radical idea that the direction of each subject’s shoot was entirely up to the model herself. It’s hard to explain how rare something like that is in our industry. As a model, you are not expected (or even really allowed) to voice your opinion on what happens during a job. No one wants to know what you think about the plan, about the process, about the end result. Do you like your hair and makeup? Are you comfortable in what you’re wearing? It doesn’t really matter either way, so you may as well just keep those thoughts to yourself. This is your job, this is what you signed up for. You’re not getting paid for your thoughts, for your voice; you are getting paid for your face, for your body. So zip it. Zip it up tight, push those feelings down, just numb them out. No one wants to hear that you feel uncomfortable. No one wants to hear how the shot could be improved, or if you like the results.
But sometimes I want to have an opinion. I want someone to ask me what I think, I want to feel like my input matters. I am not a mannequin, I am a person, and sometimes I think photographers and crews forget that. But not Taylor Ballantyne, my friend and colleague, the woman who created the body painting project, who photographed it, who gave us a platform to speak our truths. She asked us what we wanted to say, and most importantly, she listened. And the team listened. And the magazine listened. And hopefully the world will listen.
Because this is what we want to say: We are not sluts, we are not whales, we are not plastic. We are not attention-whores, we are not disgusting and dumb. We are human fucking beings. We are survivors, we are warriors, we are tough as nails with sensitive souls. We are flawed. So are you. This year’s Swimsuit Issue is the most diverse it has ever been. So many women from different countries, of different races, with different bodies, all being celebrated for who they are. Not just as models, but as human fucking beings. Because, really, we are not just models. We are mothers and moguls, authors and athletes, photographers, designers, feminist figures. Don’t believe me? I dare you to watch Aly Raisman’s testimony at the trial of real-life monster Larry Nassar. Then tell me again that you don’t agree that this magazine supports feminism. Or maybe you should read Ebonee Davis’s essay on being black in America (and in the fashion industry). You could watch her TED Talk if you’re not convinced. While you’re watching TED Talks, try watching Ashley Graham’s too. Are you starting to get on board? Maybe you’re confused about the definition of feminism. Chrissy Teigen can clear that up for you. Maybe you need some real talk about body diversity. You could ask Nina Agdal, Georgia Gibbs and Kate Wasley, Sailor Brinkley Cook, Robyn Lawley, Hunter McGrady, or really any of the women included in the issue. Ask me! I talk about it all the fucking time.
We deserve respect because we are more than just our bodies. Sports Illustrated understands that, which is why it casts the women they do. Do you understand that? Do you understand that no matter how a woman looks, what she is wearing, what she does for work or how much she had to drink last night, shes deserves to be respected? Do you understand that she can choose what she wants to do with her life, with her body, with her mind, and that is her choice? Not only is it not up to a man to decide that for her, it is not up to anyone to decide that for her. And that is feminism.
To finish, let me just repeat what I have said time and again: Body autonomy is one of the core tenets of the feminist movement. So who is going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my body, inside of a magazine or out? No one.
See all of Myla's amazing images from her In Her Own Words shoot: