At 81 years old, billionaire and business mogul Martha Stewart is the oldest swimsuit cover model of Sports Illustrated, overtaking Maye Musk, who was the oldest last year at 74.
What can be thought about this development?
On one hand, we can celebrate new gains for representation and inclusion: Martha Stewart has cut through the spandex ceiling, making it possible for “older women” to be cover photo-worthy by Sports Illustrated (SI), a magazine whose annual swimsuit issue authoritatively confers the status of beautiful to its models. As an octogenarian swimsuit model, Martha Stewart brings diverse body image to popular media (and to the news media that reports on popular media).
As well, this development signals a growing acceptance of older women’s sexuality. Martha Stewart has left the kitchen and entered the swimming pool. According to a CBC analysis article, Martha Stewart said on Today that she increased her exercise regime and cut out carbs (but didn’t starve herself) to show that “You can look great at pretty much any age if you put your mind to it.” If Martha Stewart can put her mind (and enormous wealth) towards looking sexually alluring at 81, isn’t that permission for us all?
On the other hand, scholar (and aspiring clairvoyant?) @tracyisaacs might have foreseen Martha Stewart’s gracing of the cover of SI’s Swimsuit issue when she wrote about what she describes as inclusive objectification here at FIFI and in The Conversation. Tracy acknowledges that commercializing the sexual attractiveness of a wider spectrum of women’s bodies seems, on the surface, to be a good thing (or at least not harmful one). However, mainstream media, embodied by the swimsuit issue (pun intended),
“continues to promote sexual attractiveness as women’s main currency. […] (It’s) it’s not clear how the swimsuit issue, the very essence of which is to represent a particular type of sexualized bodies, could morph into something that celebrates the body in a different way.”
From this perspective, it may be said that Martha Stewart has escaped one form of traditional female currency (homemaker) to another (swimsuit cover model). SI has shown us that Martha Stewart is worthy of sex appeal, but nothing has fundamentally changed the “relentless message about what makes women worthy,” as Tracy notes.
The CBC analysis article quotes Anna Murphy, who finds it refreshing that Martha Stewart refuses to “age out of the public eye.” (This is a return to modeling for Martha Stewart). But the SI issue heavily suggests that, in order to stay in the public eye, Martha Stewart must, in her own words, continue to “aspire to look great.”
Let’s also note that Martha Stewart doesn’t look great on her own. The are four covers of the same magazine issue —featuring Megan Fox, Brooks Nader, and Kim Petras, singer and transgender model (perhaps the most interesting and progressive choice). So conventional sexy and controversial sexy can remain in the public eye together.
Author of the CBC article, Jenna Benchetrit, concludes her analysis with an unanswered question initially asked by Tracy: “It’s breaking barriers, yes. But are these the barriers we want to break?” We at FIFI have many diverse voices, so I speak for myself when I (and maybe some of we) say no. Or at least, certainly not only.
Another Jenna, Jenna Peterson, happens to answer Jenna B’s question in a humorously memed social media post. Jenna P doesn’t want to continue to “aspire to look great” as she ages. Jenna P sees “aging out” of sexy as precisely what she wants to accomplish.
As a cis-woman who is just over half Martha Stewart’s age, I’m inclined to agree with Jenna P. Aside from discourse of what is “natural” for women (for instance, it doesn’t matter much to me whether or not Martha Stewart has had body modifications), women can transgress their worthiness via sexual objectification…by letting themselves just get (and look) old.
Perhaps Sports Illustrated might have photographed an 81 year-old, swim-suited Martha Stewart emerging from a witchy swamp? Well, maybe next year.
Readers, what perspective do you take on this issue?