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SI Swimsuit issue takes a step forward, and that's a thing of beauty

I consider the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue an annual nuisance that, like a swarm of fruit flies, manages to survive without serving much purpose.

So I'm not ready to throw the editors a parade for putting Ashley Graham, a gorgeous, size-16 bombshell, on their cover. As Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, put it, "Are we supposed to be grateful that Sports Illustrated is expanding the wheelhouse of body types it is willing to sexually objectify for profit?"

Still, there's no denying that magazine covers reflect our current beauty standards. And it's legitimate progress when we expand ours beyond what has, for too long, passed for bikini-worthy: taut flesh stretched across bones. (Plus breasts.)

I wrote about Graham last year when she was featured in an advertisement within the swimsuit issue, an appearance that was hailed as historic at the time.

This year, she's front and center on one of three covers released this week. The other two feature model Hailey Clauson and martial artist Ronda Rousey. (An actual athlete! More progress!)

Graham posted the cover image on her Facebook page, with a message to her more than 700,000 followers: "This cover is for every woman who felt like she wasn't beautiful enough because of her size. You can do and achieve anything you put your mind to."

It clearly resonated, with 119,760 shares by Wednesday morning and 13,000 comments, many striking an emotional tone.

"I started tearing up when I saw this. Thank you Ashley for starting me and so many other women on the path of body confidence."

"You're beautiful Ashley Graham, inside and out! But the message you're sending to women all over the world is by far the most beautiful thing of all!"

"You can not even imagine what you have done for me. … I don't usually post things like this, but since I learned about you a few days ago you have helped to catapult me on a new journey in life. I have spent my life being ashamed of my weight and feeling that I deserved less in life because of it. I really can't thank you enough!"

And that's why the cover is good news.

Because unlike countless other swimsuit issues (and Victoria's Secret catalogs and Cosmo covers and so on), it makes women feel more, not less, comfortable in their skin.

Because unlike Oprah and Women's Health and the $20 billion weight-loss industry Graham is telling women to change the story they tell themselves, not the body they live in.

Because, like fruit flies, the swimsuit issue is going to keep coming around, year after year, whether we like it or not. If it can find itself a purpose, and that purpose is broadening our definitions of beauty and employing body-positive cover models, then I'm willing to call it progress.

hstevens@tribpub.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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