Feb. 19 (GIN) – The much-awaited swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated magazine has waded into a public relations nightmare with its display of bikini-clad white models prancing alongside Africans carrying spears or Chinese paddling rafts in cone shaped hats.

A panorama of the “seven continents” was promised in this year’s issue, but what readers actually got was an odd juxtaposition of scantily-clad women vamping it up next to some local inhabitants of the various continents as if they were ‘exotic props,’ according to some critics.

Columbia University professor Mark Lamont Hill observed: “For me the African picture was probably the most offensive because it played on some of the most old and stereotypical images. It showed the African as primitive almost uncivilized.”

On the feminist website Jezebel, deputy editor Dodi Stuart weighed in: “Using people of color as background or extra is as a popular fashion trope but although it’s prevalent it’s very distasteful. People are not props.

“These photos depict people of color as exotic backdrops,” said David Leonard of the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University in an interview with Yahoo! Shine… Beyond functioning as props, as scenery to authenticate their third world adventures, people of color are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment.”

According to HipHopWired.com, a black model was planned for the Africa shoot, but a white model was chosen instead, allegedly to provide ‘better contrast.’

The issue was hotly defended by Mark Ford, president of the Time Inc. Sports Group. “The journey to all seven continents was a bold undertaking to deliver, once again, a spectacular Swimsuit production for our millions of loyal fans. We are delighted that the Travel Channel will present the vibrant behind-the-scenes narrative and visuals of this epic and rigorous production. It will show a completely new and captivating perspective of the Swimsuit franchise.”

The magazine also issued a statement:”We apologize if anyone was hurt by our representation of their culture.”