Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Among the women who have any thoughts at all about Martha Stewart’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover, I suspect there are basically two groups: Those who saw the 81-year-old Stewart’s picture and thought, “Wow, she looks amazing, I hope I look that good when I’m in my 80s,” and those who thought, “Wow, she looks amazing, but I hope when I’m in my 80s I’m a sack of sun-spotted wrinkles who has long stopped caring about being hot, still wears a two-piece bathing suit and had so much fun I ran this body into the ground.”
In case it’s not obvious, I’m in the second group.
Stewart does indeed look amazing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and her presence there is historic: She’s the oldest cover model in the history of the Swimsuit edition, long an annual festival of the hottest of hotties: gorgeous, sun-kissed women who are (with a few exceptions) improbably thin and busty – and also young. In a culture that ties youth to beauty, the women the magazine deems among the most beautiful in the world are typically many decades Stewart’s junior. This year, the magazine is shaking things up, and essentially saying, “the elderly can be super-hot, too.”
This is progress, in a limited way. Any expansion of a narrow and often punishing beauty ideal is probably good.
And Stewart isn’t the first or only Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model to break the tiny-20-something-girl-with-big-boobs mold. Last year, the magazine put plus-size model Yumi Nu on the cover, which spawned a meltdown among some men who were offended by the very sight of a larger woman in a bathing suit being billed as beautiful.
In 2016, Sports Illustrated put plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover. And this year, the Swimsuit edition also includes transgender pop star Kim Petras, along with women in their 40s (Melissa Wood-Tepperberg) and 50s (Padma Lakshmi) and curvier women whose bodies don’t fit the traditional swimsuit model aesthetic.
Overall, this message – it’s not just women who fit the beauty ideal of the 1990s Sports Illustrated who are beautiful – is a good one. And yet, it’s hard to get too excited about feminist progress that comes in the form of a swimsuit cover shoot.
I understand the desire to fight the natural course of aging. I also wish we created more space for women to reject narrow beauty ideals entirely – at all points in our lives, but especially after we’ve put in decades of work to meet them. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be perceived as attractive, or with enjoying it if you fit the cultural ideal; if I looked like Stewart or Lakshmi or any of the other women in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, I might permanently be in a bikini.
But there’s a difference between appreciating beauty in many forms and having extremely narrow, often impossible to meet standards of attractiveness, and making those standards the metric by which one half of the population is judged. Yes, of course, there are attractiveness standards for men, too, but they are hardly as limiting. The old rich man with the hot younger wife or girlfriend is so common it’s practically a cliché.
But turn on the news in just about any US city and notice how most of the female anchors are young and conventionally attractive, while men stay on camera well into retirement age. Or look at which actors we celebrate as all-time hotties (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio) and how actresses are routinely cast as mothers to men roughly their same age – while male actors’ on-camera romantic interests could often be their daughters. Men roundly considered attractive have dad bods and bald spots; their bodies vary tremendously in size and shape (who is the female equivalent of Vin Diesel or the Rock?).
For women, the ideal is widening a bit, but it remains far more constricted – and being perceived as attractive and sexy remains far more important for women than it is for men. For women (but not for men), being overweight or perceived as unattractive has a financial cost: Women already earn less than men, and women who are heavier see an even bigger wage gap. Women also experience ageism in the workplace at younger ages than men do.
So let’s not confuse an unconventional swimsuit model being on the cover of a sexy swimsuit magazine for feminist liberation. Let’s be honest that a lot of us who say Stewart looks great are doing it precisely because she doesn’t look 81. She doesn’t look 25, either, but she’s slim, blond, largely unwrinkled and occupying that undefined space of “ageless,” which basically means we know she’s over 40 but she’s still sexually appealing.
Yes, Stewart no doubt has worked extremely hard, and likely spent significant sums, to look as great as she does. And yes, if I were Stewart, I would do the exact same thing – this is no shade to her, or any woman who feels great in a swimsuit and decides to show it off.
Still, though, the central message is that a woman’s value lays at least in part in her ability to look great in a swimsuit – even when she’s in her golden years.
It is laudable that Stewart is still such a force at her age. She continues to run a hugely successful company, even after taking a big hit after she was jailed for her role in an insider trading scandal almost two decades ago. She has proven herself to be anything but a staid lady who lunches, adapting to new social media platforms and reaching new and younger audiences. And she’s done it with the same ethos she brought to the Sports Illustrated cover: effortlessness.
Here’s the reality: Creating a brand that projects effortless perfection takes an enormous amount of effort and Stewart is, in so many ways, not the norm. She’s fabulously wealthy, a former model and a woman who has built a brand on her own aspirational lifestyle.
Stewart belongs where she is because magazine covers sell the aspirational and escapist – it’s no surprise that the women who grace them aren’t people plucked at random from a PTA meeting, a church potluck or a Walgreens parking lot. Sports Illustrated, like most magazines, is selling a fantasy – and we can be pleased that the fantasy now includes fantastically fit and painstakingly well-maintained octogenarians in addition to fantastically fit and incredibly hot 20-somethings – while not mistaking this small step forward as any kind of giant leap for womankind.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor-in-chief MJ Day is quoted on the issue’s announcement as saying, “There is no theme [to this year’s issue]—rather, there is a vision, a sentiment, a hope that women can live in a world where they feel no limitations, internally or externally.” And that would indeed be a wonderful world for women (and everyone) to live in. But it’s not going to happen because of a sexy swimsuit magazine cover.