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Sports Illustrated now has a model in a burkini. Can the swimsuit issue truly get woke?

Halima Aden, seen here in New York in 2017, is the first model to wear a burkini and hijab in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Sports Illustrated made an announcement this week about its annual swimsuit issue, a hallowed institution that’s been celebrating sand in awkward places for more than half a century: For the first time, it will feature a model wearing a hijab and burkini.

The news release included photos of stunningly beautiful 21-year-old Halima Aden lounging in the surf while wearing swimming attire that covered everything but her face, hands and feet. “At SI Swimsuit,” its editors declared, “we strive to continue to spread the message that whether you are wearing a one-piece, a two-piece, or a burkini, you are the pilot of your own beauty.”

The public response was as chaotic as you’d expect. There were critics calling the clothing oppressive, and defenders replying it would only be oppressive if Aden had been forced to wear it. Some Muslim women applauded the representation as deeply meaningful; some men announced, with befuddled patriotism, that they only ever bought the magazine for the nakedness. “This American Classic is completely about the skin!” tweeted an indignant protester. “You simply aren’t qualified to be in this issue . . . without showing skin!”

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Aden made her own perspective clear: She wore a burkini because she wanted to, and she posed for Sports Illustrated because she’d wanted to, just as she had chosen to compete in the 2016 Miss Minnesota USA pageant and wear a burkini while doing so. “I’m covered up, but I’m still getting these comments that say I shouldn’t be,” she had said then. “But the girls who wear the bikinis, they’re being told they’re too revealing! Enough. It’s their body, their choice.”

But . . . can we rewind for a moment?

Let’s revisit that Sports Illustrated public-relations gibberish. Let’s just bask in the utter nonsense of “pilot of your own beauty,” a phrase that sounds like it was cooked up on a Pinterest board run by Ivanka Trump with help from an Amelia Earhart conspiracy theorist. Pilot it to where? Why?

As for “continue to spread the message” — there’s a touch of revisionist history cloaking that “continue.” Are you telling me that a magazine historically best known for images like Kate Upton flossing her breasts with a fishing net considers itself at the vanguard of revolutionary beauty standards?

What is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue these days, anyway?

“Back in the day, it was reliable masturbation fodder, a late-winter gift to the flesh-starved straight-male gaze,” wrote the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz in a dissection of the magazine last year.

But times are changing, rapidly so. We’re having different conversations about the objectification of female bodies. We are, in fact, using feminist literary theory phrases such as “male gaze” in mainstream publications.

It’s fascinating to watch the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue attempt to navigate this era. It’s reminiscent of the last gasps of Playboy, which announced in 2016 that it would stop publishing nudity — passe, the company’s CEO said — and then decided in 2017 that it needed the nudes after all, and then decided in 2018 that it would become a quarterly publication instead of monthly. It’s reminiscent of the Miss America pageant announcing last year that it would drop its signature bathing suit competition. (The ratings fell, but then again the ratings had been falling for a while.)

It’s all part of a larger question: When your organization’s bread and butter is based on ogling scantily clad women, how do you change course — or do you even at all? Is it possible to become part of the solution while still hanging on to the part of you that’s a problem?

Last year, in the swimsuit issue’s first post-#MeToo edition, the magazine attempted a serious and “empowering” photo spread called “In Her Own Words.” You could tell it was serious because the photos were in black and white and because some of the models were middle-aged. You could tell it was “empowering” because, though the women were completely naked, they had Oprah-ish words scrawled on their bodies like refrigerator magnet poetry: “INFINITE HUMAN NURTURE ENVIRONMENTALIST.”

“I’m thrilled that this movement is going on because I feel like it’s going to change things for the better,” swimsuit editor MJ Day told Vanity Fair at the time. Later in the same interview, she said, “At the end of the day, we’re always going to be sexy, no matter what is happening.”

So, at the end of the day, was the message that progressive change is sexy? That Sharpies are sexy? “In Her Own Words” was only a small part of the issue; the cover was still 24-year-old Danielle Herrington cavorting on a beach in a thong. Was the message supposed to be: Don’t worry, lads, we’re going to dose you with a tiny glimpse of Paulina Porizkova’s crows feet (“TRUTH”), but then we’ll return quickly to Alexis Ren wearing a shoelace?

It’s important to note that MJ Day is a woman, and one who seems invested in creating conversations and in having comfortable working conditions for her models. (Over the years, she has often employed all-female crews.) But there’s also the fact that when the shoots are done, the magazine goes out into the world, and the prevailing images are still what they’ve always been: taut, buxom young women in very little clothing who do not seem like they’re posing purely for their own enjoyment.

Here comes Halima Aden, and I’m hoping her images in the magazine do prompt conversation — about what is sexy, and what is empowering, and what choice can look like, and what “American” can look like.

Are the naked ladies the spoonful of sugar that help the loftier messaging about inclusion, diversity and empowerment go down? Or is the messaging just lip service, to curtail criticism about all the naked ladies?

I’m still wrestling with whether the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is a force for good. But damned if I don’t plan to buy a copy, for the first time I can remember.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse .

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