Univision’s Data Visualization Unit
The first time Pamela Anderson got naked for a Playboy cover, with a straw hat covering her inner thighs, she was barely 22 years old. It was 1989 and the magazine was starting to favor displaying young blondes on its covers.
On Friday, December 11, 2015, a quarter century later, the popular American model, now 48, graced the historical last nude edition of the magazine, which lost the battle for undress and decided to cover up its women in order to survive.
Univision Noticias analyzed all the covers published in the US, starting with Playboy’s first issue in December 1953, to study the cover models’ physical attributes: hair and skin color, height, age and body measurements. With these statistics, a model of the prototype woman for each decade emerged. It can be viewed in this interactive special.
The fact that Anderson posed at age 48 shows how the magazine’s covers evolved in the past 62 years. As Playboy aged, its women also grew more mature.
These models, used by the magazine to draw attention to its covers in newsstands around the US, went from being the natural girl of the 60s and 70s to the surgically retouched model represented by Anderson: mostly light-haired, a little taller, with narrow hips, and light-skinned.
Of the 735 monthly editions in the United States, the iconic and erotic magazine founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953 gave black women the privilege of appearing on its cover only 14 times. Among them was the model Eugena Washington, who shared the double cover of the December 2015 issue with Anderson.
The Emergence of Blondes
The magazine had 715 women on its cover. Anderson graced the cover the most times, with a record of 14 appearances. The magazine’s first issues were more diverse. For example, in the 60s, most of the women had dark hair or were redheads. This lineup changed starting in the 80s, with the emergence of blondes, who reigned for thirty years until around 2010, when they yielded space to others.
Playboy’s diversity in the 60s responded to the influence of the civil and women’s rights movements of that era, which promoted racial and gender equality, says researcher Sarah Gervais, a specialist in gender and the objectification of women at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
As the years went by, the magazine also allowed itself to be seduced by older women. In the 50s, the average age on its covers was 21.9 years. It then peaked in 1995 and then again in 2004, with an average age of 32 years. In recent times it’s held steady at 29.
Twenty years ago, researchers Anthony F. Bogaert and Deborah A. Turkovich, from the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, conducted a study of Playboy and saw a change in the age of the models. “It is unclear what this trend means. It may reflect an increased success of older females to maintain youthful features (through, for example, increased exercise)… or perhaps, more simply, it reflects small changes in standards of beauty along with an aging population,” they wrote.
Gervais says the rise of plastic surgery also contributed to the trend. “It may also be that relatively older women who appeared on the covers were more famous. Thus, fame, and not age, was the principal factor in these covers,” she told Univision Noticias.
A close look at the 28 women over 40 who appeared in the magazine reveals that 80% were famous actresses, acclaimed supermodels or the daughters of public figures in the United States.
The data show that in the 50s and 60s the average woman on the cover was shorter, had a larger chest, a thinner waistline and weighed less. The data also show that 60.5% of them were from the US, followed by Britons and Canadians like Pamela Anderson.
“The Playmate of the Month was a political statement. Playboy’s proposal was to make the American dream a reality, inspired by the drawings and photographs of calendars from the twenties and thirties: the intention was to transform the girl next door into a sex symbol. And this implied a need to change many things with respect to the matter of female sexuality, in order to understand that even nice girls liked sex. It was a message as important as all feminist struggles,” wrote Spanish feminist philosopher Paul B. Preciado in his book Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Politics, which looks into the effect of the magazine on US identity.
For the White Man with a Pipe
Preciado says the magazine was conceived to please the white single man who fears committing to marriage, and also to please the married man who was seeking a space for pleasure within his own home. “The success consisted of placing the frustrated American male suburban reader, still a participant in the logics of consumerism and leisure of the postwar economy and an accomplice of the social structures of segregation of gender, class and race, in the position of player, giving him for a moment the chance to enjoy moral transgression in order to invite him then to resume his life of the hard working stud and return to his home and his lawn,” he writes.
But that success has been in decline. Since the mid 70s, Playboy’s circulation has diminished consistently. It went from the largest print run in its history, 7.9 million copies in November of 1972, to close to 800,000 copies currently.
In October 2015, the British weekly The Economist reported that the magazine was running annual losses of $3 million. Powerless against the large amount of pornography that now circulates through the Internet, the magazine placed its bets on setting aside the nudes and reinforcing the editorial content in order to reach a larger audience.
“I have two bits of news”, says Preciado. “The bad news is Playboy’s pornotopia is dying. The good news is we’re necrophiliacs”.
The bunnies are not black
Of the 715 women who posed for Playboy’s US covers for six decades, only 13 are black, including Eugena Washington – a cover model in the December 2015 issue – and Michael Jackson’s sister Latoya, who posed twice.
