What 200 ‘Playboy’ Covers Tell Us About Beauty in America

Era by era, a sanitized quest for physical perfection

At this point, Playboy is a relic—an outdated self-parody, much like its creator, Hugh Hefner. But historical artifacts are valuable because they give the present some context by illuminating the tastes, aesthetics and obsessions of the past. Consider: The iconic magazine's covers and pictorials, for better or worse, both reflected and shaped cultural ideas about beauty and sexuality for more than half a century. A new book, Playboy’s Greatest Covers, collects 200 images, and its author, Damon Brown, notes in a conversation with Forbes that "the Playboy model has changed from decade to decade." Fair enough. The magazine initially highlighted the naturally busty/curvy figures of the 1950s and '60s before switching to surgically enhanced busty/slim fare in the '70s and '80s. More recently, diverse celebrities have been mainstays. In some ways, however, Playboy was always a bust (pun intended), and with all due respect to Mr. Brown, a certain sameness—in terms of general vapidity—pervades its approach regardless of era. Critics have long decried its airbrushed (later Photoshopped) quest for physical perfection and de facto exploitation of women. That just scratches the surface. Though pioneering in terms of showing nudity, Playboy was conformist and safe (perhaps even cynical) while trying to appear progressive. A prime example is its famous October 1971 cover showing African American model Darine Stern lounging in a stylized white bunny chair. Does equality in America mean being able to pose nude for Playboy regardless of skin color? Becoming exotic eye-candy for "the man" and extra grist for the ad-driven capitalist mill? For Hef, that was probably just about right. Moreover, I'd argue that Playboy functions as the Disney of porn, bunny replacing mouse as it grinds out sad, homogenized fantasies for mass consumption and reduces erotica to a tacky theme-park attraction to be casually sampled and forgotten.

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