First, it was Cheryl Tiegs in the 1970s whose 20-something California girl good looks and smokin’ body I felt I could never live up to.
Then it was Christie Brinkley’s perfect 10 bod raising the bar in the eighties. Bikini-clad Elle, Paulina, and Tyra kept the pressure going. Today it’s an octogenarian Martha Stewart as Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who is setting unrealistic expectations for women.
True to her brand she’s promoting perfection in unattainable ways.
It’s now not just the domestic diva’s ability to effortlessly organize a kitchen, prepare a 6-course meal with one hand tied behind her back and perfectly fold a fitted sheet. Now we have to compete with her age-defying- age denying looks too.
In her latest venture, Martha is serving up that time-tested recipe for women to come up short in the self-esteem department.
Their aging looks.
It is as unrealistic for most 81-year-old women to achieve Martha’s look as it was for a 25-year-old to look like Christie Brinkley.
Martha, that’s not a good thing.
You Go, Girl
Yes, some fans are showering the lifestyle guru with praise falling over themselves in awe of her fabulous age-defying cover girl looks. Yes, Sports Illustrated should be applauded for their diversity in using an older woman on their iconic swimsuit issue cover.
Go, Martha, some friends are gushing, for breaking new ground, calling her a trailblazer.
Except this trail is a tricky one filled with booby traps.
A familiar well-trodden path that women have been led down before, it’s a troubled one. Yet again we have an idealized model to emulate and judge ourselves against, worsening insecurities and feelings of inadequacy.
For most of my life, I was trapped like other girls in a cycle of comparison where we viewed ourselves relative to friends and models in magazines never feeling thin, pretty, or fit enough. It doesn’t necessarily diminish as we age.
Is having an older idealized woman like Martha Stewart really revolutionary or are they just casting the net wider for a larger portion of women to self-scrutinize?
In a culture where self-esteem and how we look have become one and the same, women are trapped in a negative cycle of disliking their appearance from puberty to menopause to post-menopause.
If a magazine filters and photoshops a photo of an 81-year-old woman so that she looks 40 can this really be considered a celebration of aging? Praising older celebrities for looking young is nothing more than the same old glorification of youth. It’s the same anti-aging propaganda women have been force-fed for centuries.
Is this really fighting ageism or merely perpetuating it?
“It’s refreshing,” a fan tweeted “to see Stewart embracing her age and own it with confidence. Her presence on the cover is a celebration of diversity and aging and a reminder that beauty transcends age.”
“It’s inspiring,” others say, “to see her feel comfortable and confident in her skin!”
I hate to be a downer on this celebratory spirit, but Stewart is creating unreasonable expectations of what aging looks like particularly for those without her financial resources. That skin she’s so comfortable in has been well cared for by someone with the means to do so,
Martha attributes her good looks to a healthy diet, Pilates, and good genes.
Great, who can argue with that?
There is no mention of procedures, colorists, stylists, and digital technology. The octogenarian reportedly eschews surgical intervention in favor of less invasive procedures that make her appear to have had surgery.
It takes a whole lot of lifting and tightening to look this good. And I don’t mean just the exercise. This face and body are benefited by fillers and Botox, laser resurfacing, and ultrasounds.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
As with any woman, Martha should avail herself of whatever means that make her feel good about herself.
You go, girl!
But when she is being set up as a role model and trailblazer in aging, that becomes problematic.
As a new beauty influencer, Martha sets the expectations and examples of what women should look like as they age. We are now at a point where there is a social stigma around the effects of the natural aging process.
This is both dangerous and damaging to girls as well as older women.
Our girls deserve more from us.
It sets up unrealistic ideas of aging when older women are woefully underrepresented in the media. The ones we do see are the same idealized airbrushed ones we saw in our twenties and thirties, equally unattainable standards.
This is not about positive aging. It’s about age-denying.
We can do better.
It is the same old dangerous set of unrealistic expectations leading to poor body image, depression, and low self-esteem.
Why It Matters
We are in an epidemic of self-consciousness. Everyone is acutely aware of how they look and appearances are a currency we trade on.
