So, in America, there's a very popular magazine all about sport called Sports Illustrated and once a year they have a special cover showing a woman in a swimsuit. This year they decided to feature 81 year old business woman and entrepreneur, Martha Stewart. And this has caused all manner of kerfuffle.
I wasn’t going to add to all the noise surrounding this magazine cover, but then I started thinking about it and decided that, as someone who founded a company called Look Fabulous Forever, I would very much like to share my thoughts.
As many of you know I am very keen for older women to be seen more widely in every context. I would very much like older women to feature routinely and at every appropriate opportunity in film and television drama, in advertisements, on advertising hoardings, for all and any fashion shoots, catwalks, discussion groups about all manner of subjects, and so on and so forth, and that also includes magazine covers. In other words, I would very much like older women like me to be viewed as part of the mainstream rather than being consigned as an irrelevance to a backwater, often unheard and, more importantly, invisible.
You may therefore find it surprising that I find the Martha Stewart cover problematic for a number of reasons. I feel a bit like proponents of Communism or Brexit who complain that their pure form of the doctrine hasn’t been tried which is why it’s such an abject failure. Because I really do think that this particular magazine cover does absolutely nothing to combat either ageism or sexism but actually reinforces all the stereotypes with which we are so familiar.
Let me attempt to explain how and why.
Age as Provocation
First of all, give the marketing team at Sports Illustrated a medal for their idea to put a famous, rich 81-year-old woman on their annual swimsuit cover! If your intention was to provoke a strong reaction, with as many column inches and as much discussion as possible, then you really hit the jackpot! Why? Because no one wants to look at an 81-year-old body semi-clad in a swimsuit, right? That’s actually quite yucky, right? Yes, but think of the potential for surprise, for history-making (oldest ever!), to provoke outrage, even. And that’s why this is a genius marketing exercise on the one hand, whilst being deeply ageist on the other. Which brings me to my second objection. This photograph purporting to represent the face and body of an 81-year-old woman is entirely fake.
Age as a Lie
Having had their genius idea, the marketing department at Sports Illustrated must have cast around for their perfect older model. Not Jane Fonda, too ubiquitous. Not Helen Mirren, already eulogised for her surprisingly shapely body in a swimsuit at 62 in 2008. So who better than the very famous, very wealthy and very pretty 81-year-old media mogul, Martha Stewart? So, what if, like all rich Americans, she's had a ton of expensive plastic surgery? So, what if we use hair pieces to create a halo of long tumbling blond curls? So, what if we cover most of her upper arms and half her decollete with a yellow-ochre opera coat? So, what if our clever photographers go to town with all the tricks of their trade including great lighting and extensive image manipulation? So, what if the result bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to either Martha Stewart or any normal 81-year-old? None of the fakery matters because a) magazine covers are always photoshopped and b) we at Sports Illustrated will get all the reaction we want just by dint of her being our “oldest ever”. Job done. Sit back and wait for the inevitable brouhaha to sell lots of extra copies of the magazine.
Age as a Sex Kitten
Which brings me to my third objection and it’s much trickier for me to write about because it’s to do with sex and you may well accuse me of a kind of po-faced prudery. This cover has been styled so that Martha looks sexually alluring. The gorgeous blond hair, the warm smile, the fresh face, the deep cleavage and other glimpses of exposed, well-oiled and firmly unwrinkled flesh all speak of sexual availability. Martha looks ‘hot’. Martha looks ‘up for it’. And what’s wrong with that, I hear you ask? Absolutely nothing if it was a true reflection of how society thinks of and celebrates older women and their bodies. But it really doesn’t. Please don’t get me wrong. If you are a similar age to Martha and you are regularly enjoying an active and satisfying sex life with your partner, then good for you. However, for this cover to be an authentic celebration of an older woman’s body, being sexually attractive would need to represent the lived experience of the majority of octogenarians. And somehow I just don’t think that it does.
In many ways, this cover makes all the points that I feel about the representation of older women for me. It illustrates perfectly the ways in which we find older women problematic as archetypes or role models. Sports Illustrated wanted to have their cake and eat it. They needed the provocation of an 81-year-old in a swimsuit to get the reaction they wanted, but they also needed her to be physically perfect and look as sexy as possible. So they faked all of it and we are all supposed to fall for the deception and find the image somehow refreshing and aspirational.
Far from being aspirational, the SI magazine cover could have made us all feel totally inadequate. But only if we still aspired to look like nubile twenty-somethings trying to attract the partner of our dreams. Happily, my life has moved on from the focus that I may have had fifty years ago. I now aspire to very different things for my face and body which include health, strength and being the best version of ‘me’ that I can create, not with cosmetic procedures and photoshopped images, but with clothes, colour, accessories and makeup. Perhaps I am not trying hard enough, but as I head towards my 80s, I’m afraid that will just have to do!
Top Image from Sports Illustrated. CREDIT - Photo: Ruven Afanador. See here
Disclaimer: Look Fabulous Forever do not own all of the images used in this blog. Please note that all images and copyrights belong to their original owners. no copyright infringement intended.
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