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Empowering or exhausting?

Where do you stand on Martha Stewart's Sports Illustrated cover?

Martha Stewart, 81, has become the oldest woman ever to appear on the cover of SI's swimsuit issue. "It's kinda historic."

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Firstly let me apologise if this is the 900th piece to cross your screen about 81-year-old Martha Stewart (the US TV personality, cook and one woman lifestyle brand) appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. Which apparently aims to celebrate women who “live in a world where they feel no limitations, internally or externally”. (I know right?) It’s taken me a while to decide what I think and I still haven’t made up my mind, not really, because let’s just say… I’m conflicted. After all, few people bang on about visibility more than I do, so why would I have a problem with an 81-year-old starring on the cover of Sports Illustrated? I wanted visibility. I got it. So, this is not so much a hot take as a lukewarm one. Lukewarm bordering on chilly.

First of all, though, I want to say this: bravo. Bravo Martha Stewart for still having it all going on and feeling comfortable enough in your own skin to put it out there. (And a solid two fingers to the arsewipes on social media who think older women should be neither seen nor heard and she should put it away.) Bravo for being the oldest woman ever to appear on its cover, an accolade previously held by Maya Musk, then 74. It's a landmark moment, right? And bravo for looking bloody (if unachievably) fantastic. A cynical bravo, also, to the team at Sports Illustrated for being so good at their jobs as to recognise that, right in this moment in time, nothing is more likely to accrue you column inches than putting an older woman on the cover wearing not very much. Here you are, have some more for your stack.

Martha is one of four Swimsuit Issue covers, and, as a magazine insider, I know how this stuff works, so I can tell you that while Martha’s may be getting the internet talking I'd place a small bet that it’s the other three (Megan Fox, 37 (Mom of three!!! Emphasis not mine!), Kim Petras, 30, and Brooks Nader, 25) that will dominate the newsstand. Because who do you think actually buys this magazine? 

So bravo, yay, etc. But also more than a little bit WTF?

WTF no crepey décolletage? Not a single teeny weeny crepe (is that a word?)?I'm 56 and, even allowing for photoshop, my chest has more wrinkles than Martha's.

WTF not a neck ring in sight? (There are many times when I wish Nora Ephron was still alive to tell us what she thinks, but never more so than this.)

And, WTF nary a wrinkle, not even a laughter line?

Just WTF, frankly.

To be honest, despite the ample cleavage (which the SI team repeatedly called "the girls" according to Martha (Opens in a new window). Ugh ugh ugh), Martha is not letting it all hang out (sensible woman). “It all” is largely encased in a white swimsuit, which I’m happy to see can’t conceal that annoying bit of flesh menopause dumps right below your boobs (I mean "girls"), and shrouded in a cape, sun hat, wrap etc

Martha's Instagram followers will know she has been cheekily prepping us for this for sometime. One look at her account (Opens in a new window) shows several pictures of her nipping in and out of her swimming pool “looking cute” (she didn’t delete later). And why should she? She's a pro. She's a survivor. And, as she says herself, “My motto has always been: ‘when you’re through changing, you’re through’. It's hard to argue with that.

If looking at these pictures already pushed your ego through the floor, rest assured, looking like this takes even more work at 81, than it does at 41. And a lot (a lot!) more money. “I keep my facial appointments with Mario Badescu," she told the New York Times (Opens in a new window), before she got onto the carb-swerving diet and the pilates and the swimming. "I’ve done that once a month religiously for 40-something years.” Anyone want to hazard a guess how many houses that would have bought you?

So before you start beating yourself up, just remind yourself you too could look like this at 81 – you could! – if you were Manhattan-rich and had the time and the energy to put in the effort Martha does.

But all that aside, I have another, a more important, WTF. And that is this: Why, after all these years, are we still doing this, playing this game, going along with it? Do we really still have to be objectified at eighty bloody one? I don't know about you but I was hoping for a break long before that.

Yes, I care about the visibility of older women, be they 41 or 81. But I had this sort of fantasy it would start to be on our own terms and not through the male gaze we've been subject to our whole lives.

Martha Stewart is a woman who has achieved a lot (allow me to ignore the whole insider trading thing 🙏), she has built an empire, she has reinvented herself again and again, and by the standards of western society in the early 21st century, or indeed any standards, she has power. It strikes me that this, if not takes that power away, then at least erodes it. But, as always, it depends how you look at it, and I am looking at it as a person who never saw getting your kit off as claiming your power. In my eyes it was always making yourself the object not the subject. It was always giving it away.

Think about it. I don’t see anyone asking Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Bob Dylan, Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, Paul Simon (I could go on) to pose in their Speedos. (If I had better photoshop skills I’d have some fun with this, lucky for you, I don't.) And I don’t see any of them agreeing. They don’t have to. Just as they don’t have to have Botox or fillers or dye their hair or take Ozempic or do the Tracey Anderson workout everyday or try to look 20, 30 years younger just to stay in the game. 

As my queen, the late, great Carrie Fisher said in 2015 when she was attacked for not looking like her 20something bikini-clad self in the The Force Awakens, "Men don’t age better than women. They’re just allowed to age." She also said, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy by-products of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either.” Where is Carrie Fisher when you need her?

So. Here’s what I think. (Or what I think I think). This is not what 81 looks like, it’s what one 81 year old looks like. A very rich one who works very hard to look “good”. (I won't go on about the use of the word "good" for "younger" right now, maybe another time.) And good for her, now she’s got another magazine cover for her already huge collection. But I was hoping to have left the objectification behind by then. 

So props to Martha and thanks, I guess, to Sports Illustrated, for acknowledging women still exist in their 80s and putting one on the cover. But no thanks all the same.

• Empowering or exhausting (or none of our bloody business!): what do you think?

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