Older women get devalued because they don’t fit the currency of youth.
Is it any wonder so many girls and women don’t think they measure up to society-manufactured standards of beauty -or lose their appeal once they reach a certain age unless they are wrinkle-free and have no sags.
If we are drowning from a lifetime of unrealistic expectations when it comes to our looks, Martha Stewart is not offering a lifeline out of these unrealistic expectations.
It would be an immeasurable gift to our daughters and granddaughters to embrace our outward signs of growing older and wider and indeed happier.
By allowing our silver hair, lines, and drooping skin, to be revealed and celebrated, we make it easier for them to resist the unnecessary, wasteful, and damaging need to fight the inevitable.
Now that would be a good thing.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Sally, very even handed post. Gravity over time is a hard foe to conquer. As you note, women face undue pressure throughout their lives about how they look from magazines to social media to entertainment. While I applaud Martha for doing what she feels she needs to, I also applaud someone like Jamie Leigh Curtis who lets her hair gray and tries to be healthy.
In truth, the two things we should guard against are what a gerontologist refers to as inflections points in our demise as we age – the inability to drive and the inability to walk. At each of these points, we decline at an accelerated rate. So, looking good becomes secondary to staying fit and being cognitive. I think Jamie Leigh understands this well. Still, kudos to Martha. Keith
It’s funny you mention Jamie Lee Curtis as I was just referencing her to a friend as someone I wished they had used as the cover girl instead. She is gorgeous, sexy, confident,and comfortable in her natural aging without the unrealistic expectations that come with someone who has done work on themselves. As I pointed out, Martha looks great and I’m happy if she’s happy, but it is a highly idealized version of an aging woman. If seen only in this light it’s fine. Women have been confronted their entire lives with trying to live up to unrealistic images. This only contributes.
You know, I was a “go Martha!” girl yesterday on Twitter, but reading this, I think I’m changing my mind. You’re right: she has near-endless resources to help her look this way, and people to help her attain the look. She probably does come from good bones, but even still they were clearly posing her to hide her midsection, and I’m CERTAIN they used all sorts of air-brushing and filters. We would ALL look like that. I’m so tired of trying to stay beautiful. Some days I torture myself over my lost beauty. Other days I remind myself that I’m healthy and strong. Most days it’s a combination. The world is so hard on us. All we can do is support each other and respect our experience and achievements.
This is a multi-layered story, and Im glad you can see it from a different broader perspective. Martha Stewart is and has always been an attractive pretty woman, was a model supporting herself at Barnard etc. My issue was the unrealistic expectations this sets for most older women who will be comparing themselves to these images which were achieved through a great deal of effort and artifice. It is a misnomer to think that older women aren’t concerned with their looks, weight etc and suffer from appearance anxieties that were once the domain of younger people. And then this becomes the norm for future generations. I think your experience with what you wrestle with is one most women can identify with.
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Great post! The pressure on women to compete with media images of perfection is surely daunting. But, from the get to, it’s not a good thing that Martha is in Sports Illustrated. Is this not an annual ritual that has forever presented women as a photographically enhanced comodity? Seems like something that, with age, most of us have outgrown.
As spectators of themselves, women learn from popular media, in this case the wildly popular Swimsuit Issue, to compare their appearances with the media’s feminine ideal – young, tan, very thin**, clear skin, white but not too white, tan but not too dark, curves in all the “right” places, and the list grows every day. We see the exact same look, and the same body type, over and over again. This isn’t a celebration of female beauty or fitness, this is a celebration of one ultra-narrowly defined idea of female beauty or fitness that drives many girls and women to unhealthy extremes to emulate. This belief forms the foundation for a lifetime of work for women trying to live up to these constructed ideals of beauty and value. The amount of money, time and energy women devote to chasing these often unreachable ideals throughout their lives is unbelievable.
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Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
NOW—-THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!
Thanks for reblogging it and glad it resonates for you. Not everyone agrees.
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True. And they are obviously emphasizing her best assets, 😀 I was recently bemoaning the lack of older fashion models…and one appears!