Is the Male Gaze Ready to Embrace Down Syndrome Sexuality?

A young woman’s quest to be the next ‘Sports Illustrated’ swimsuit model

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Earlier this month, a model from Minnesota announced that she sent an audition tape to Sports Illustrated magazine. Her name is Mikayla Holmgren. She hopes to be chosen as a model for the magazine’s annual Swimsuit Issue.

Mikayla’s resume is what you might expect for a potential SI model. She’s worked as a model for years. She attended college, is an accomplished dancer, and even participated in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She also happens to have Down syndrome.

Model Mikayla Holmgren wearing a black leather jacket, multi-colored T-shirt, and blue jeans.
Model Mikayla Holmgren wearing a black leather jacket, multi-colored T-shirt, and blue jeans.
Mikayla Holmgren has been working as a model for several years. She hopes to be a ‘Sport Illustrated’ swimsuit model. Screenshot from Mikayla’s public Instagram account.

How Society Perceives Adults with Down Syndrome

Many of us have limited experience living, working, and socializing with people with Down syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the U.S. ~6,000 babies are born every year with Down’s. It is a relatively rare condition to begin with.

And it’s only been in the last couple of decades that people with Down syndrome have been allowed to integrate into society. Even Baby Boomers born with Down’s were often institutionalized. Many died very young, without even coming to close to reaching their potential. They had neither the medical care nor the social support to do so. Today, things are different. But our collective perceptions have not caught up.

While some health conditions are invisible, that is not the case with Down syndrome. A hallmark of Down’s is distinguishable facial features. Often, we first notice the Down syndrome before we notice the individual.

Our society continues to view adults with Down syndrome as perpetual children. While some adults with Down’s do exhibit childlike behavior at times, many others do not. Like the general population, people with Down syndrome have a broad range of abilities and capabilities. They are going to school, living on their own, and pursuing meaningful careers.

For some people with Down syndrome, sex and intimate relationships are both a desire and a real possibility. Yet their sexuality and any expressions of it remain taboo.

The History of the ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Issue

The first Swimsuit Issue was released in 1964. Back then, it technically wasn’t even a separate issue. It was a few pages in a travel-focused spread.

Today, even calling it the “Swimsuit Issue” is a bit of a misnomer. In recent years, models have ditched the bikinis for body paint, jewelry, and an outfit that even looks like a macramé plant holder:

Screenshot taken from Kate Upton’s public Instagram account.

The Swimsuit Issue remains safely in the mainstream by pushing erotic photography to its absolute limits. It avoids the pornography label with the help of carefully placed hands, creative angles, and tiny scraps of fabric.

If you read their interviews, many models describe their experience with SI as “empowering” or a “celebration of beauty.” It is also a lucrative endeavor, for both the models and the magazine.

Since its inception, the Swimsuit Issue has generated over $1 billion in revenue. It all comes down to what will sell, and that “what” is conventionally sexy women. From a financial perspective, would a swimsuit model with Down syndrome help or hurt the SI franchise?

5 Questions I Have for Men

As a straight female, I can only guess at what men’s reactions would be to an SI swimsuit model with Down Syndrome. So I want to hear it from you.

  • Would you read the issue if it featured a model with Down syndrome?
  • Would seeing these photos make you feel uncomfortable?
  • Or, is a swimsuit model with Down’s long overdue?
  • Would you be angry at SI if they included a model with Down syndrome?
  • Any other thoughts?

Feel free to post your answer in the comments.

Does Mikayla Holmgren stand a chance?

Mikayla would not be the first ever swimsuit model with Down syndrome. Back in 2016, Madeline Stuart shared an Instagram photo of herself wearing a pink bikini:

Screenshot taken from Madeline Stuart’s public Instagram account.

But SI’s Swimsuit Issue and a model’s G-rated Instagram account are two different things. The magazine is an expression of female sexuality whose primary audience is men. Even if Mikayla models the demurest of one-piece bath suits, her photo will be alongside women wearing only body paint.

In a People magazine interview, Mikayla let the world that know she sent in her audition tape. For now, we wait to see if Sports Illustrated — and the male gaze — are ready.

Woman. Mother. Writer.

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