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Playboy covers up

Vanna White of television’s popular game show “Wheel of Fortune” is shown in the July 1986 issue of Playboy magazine. (AP)
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Note: Somewhat graphic content.

Do not adjust your computer screen. No need to get your glasses fixed.

The news is nearly unthinkable — but it is true.

Playboy is covering up.

For 62 years, the iconic adult magazine has fueled sexual fantasies with glossy fold-out spreads of fully nude women. Furtively hidden in adolescent bedrooms and defiantly plastered on college dorm room walls, it helped spark America’s sexual revolution and tested the country’s acceptance of photos that in an earlier day passed for pornography.

Now, however, in a move that is sure to shock (privately, at least) millions of Americans, Playboy is putting clothes on its centerfolds.

Starting in March, Playboy will no longer feature full nudity. The change — which might seem minor to those unfamiliar with the magazine but is the adult entertainment equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric — is part of a broader redesign of the publication, Playboy said in a statement.

Playboy called it a “redesign,” a “reimagined Playboy magazine [that] will include a completely modern editorial and design approach, and, for the first time in its history, will no longer feature nudity in its pages.” It promised to “continue to publish sexy, seductive pictorials of the world’s most beautiful women, including its iconic Playmates, all shot by some of today’s most renowned photographers.”

In an interview with the New York Times, which broke the story, Playboy executives admitted the magazine had fallen prey to the very animal founder Hugh Hefner helped unleash more than half a century ago: America’s demand for porn, now in the digital age.

“That battle has been fought and won,” Playboy chief executive Scott Flanders told the Times. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

If Playboy is going to succeed with its decision to do away with nudity, the magazine will need to appeal to a libertarian sensibility. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post, Photo: MANDEL NGAN/The Washington Post)

To the relief of Playboy fans, and the regret of its critics, however, the magazine will still feature plenty of perfectly airbrushed models in suggestive poses. But now they will be scantily clad, rather than completely naked.

Playboy has described the shift as pragmatic, and part of a broader effort to bring the company into the 21st century.

The company cleaned up its Web site last year and saw traffic quadruple and the median age of its readers move from 47 years of age to 30, “an attractive demographic for advertisers,” its statement noted.

Now Playboy aims to do the same with its magazine, which can still be found inside plastic wrappers on the back shelf at the local supermarket.

The new Playboy magazine will still feature a Playmate of the Month, but the photos now will be PG-13, Chief Content Officer Cory Jones told the Times. The pictures will also be less produced, reflecting the more informal style popularized by social media. “A little more accessible,” he told the newspaper, “a little more intimate.”

Jones also told the Times that the magazine may ax another Playboy tradition: the centerfold.

The idea of Playboy without nude centerfolds almost seems paradoxical, as if Ben & Jerry abandoned ice cream or McDonald’s ditched burgers and fries.

From its beginnings in Hugh Hefner’s Hyde Park, Chicago, apartment, the magazine was founded on full nudity. By now, the story is the stuff of legend, due as much to Hefner’s genius for self-promotion as his soft core porn success. Depending on which version of the legend you believe, Hefner left Esquire in 1953 over its move to New York or its refusal to give him a $5 raise. So he started his own magazine, using money loaned by his mother or acquired by selling his own furniture.

For his first issue, Hefner bought the rights to a photo of a nude Marilyn Monroe against a red velvet backdrop. He only printed 70,000 copies and sold them for 50 cents each, but they flew off the shelf.

The rest is porn history.

“By 1958, despite vocal opposition from churchmen and anti-smut campaigners, his circulation was nearing one million and the magazine was making $4.2 million a year,” Bruce Handy wrote in a 2011 Vanity Fair article.

Hefner didn’t hide the magazine’s intentions.

“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,” he wrote in the first issue. “We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.”

Playboy combined photos of the female figure with an idealized masculinity.

“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” Hefner wrote, attempting to define both his readers and himself. “The magazines now being produced for the city-bred male . . . have, of late, placed so much emphasis on fashion, travel and ‘how-to-do-it’ features on everything from avoiding a hernia to building your own steam bath, that entertainment has been all but pushed from their pages. Playboy will emphasize entertainment.”

Although the magazine always published a wide array of fiction — everything from Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” to short stories by Margaret Atwood — as well as political interviews, including sit-downs with Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr., “entertainment” primarily meant nude photos.

For decades, Playboy seemed to have a magnetic lock on the male sexual imagination. The magazine would coax well known female public figures into gracing its pages without clothes, as if revealing a highly coveted secret. Some of the most famous photos, from Marilyn Monroe to Drew Barrymore, Brooke Burke to Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Crawford to Vanna White, became pop culture references. Elaine Reynold’s October 1959 spread appeared in a famous scene from the movie “Dead Poets Society.”

Even Marge Simpson appeared in Playboy, as if no female figure was beyond the magazine’s reach.

Hefner, with his pipe, smoking jacket and endless knack for self-promotion, used the magazine to launch a Playboy mansion, Playboy clubs, Playboy television and endless Playboy merchandise.

At times, however, Playboy fell victim to its own success. By making provocative images of naked women routine, Playboy inevitably created a market for its own rivals. In the 1970s, the magazine went head to head with newcomer Penthouse, whose more graphic female nudity pushed Playboy to become more extreme as well, according to “Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality,” by Gail Dines, Bob Jensen and Ann Russo.

Playboy eventually toned down its photos in an attempt to reestablish its “girl next door” reputation, but the company would face even stiffer competition with the rise of the Internet. Suddenly, graphic porn wasn’t just available online. It was free. Playboy’s circulation, which had peaked at 5.6 million in 1975, plummeted to its present tally of 800,000.

“In the end, Playboy crashed against two immovable barriers,” wrote John Biggs of TechCrunch. “First, the Internet made porn commonplace and Playboy’s brand of erotica or ‘pictorials’ as tame as a church pot luck. Second, none of the major carriers of online content allow porn to be sold through their stores.”

Playboy may have literally explained sex to generations of American men, but it faced a stark decision. Get cleaner, or get a lot dirtier.

“Penthouse, perhaps the most famous Playboy competitor, responded to the threat from digital pornography by turning even more explicit,” according to the Times. “It never recovered.”

Playboy’s decision to ditch nudity is part of an effort to clean up its image, executives told the Times. The company no longer makes most of its money from its racy photos, either in print or online, but rather from licensing its logo on clothing, cologne and other merchandise sold around the world.

The move may make business sense, but it has left many people baffled.

A single question seemed to swirl on social media Monday night, in slightly different forms: What is Playboy without nude pinups?

“People will now really read Playboy for the articles,” tweeted reporter Jason Leopold in an oft-repeated joke.

“Weird to live in a world where you have a better chance of seeing nudity on a TV show about dragons and zombies than in Playboy magazine,” mused Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff on Twitter.

Others, however, suggested that Playboy had bigger problems than making its magazine PG-13.

“Old Playboy was a lifestyle bible,” wrote Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen. “Current Playboy is a caricature of itself.”

Caricature or American classic, Playboy is covering itself up. Whether America is still intrigued remains to be seen.

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