Martha Stewart's Sports Illustrated Cover Means Next To Nothing
It's ageism masquerading as age inclusivity.
A new issue of The Don’t Buy List went out to paid subscribers earlier this week and in it, I briefly touched on 81-year-old Martha Stewart's Sports Illustrated cover.
My general takeaway: It doesn't count as “celebrating an aging woman” if you're celebrating her for still looking young and fuckable. (I’ve written about this before. A lot. Over and over.) When I posted my POV on Notes, though, I got some interesting, ignorant, and absolutely unhinged feedback that turned my 11s into deep, deep wells of concern for the future of feminism. To clarify why Stewart’s SI cover is not radical — not bad, not upsetting, not a disaster for the political advancement of women or anything, but also not a triumph for anyone other than Stewart herself — here are those responses + my replies.
“There's something to be said for keeping your fuckable going for as long as it can go, don’t you think?”
No. (Especially when defined by Sports Illustrated standards — as continuously molding and remolding the face and body to meet the Western beauty ideal, a process that siphons participants’ time, money, energy, and headspace; poses significant risk to their physical bodies; and contributes to appearance-related anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, disordered eating, self-harm, and worse. No, I do not think there is anything to be said for keeping that process going as long as it can go!)
”We are an unabashedly uncomplicated and utterly predictable species variant, we males. Thus the solution comes down to a rather simple equation: Hit That > Not Hit That.”
LOL PLEASE. I am not in any way referring to the male response to this image. I’m referring to its ageism masquerading as age inclusivity. I'm referring to the way it’s being championed as feminist and empowering and exciting, and what that means for women and beauty culture. (My analysis: Nothing new, nothing good.)
”It’s okay for me to think something like ‘Wow, I’m impressed at how physically attractive Martha Stewart continues to be, given her age,’ right?”
As an individual, it’s fine for you to think anyone is attractive at any age for any reason, I guess. As a society, it is immoral to uphold a narrow, impossible physical ideal as “beauty” and then punish women — socially, financially, and/or politically — who don’t comply. I am almost always talking about the latter.
“A more impressive triumph might be a woman of the same age appearing on a magazine cover and being celebrated because of her expertise and achievement rather than her physical appearance.”
I mean, I’m fine with anyone being on the cover of any magazine and being celebrated for any reason, so long as we tell the truth about it: Here, Stewart is being celebrated for remaining conventionally attractive well into her old age thanks to significant cosmetic intervention and investment. We need to stop pretending this kind of thing is revolutionary. I’d be very into this cover if the headline read something like, “Octogenarian Illustrates How Submission To Beauty Standards Is Always Sexually Appealing To Those Who Have Been Conditioned To Find Women Who Comply With The Patriarchy’s Aesthetic Demands Attractive (Even If They Don’t Realize That’s Influencing Who They Find Attractive & Why)!”
“Your post has raised the question for me of how much fuckability is permissible for us gals as we get older? Where is the personal and collective set point around how juicy and vital we’re allowed to be? I’m 61 ½, and people routinely tell me I look 40. Never got work done, have never done much except live a happy life, and yet … is it okay to be hot and fuckable as a genuinely happy person?”
Of course?? Lol. I do think it’s important for us, individually and collectively, to shift the focus from looking fuckable to doing the actual fucking (if that’s what you want to do) though. One is aestheticizing life and one is experiencing it. Like… Wrinkly, fat, disabled, average old people with age spots and dentures fuck too!
“She is a complicated character who is forever pushing boundaries, and maybe this was something on her list she needed to check off?”
Sure! That's the impact of this cover for her as a person, on an individual level, which is uninteresting to me. I'm interested in the cover’s collective impact on beauty culture, ageism, sexism, etc. (Which is: It does not change the conditions of those oppressive systems for the better and in fact, strengthens those oppressive systems. And again: Not every action a public figure takes has to materially change beauty culture for the better!! That’s not my issue here. My issue is that Martha and the media and the general public are insisting this cover is inclusive, feminist, collectively empowering, a step forward for age equality, etc. when it is not. My issue is that we are kidding ourselves. My issue is that when we claim shit like this is liberating, we obscure the actual work of liberation.)
“If she had appeared on a different cover, say on Vanity Fair or the New Yorker, would we be as pissed off about it?”
I am not pissed off. I am rationally critiquing a mainstream magazine’s contributions to beauty culture, because that is my job. But also: When Stewart was profiled in the New York Times earlier this year, I wrote an article saying pretty much the exact same thing about systemic ageism, and how her individual ventures do not help the collective cause. So yes, I would react the same way, and I did, here.
“I don't think she looks young, I think she looks good for her age.”
Looks good for her age is another way of saying Looks younger than people her age normally do. This is classic beauty culture rhetoric. Different language, same ideology.
“An older woman I know says, ‘Stop saying I look great for my age. Just tell me I look great.’”
Hmm. I’m hearing, “I don’t want you to evaluate my worth based on ageist beauty standards anymore, because ageism negatively affects me now! I still want you to evaluate my worth against whatever racist, classist, ableist, fatphobic, etc. standards continue to privilege me, though.”
“It is a GOOD THING to look ‘good for your age’ because it means you are in good health, fit, agile, etc. Ask any primary doctor.”
No. This response — which assumes health, fitness, and agility are and should be associated with one very specific aesthetic — is bursting with beauty culture conditioning. So is the medical system.
“My grandmother, who died at 100, told people she was in her ‘mid 80s’ because she looked so good for her age. The reason is she got up early every morning and did an hour of exercise. She dieted her whole life so she maintained her weight. She also did her hair, dressed nicely and did her nails until the day she died — peacefully and happily. I walk in her footsteps and look good for my age.”
What a lovely memory of a woman who internalized systemic ageism in such a way that she felt the need to lie about her age to the end <3
You really verbalized and laid out all my feelings about this. Your headline was really my initial reaction to seeing the pictures- like this cover really doesn’t mean anything to me and it’s not empowering or groundbreaking to me. I loved your alternate Octogenarian headline😂
Thank you for this. As menopause descends fast and hard the internalized fatphobia and patriarchy is giving me a run for my money. I need folks who call bullshit so clearly and forcefully to push back inside my own head.