Time to turn the page on SI’s swimsuit-edition victory

Kudos to Martha Stewart, but increasing the age range of sexual objectification is not ‘breaking’ right kind of barriers


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Martha Stewart contains multitudes.

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Martha Stewart contains multitudes.

She’s a domestic diva. She’s the original influencer and, these days, a modern influencer (she’s on TikTok). She’s a TV personality and bona fide media mogul. She’s a bestselling author, businesswoman and white-collar criminal.

And now, at 81, she’s the oldest woman to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, an American institution that has been creating and upholding impossible beauty standards for the “bikini body” since 1964.


The SI cover with Martha Stewart

Much has been made about Stewart’s turn on the cover. It’s “a middle finger to ageism.” It’s “breaking barriers.” It’s a welcome change in a culture that venerates youth and expects older women to fade from view.

But putting a conventionally attractive, thin white woman who was literally a former model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? Feels very “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking,” to quote Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

Stewart looks unimpeachably great on this cover. Her voluminous hair is tousled to perfection. The white plunge-neck swimsuit is giving Marilyn Monroe vibes. She isn’t pouting; she’s smiling with teeth. Her face is relaxed, her cheeks are flushed and dewy. She looks… well, she looks young.

And that’s the part people aren’t saying out loud: Martha Stewart doesn’t look like she’s 81. I heard two local radio hosts talking about the cover and they said they’d put her age at 55. Maybe 60 tops.

Here’s a list of things Stewart did to “prepare” for the cover, according to her: two months out from the photo shoot, she cut out bread and pasta. She did Pilates three times per week. She got a spray tan. She kept her monthly facial appointment. Her regime sounds very much like the “get ready for prom!” spreads I read in magazines as a teenager, and the “get ready for your wedding!” spreads I read in magazines as an adult.

Of course, the preparation didn’t actually begin two months out. This is also a woman with money and incredible genes.

I don’t feel empowered by Martha Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I feel pressured. Now we’re supposed to continue to chase unrealistic beauty ideals so we can be viewed as desirable sex objects when we’re octogenarians!? When do I get to let myself go? I’m so tired.

There is a billion-dollar beauty industry dedicated to anti-aging. Society is only comfortable seeing certain older bodies, and those are usually older bodies that look preternaturally young. Too often, when people say a woman looks “great,” they mean she looks young. Jennifer Lopez (53) and her impossible abs. Maye Musk (75) and her jawline, which you could sharpen knives on. Women are told to “age gracefully,” whatever that means — unless they don’t happen to look like Helen Mirren (77), then it’s “have you considered Botox?”

Older women are permitted to look good “for their age,” but heaven forbid they actually look old.

Sports Illustrated has been trying to show more diversity in its swimsuit issues as of late, including having multiple cover girls in the same year. Musk previously held the title of oldest cover star when she posed last year, along with Yumi Nu, who became the first plus-sized woman of Asian descent to appear on the cover.

Inside the magazine, Cree model Ashley Callingbull became the first Indigenous Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

But for all the nods toward diversity, the beauty standards the magazine is enforcing remain remarkably narrow. It’s what Tracy Isaacs, a professor of philosophy at Western University, called “inclusive objectification” in a paper about last year’s swimsuit issue.

“We should be wary of uncritically accepting the sexual objectification of women for the sake of inclusion and diversity,” Isaacs wrote. “When we do, we’re celebrating the swimsuit issue as something empowering for women and praising it for ‘breaking barriers.’ Given its context and target audience — straight, cisgender men — doing so perpetuates the pernicious idea that women (all women) need to be sexy-to-men to be acceptable.”

Indeed. Let’s stop looking for empowerment on the cover of the swimsuit issue.

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 4:02 PM CDT: Fixes spelling of Yumi Nu

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