February 15, 2017 12:44 AM EST

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has always portrayed a certain version of sex appeal. This year, however, it offers a different message, thanks in part to veteran editor MJ Day. Day, who has been overseeing the Swimsuit Issue since 2012, wants to convey that beauty isn’t limited by size, shape or age.

Day started at the magazine in 1998 as an editorial assistant. Her first task was sorting swimsuits in the fashion closet, but she eventually worked her way up to helming the iconic SI Swimsuit Issue. She is involved in every part of the process, from scrutinizing the swimwear and traveling the world for shoots to casting the women featured in the pages and on the cover. Day is the first to defend the magazine when critics take issue with its content. “The celebration of sexuality is in a really weird place right now,” she says. “People will always have passionate opinions, and I welcome that. But I’m passionate about getting the message out that we’re not just that.”

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editor MJ Day.
Andrew Toth—Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

The work is “sensitive,” Day says, and she takes casting extremely seriously, getting to know all the candidates personally. Inclusion has been a priority since she took over. Last year, a curvy model, Ashley Graham, was featured on the cover for the first time. The 2017 issue builds on that momentum.

Yu Tsai—Sports Illustrated

“We’ve got moms, we’ve got 18-year-olds and we’ve got 63-year-olds. We’ve got curvy, we’ve got athletic, we’ve got short in stature and we’ve got six-foot-three,” Day says of this year’s issue. “We evolve like the rest of the world — and shame on us if we don’t.”

Motto spoke to Day before the magazine’s Tuesday release.

Motto: Why Kate Upton on the cover?

She was a kid when she landed that first cover in 2012, and she was publicly eviscerated by many people for not having a typical body type or a typical look, and she took it in great strides. She’s definitely developed herself over the past five years into a really special woman. She became this catalyst for body inclusivity and body diversity, because she was not the norm at the time.

How is the 2017 issue championing inclusivity?

I’ve always wanted to change up the conversation of what the ideal of beauty is, and that has to begin with being more inclusive of different body types. The issue can definitely remain true to its roots and be really sexy, but we don’t have to let one specific body type define what’s sexy. This year we have the gymnasts, Simone [Biles] and Aly [Raisman], we have Serena Williams, we have Christie Brinkley. The point I want to try and make is that oftentimes for women, numbers define us — our age, our weight, our clothing size. That is not at all representative of a strong, powerful, beautiful woman. We can be a size 14 and be beautiful, we can be 63 and be beautiful, we can be 40 and be beautiful. Our bodies can be different from what they looked like last year and still be beautiful.

Swimsuit: 2017 Issue: Portrait of Simone Biles during photo shoot. Houston, 27 Sept. 2016. On sale February 15
James Macari—Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Dating back to Jule Campbell in the ’60s, all the editors of the Swimsuit issue have been women. Do you think having a female editor helps the issue’s appeal to women?

Automatically, when some people think of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, they think it’s something salacious, a titillating experience. There is a super sexy component to this, but the issue was the first fashion magazine to name the women featured. It wasn’t just model X — it was Christy Brinkley, it was Cheryl Tiegs, it was Babette March. We’re kind of responsible for humanizing the model.

Do you ever get pushback from readers who think the concept is degrading to women?

Of course. There’s definitely a stigma attached to this magazine. It’s unfortunate. I ended the magazine with what I think is a really important photo — it’s Nina Agdal, and she has a wet t-shirt on, and the t-shirt says, “You don’t have to be modest in order to be respected.” I really believe that. No one should be telling women what they need to look like to be beautiful, or what they need to wear to be respected. How you look, how you dress and how you want to be perceived is your own choice — it’s you, doing you.

Swimsuit: 2017 Issue: Portrait of Hailey Clauson during photo shoot. Lapland, Finland 22 April, 2016.
Walter Chin—Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

What was your favorite shoot this year?

We took Hailey Clauson, who was last year’s cover model, and Bo Krsmanovic, to the Arctic Circle, to Finland. It was my favorite shoot, but it was also probably my only shoot fail. We went there specifically to shoot the northern lights — and the lights did not show. The only time we saw them was from the plane on the way in. But the great thing about that shoot was we adapted. We ended up shooting in the daytime and took some of my favorite images of all time. Lights be damned, we still got amazing stuff.

Read more about this year’s issue on SI.com

Write to Lucy Feldman at lucy.feldman@time.com.

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