Playboy's decision to cease and desist printing nudes signals something bigger: The toppling of the white female naked body from its pedestal as the epitome of sexual object in mainstream American media.
Playboy Playmates have A Look, and it is young, white and thin, with long (usually blonde) hair. (Ever notice how similar Playboy models are to Barbie?) Sure, there have been exceptions—women of color have graced the cover from time to time; recently, Azealia Banks—but they are just that. Exceptions. To a rule: Twenty-something, slender, Caucasian, large breasts, narrow waist, extensive retouching (link NSFW) = sexy. That has been Playboy's standard for decades. This narrow view of beauty, this exclusionary view of what is sexually attractive, has never been a universal truth; all kinds of women are found attractive by all different types of people, and have been, for centuries.
Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy, always insisted he was selling a fantasy. From a 2009 interview with the the Los Angeles Times:
You've had such an influence on defining modern ideas of beauty. When I asked friends what they'd like to tell you, several said, "He made me feel bad because I didn't look like that."
[A bit taken aback] Well, that's a very unique notion. How about guys who read Sports Illustrated and feel as if they can't break records in terms of sports?
That's the equivalent?
Of course. In other words, what are dreams and fantasies all about? Aspirational. …The major message in terms of the centerfold and Playboy isn't simply beauty. The major message is a more liberating attitude toward sexuality.
What are dreams and fantasies all about? And whose dreams and fantasies are these? When Hefner says "dreams and fantasies" and "aspirational," he means thin, white and blonde. But that's not everyone's fantasy.
Despite Playboy's dominance in the zeitgeist, people have always wanted to see other types of women naked—women who are not thin and white.
Soon after Playboy's debut in 1953, a few publications featuring women of color as pin-ups entered the market. In the 1960s, there were the men's magazines Bronze Thrills, Jive and TAN. In the 1970s, Players, which was considered "the black Playboy," hit newsstands.
But Playboy was mainstream, famous, and readily available. If you wanted to see other kinds of naked bodies—other ethnicities, other body types—you had to seek them out… Making you somewhat of a deviant, looking for something outside of what had been deemed acceptable.
The internet has brought all different types of pornography out of the shadows. Recent data from PornHub (link SFW) shows that people seeking sexual stimulation are using the search term "BBW"—big, beautiful women—more and more. A 47% increase over the last two years. This is in stark contrast to a 2000 study that analyzed the measurements of 240 Playboy Playmates who posed between 1978 and 1998, and found that seven out of 10 of them were underweight.
Another PornHub report reveals that the site's most popular search terms include "MILF," "mom," "Japanese," "ebony," "black," and "Asian"—none of which are terms one would traditionally apply to the typical Playboy Bunny. Want dark-skinned women with small breasts? There's a site for that. Want Asian guys with big dicks? There's a site for that, too. Human sexuality is a vast, amorphous, liquid thing, the internet has proved that if you're into it, there's porn for it—and someone else is into it, too.
Hefner believed that the magazine's "major message" was about a liberating attitude, but it seems that what is actually liberating, sexually, is variety. Diversity. Which is what the internet provides.
So if the busty, leggy blonde is no longer the dominant ideal, what is? Well, that's the point: There shouldn't be one. As a society, we shouldn't be brainwashed into believing that a singular type is alluring. In other words, when we decide what is beautiful, what is sexy, what is desirable, it shouldn't be because an paternalistic authority figure in pajamas said so.