On three occasions, the black models appeared with other models, almost always blondes. Only 11 covers in the entire history of Playboy had a black woman as a main cover girl. That is 1.2% of the magazine’s issues, in a country where 13% of the population is African American.
Black women were absent from the magazine’s cover during its first 16 years, that is, until January of 1970, when model Jean Bell appeared in a cover in the company of four white women. Bell was the only one whose face was not completely visible. In October 1971 the norm was finally broken, when Playboy offered the cover to African American model Darine Stern, who was then 24 years old.
Four years went by before another woman of dark complexion appeared on the cover. This time it was Azizi Johari, 26, who appeared in the January 1975 cover with 11 white women. More than a decade would go by before the next black woman graced the cover of Hugh Hefner’s publication.
When Univision Noticias presented these facts to researcher Sarah Gervais, she explained that the lack of diversity in media, even beyond Playboy, not only affects the way in which white women see black women, but also the way in which black women see themselves.
“The lack of representation of racial and ethnic minorities may contribute to the lack of satisfaction in these populations, which may be associated with efforts by them to try to adjust to the ideal of being white and thin, by straightening their hair and bleaching it blonde, for example,” said the specialist. “One gets the impression of a lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the covers of Playboy. But I am not surprised. We know that in the United States, as well as around the world, the ideals of beauty, represented in the visual media, suggest that the most attractive women are young, very thin with big breasts, have white or light skin and are often blonde. Even when women from ethnic minorities are displayed on some media, their skin tends to be lightened by Photoshop,” Gervais said.
About 80% of the covers featuring black women appeared after 1980. Most models were from the United States and only three were foreigners: Haitian actress Garcelle Beauvair Nilon, British supermodel Naomi Campbell and Denise Matthews-Smith, a Canadian model.
“Playboy develops a male, adolescent, heterosexual and consumer-oriented discourse in order to maintain a strategic distance to the strict sexual morality of the suburban home, and its distinctions of gender, as well as with respect to the feminist defense of women’s expansion into the public space, professional success and a formula directed at adolescent males of all ages. The lower classes and African Americans, with little purchasing power, would be represented as potential criminals; the white middle class adolescent male (of whatever age!) would be able to aspire to become an authentic playboy,” wrote philosopher Paul B. Preciado in Playboy: Pornotopia (Anagrama 2010).
Univision Noticias tried to contact one of Playboy’s representatives in order to ask questions about this and other facts, but their vice president for public relations, Theresa Hennessey, did not answer any messages.
Readers matured with Pamela
It’s hard to determine whether Playboy’s recent history can be recounted through Pamela, or whether Pamela’s should be retold through Playboy. The Canadian blonde has appeared fourteen times on the magazine’s cover, more than any other woman. She has the physical attributes that have, since the end of the 80s, dominated the collective imagination of American men: long blond hair, big silicone breasts, fleshy lips, skin that has been slightly tanned by the California sun and an attitude that swings from innocence to subtle wickedness, without any semblance of shame.
Pamela meets those prerequisites. Her (changing) curves, her checkered personal history, and her scandals are part of the gentlemen’s publication, going back to 1989 when she appeared for the first time, ‘dressed’ as a coed and showing her recently-enhanced breasts. But her popularity came in the 90s, when she became part of the iconic, red-bathing-suit-wearing lifeguard team on the TV series Baywatch. During those golden years, she appeared on the Playboy cover nine times – with and without a swimsuit.
Nevertheless, the high watermark of Pamela’s “success” was not reached due to her photographs or her unremarkable work in cinema. It happened in 1997, when an erotic video from her honeymoon with then-husband Tommy Lee, a drummer for Motley Crüe, was stolen and circulated through the Internet. A scandal of epic proportions made this the most successful commercial porn video at the time – something today’s Kardashians would appreciate.
Playboy was right there with her. On its July 2001 pages, Pamela demonstrated that she was able to laugh at herself, with the help of celebrated photographer David LaChapelle. A photographic series showed humorous tinges that, they said, represented “definitive moments in her charming life.” What for? For the sake of the story.
For Pamela, being in the nude feels natural. She got naked twice more for Playboy, and later in other magazines and in her own Instagram accounts.
Now, the naive teenagers who became excited over her covers in the late 80s have joined her as well in the less enjoyable parts of her adult world: three failed marriages, two adolescent sons, several relationships, a hepatitis C infection that came as a result of sharing needles, a social cause (mainly animal advocacy) that is very dear to her heart, and finally, her latest appearance in Playboy.
