National Geographic lays bare a more frivolous side

Its swimsuit edition makes a splash, though critics say: stick to pyramids over pulchritude.

The swimsuit is nothing but three cockle shells, strung together with thongs and judiciously placed on the model's picture-perfect body. Bits of sand cling to her skin, and light flickers gently through the water.

Yes, it's February, when the long-awaited swimsuit issue brings sand and sex to millions of sun-starved readers.

Except that this particular magazine cover belongs not to Sports Illustrated but to that bastion of culture and learning, National Geographic.

Seriously.

"We wanted to have some fun," says Peter Miller, managing editor for the special issue, which appeared on newsstands Saturday. "It's one of the more irreverent things we've done." It's also, he assures, "very National Geographic."

Perhaps. After a fashion.

Of course, National Geographic has always had a not-so-secret reputation for more than just sweeping photographs and weighty stories about pyramids and meerkats, as any adolescent boy can attest. "That was the only place in a public-school library you could see naked women," says Samir Husni, a magazine expert at the University of Mississippi. A swimsuit issue, he notes jokingly, may actually be a step backward.

Editor Bill Allen alludes to that reputation in his introduction, when he mentions the inevitable comment he gets at parties. "Sooner or later," he writes, "someone will give you the nudge and the wink: 'You know, when I was a kid I couldn't wait to get my Geographic and see all those photos of bare-breasted women!' "

But those women, several of whom make an appearance in this latest issue, have always been exhibited at least ostensibly in the name of history and culture, not commerce and bathing suits.

Don't get too distraught. The magazine's newest foray, it turns out, isn't a whole lot different. Sports Illustrated this is not.

Few of the images have much titillation value. Flipping through the feature - a decade-by-decade look at changing fashions and attitudes - is more apt to produce laughs, amazement, and nostalgia, as well as a longing for the beach.

In the issue's oldest photograph, circa 1900, a Red Cross swim instructor demonstrates the frog kick while balancing on a piano stool. Her bathing suit - head-to-toe wool, with lead weights in the skirt to keep it from flying up - weighed more than 20 pounds when wet.

Nearly 70 years later, an elderly seamstress in full 1960s garb - the cat's-eye glasses, the big hair, the loud-print lampshade dress - puts the finishing touches on an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny orange polka-dot bikini.

"You can't miss the spirit of the decades as you flip through the pages," says Mr. Miller.

There's National Geographic's trademark cultural sweep, too - from the sari-clad Kathmandu women bathing in the Bagmati River to a bird's-eye view of the throngs of people covering Coney Island. From 1920s Arab pearl divers to a family in St. Petersburg, Russia, who have stripped down to catch some of the year's few rays.

A few photos are serious. A 1945 image shows kids at Jones Beach in New York running toward a cloud of DDT. A sign on the sprayer truck proclaims, "Powerful insecticide. Harmless to humans."

Still, there's a lot of skin. And Miller admits that one goal of the issue was just to have fun. "It's dark, it's cold - it's nice to think about a warm beach," he says. "In terms of what's going on in the world right now, it's a welcome diversion.... We wanted to show people that National Geographic has a sense of humor."

And, of course, to entice a younger, wider audience to pick up a copy.

"The normal doesn't grab your attention anymore," says Mr. Husni, the magazine expert. "So [publications] have to take up the abnormal. And what's more abnormal than National Geographic announcing they're publishing a swimsuit edition? If we can grab your attention - even if we have to descend to the lowest common denominator - it's a reminder that National Geographic is still in existence."

The magazine hopes to sell about 250,000 copies - peanuts compared with the 50 million or so that the Sports Illustrated version, an annual tradition since 1964, will sell in the US. But Miller hopes the issue will catch people's attention and maybe make them take another look at his magazine.

As for Sports Illustrated, it's taking a magnanimous view toward the competition. He hasn't yet seen the issue, says spokesman Rick McCabe, but "as the pioneers of the swimsuit genre, we welcome National Geographic to the fold."

Geographic readers hoping for this to become an annual edition will probably be disappointed. Miller says the next special issue will be more traditional: the treasures of Egypt. "But," he adds, "I do hope we can come out with some more fun issues."

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