I don’t usually dignify the ranting of Jordan Peterson with a response. I don’t even usually dignify it with my attention. However, his recent controversial comments around body image did come across my consciousness, and his justification for those comments related closely enough to a trend I’ve been seeing recently that I thought it might be worth worth spending some time working through them.
Now, if you’re sufficiently insulated from social media as to be unaware of this particular controversy, I congratulate you, but I’m about to spoil that. The specifics are these – Yumi Nu, a curvaceous and full-figured model, was featured on one of four alternate covers for Sports Illustrated‘s 2022 Swimsuit issue (the other models were Ciara, Maye Musk, and Kim Kardashian, if that’s information you wanted). On May 16, Jordan retweeted the Yumi cover image, saying, “Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that.”
As you might imagine, the social media universe took Jordan apart, and rightfully. I mean, authoritarian tolerance? Hilarious. We’re talking about a business selling magazines here. If they have Yumi on the cover, it means they think there’s demand for Yumi on the cover. There aren’t any authorities imposing tolerance here, just market forces, which Jordan at least theoretically supports.
And let’s face it, neither Yumi, nor Sports Illustrated, nor anyone beyond Jordan’s little circle of claw wringing lobsters actually cares about which body type he finds attractive. And why should they? He’ll buy a copy or he won’t. The rest is irrelevant to a model or a magazine, and even that much is irrelevant to the rest of us.
Mere hours after the original post, in the face of twitter’s ridicule, Jordan deleted the tweet, then cancelled his account entirely, saying, “So I told my staff to change my password, to keep me from temptation, and am departing once again.” Which was when a friend brought the situation to my attention just long enough for me to wonder at the compulsive nature of Jordan’s relationship with twitter, before giving the head shake and sigh that are all his antics deserve.
Then, yesterday, I ran across a video clip of Jordan on his daughter Mikhaila Peterson’s podcast, where he was justifying his original tweet using some language that I found quite revealing. He defended his description of Yumi as “not beautiful” on the basis that Sports Illustrated is “a sports magazine, so it’s about athletics. It’s about athletic people. It’s about athletic bodies.” The problem with Yumi, he goes on to say, is that her body type “is not as athletic, and it’s not as healthy.”
And I’ve heard this kinds of argument more frequently over the past few years, where men justify their shaming of particular body types based on the argument that these body types are less healthy. It’s not about size, they say, it’s about fitness. It’s about the ideal of a fit, healthy woman.
What’s interesting to me, however, is that the ideal woman these men describe usually has very little do do with health and athletics. Jordan’s interview with Mikhaila is an excellent example, as he struggles mightily to define athleticism. It involves “symmetry,” he says, though it’s not clear how this relates to athletic performance, “and a kind of athleticism in body type,” which merely begs the question. The athlete is “young,” he goes on, “female, generally,” although why gender matters to athleticism is never explained, “extremely athletic,” he begs the question again, “and shapely in a very particular way, with a waist to hip ratio of .68,” which he claims is cross culturally established as ideal for male interest and also associated with fertility.
Now, I hope you’ll notice that there’s nothing in Jordan’s ideal that has much at all to do with athleticism or health. Beyond repeating variations of the word ‘athletic’, the only specific elements of athleticism in his description seem to be symmetry, youth, and a particular waist to hip ratio, which even he justifies on the basis of male interest and fertility rather than athletic prowess. He isn’t describing an ideal either of athleticism or of health, just of the Swimsuit Issue body that he’s been getting off to for the past few decades.
And let’s admit now that the Swimsuit Issue body has never been primarily about either athleticism or health. Although things have been changing recently, most of the models who have graced the Swimsuit Issue’s pages over the years were anything but athletes. In fact, many of them were at a body weight that doctors would consider dangerously low, creating an ideal for women that was unhealthy both physically and psychologically.
If the Swimsuit Issue was actually about fitness and athleticism and health, it would feature the whole range of body types that make for athletic prowess. Compare the physiques of Tia-Clair Toomey (multiple crossfit champion), Amanda Nunes (MMA champion), Brigid Kosgei (top marathon runner), Guan Chenchen (Olympic gold medal gymnast), Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (current fastest female sprinter), Rebecca Roberts (world’s strongest woman), Annemiek van Vleuten (world’s top rated female road cyclist), and so on. There’s such a diversity of athletic body types here among the world’s top female athletes, but precious little by way of Jordan’s ideal waist to hip ratio, because, frankly, this kind of ratio has nothing to do with athleticism. And neither does the Swimsuit Issue.
Let’s admit too, on Jordan’s behalf, since he certainly won’t admit it himself, that he isn’t picking up his copy of the Swimsuit Issue because he’s interested in how healthy the models look. He’s not jerking off to some ideal athlete. His own failed attempt to describe athleticism reveals pretty clearly that what he’s looking for is youth, an ideal hip to waist ratio, and I’d hazard to guess some sort of hip to bust ratio thrown in for good measure. And, given that Yumi is only 25 years old, the only thing Jordan can really be complaining about is those ratios.
So don’t be fooled even for a minute. Jordan isn’t mad that Sports Illustrated is overturning some ideal of health and athleticism. He’s mad because his ideal of beauty, which he claims is based on “universality,” is no longer the universal ideal of beauty represented on magazine covers. He’s mad because this calls into question the superiority of his own desire. He’s mad because there are people out there who think that Yumi is ideally beautiful despite not adhering to his carefully calculated body ratios. He’s mad that these people’s desire might be as valid as his own. He’s mad that there are so many of these people, in fact, that Sports Illustrated is financially motivated to give them what they want.
He basically admits as much in his interview with Mikhaila, where he complains that deviating from the traditional Swimsuit Issue body is “a cheap manipulation of something that had been working very well for Sports Illustrated,” a manipulation that he says is “exploiting” Yumi to get cheap sales. And he’s right, in this at least. The Swimsuit Issue became a cultural icon precisely by manipulating and fulfilling ideals of female beauty, precisely by exploiting that ideal to sell magazines, and as Jordan says, it’s been working very well for them.
What Jordon fails to see is that it’s always been that way. The Swimsuit Issue was never the purveyor of some absolute or universal beauty. It was always manipulating and exploiting ideals of female attractiveness in order to sell magazines. That didn’t start with Yumi on the cover. That was the deal all along. All Yumi did was represent a small shift in what our culture includes in the definition of ideal female beauty, a shift away from Jordan’s magic ratio, to be sure, but otherwise just business as usual, all blather about health and athleticism notwithstanding.