For this edition, the star was interviewed by actor James Franco. At 48, Pamela shows that she’s still the same spectacular blonde, with prominent breasts. But her priorities, like those of the magazine, have changed. Before accepting the proposal, she asked her two sons, ages 18 and 17, for permission to pose in the nude. (They said yes.)
“Striking lack of racial diversity”
The lack of racial diversity on the covers of magazines like Playboy, and in the media, may be contributing to the dissatisfaction of women of color with their own bodies, says psychologist Sarah Gervais.
She is referring to the fact that, out of the 735 monthly issues that Playboy has published in the United States, black women were featured on its cover only 14 times.
“We know that in the U.S. as well as around the world, beauty ideals, depicted in visual media, suggest that the most attractive women are young, very thin with large breasts, white or light-skinned, and often blonde,” says Gervais, an associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a specialist in the objectification of women, prejudice and sexual harassment.
Gervais, director of the Subtle Prejudice Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, analyzed the results of the research conducted by Univision on the women who had appeared on the covers of the iconic magazine, founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953. This is an excerpt from the interview:
Given your experience, from the data we have showed you, which finding draws your attention the most?
This is a fascinating study. I was struck by the lack of racial-ethnic diversity on the covers of Playboy magazine, but not entirely surprised. We know that in the U.S. as well as around the world, beauty ideals, depicted in visual media, suggest that the most attractive women are young, very thin with large breasts, White or light-skinned, and often blonde. Even when women who are racial-ethnic minorities are shown in the media, their skin is often lightened through Photoshop. There is also research suggesting that when women of color are highlighted in the media, they are often depicted as exotic (e.g., African American women depicted in leopard prints). I also found the increase in age to be interesting. This runs in contrast to the young ideal, but I wondered whether the relatively older women who were featured on the covers were also more famous -so fame, rather than age was driving these covers. Plastic surgery allows relatively older women to still appear quite young.
Does the fact that only 1.8% of the women featured on the cover of a magazine in 62 years are black represent racial exclusion or inequality?
Blacks make up approximately 13% of the population, so the fact that only 2% of the covers showed Black women certainly suggests that Black women are underrepresented.
How can “normative” beauty standards help explain the way race operates in United States?
Normative beauty standards provide often unwritten and implicit rules about what it means to be an attractive woman in our culture. Given that these standards are often White and light-skinned, it can convey the message that people who are not white are less attractive -I don’t personally believe this, of course!-. However, there are notable exceptions to these cultural messages, such as featuring Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o as extraordinarily attractive women. However, we have a long way to go!
Do you think this under-representation of women of color in an erotic magazine like Playboy only reveals the general behavior of the media in the United States? Does it affect the way white people view women of color?
There are lots of studies showing that exposing women to media (e.g., fashion models, erotica) makes they feel less satisfied with their own bodies. My guess is that this not only affects the way white women view women of color, but also the way women of color view themselves. The lack of representation of racial/ethnic minorities may contribute to body dissatisfaction in these populations, which in turn may be associated with efforts to fit the thin, White ideal, for example by straightening the hair, dying in blonde, etc.
Do you find a cultural or political reason for the magazine to have become more diverse in the 60s and 70s?
It is possible that like other aspects of culture, the magazine was influenced by the civil rights and women’s movements, which were promoting more racial and gender equality.
Do you think Playboy was somehow a political statement by trying to change the way society perceived feminine sexuality in United States, or by transforming the girl next door into a sexual symbol?
Playboy depicts to its readers and society more generally, that the most important attributes of women are their beauty and sex appeal over and above their intellect, leadership potential, and personalities. Unfortunately, the fact that Playboy will no longer be including nude photos in their magazine will likely not help this larger cultural phenomenon. Consumers no longer need to buy Playboy to see such images of women, they are available at their fingertips via computers, tablets, and smart phones. In fact, while in the past, consumers had to seek out such media -by buying Playboy or Hustler for example- at this point, this type of media is unavoidable. Such media, depicting women as sex objects, is mainstream.
Do you think that the standards of beauty and sensuality imposed by Playboy were mostly established by men behind the conceptualization, the lens and the strategy?
Yes, that is what feminist scholars have referred to as the “male gaze” Unfortunately, women often “buy into” these standards of beauty as well. In fact, in my research using eye tracking, we find that both men and women exhibit the objectifying gaze toward attractive women.
Is it possible to define how this objectification of women by Playboy during the second half of the 20th century affected the lives of ordinary women at home?
Women are no longer depicted as passive housewives in the media, but instead of as active sexual agents who are supposedly empowered by their own sexual objectification. Although different than in the past, this is still very problematic because it restricts women a major ways. There are other “brands” that are trying to depict women in more diverse, realistic ways, and more empowering ways, such as the Dove Campaign for real beauty.