Martha Stewart told The New York Times it took courage and a lot of Pilates to pose for the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition as an 81-year old woman in a youth-centered culture. It probably also took a certain amount of tanning, scrubs, peels, and maybe Botox, as well as highlights, product, and professionally applied make-up. And that’s all before the photograph was taken and airbrushed.
[Click here to see the image.]
There’s no question, Martha looks gorgeous in her cloud of gold fabric draped over her demure pose exposing a hint of a virginal white bathing suit and revelatory décolletage. But I’m not sure she’s done women any favors by raising expectations that this is what we’re supposed to look like when we’re 81. Unrealistic expectations of feminine beauty damage women’s sense of self, starting in girlhood. I’m pushing 70, and I’m still struggling with the reality of how my healthy body has never conformed to the narrow ideal of feminine beauty depicted in mainstream media.
Growing up in the Age of Aquarius
While I never burned a bra, I came of age at a time when it was a political act not to wear one. I grew up in the Age of Aquarius. As they sang on Broadway, I had hair here, hair there, hair everywhere except under my arms, where I lamented my lack of a thick, feminist thatch. No matter what the vogue, I’ve spent most of my life believing my body wasn’t right, always intimidated by images reminding me that I needed to be thinner, blonder, taller, more sculpted and wear seductive clothing to be beautiful.
Ordinary Women, Without Photoshop
These days, I’m mostly enjoying the invisibility of being a post-menopausal woman. But sometimes I look in the mirror and see a reflection distorted by what I don’t see: slim limbs, perky breasts, flawless skin. I have to remind myself that there are people who could photoshop my round belly and thick waist out of the picture. I could forgo my retirement savings and have “work done.” Instead, I tell myself I’ve earned my white hairs and have stopped pretending they don’t exist.
On these days, it requires an Amazonian effort to remember how well this body has served in sex, pregnancy, and motherhood; how it continues to do so on skis and snowshoes, rowing and hiking; in a garden, in bed; as home to my brain, intellect, language, and my heart, in friendships and in love.
I know a woman in her thirties who sees Stewart’s swimsuit photo as a depiction of body pride and ageless female sexuality. This makes me hopeful that younger generations have a more inclusive vision of beauty. I was raised in diet culture. I had role models for dissatisfaction: women I loved who wanted me to look different. My mother sent me to junior high with a hard-boiled egg and an apple for lunch and promised me a camera if I dropped down to her fantasy of what I should weigh. At twenty, my glamorous aunt placed cellophane tape on the bridge of my nose so I wouldn’t get wrinkles.
I have wrinkles.
I delight in my strength.
I needed that strength recently to fight the humiliation of buying a new swim suit. Each one I squirmed into pinched my flesh in ways never seen in magazines. I settled for a sober navy one-piece with just enough ribbon of sheer fabric above the waist to distract the eye from the bulges and rolls that is the landscape of my matronly body. I am a matron, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a married woman usually marked by dignified maturity.”
Life as a Crone
I’d like to enjoy my maturity. I’d like to live into my eighties and swim naked with neither Lycra nor shame, just my buoyant, slick-skinned self, like a mermaid. In fairytales, women get to do what they want. Not the princesses, but the witches. I’ve done the princess thing. Now is my time to be a crone. And I don’t want to feel inadequate because I’m expected to look like Martha Stewart in a bathing suit when I’m eighty. I have to wonder if Martha Stewart knew, when she lowered herself for that photo as an 81-year old pinup, that she was raising the bar to impossible heights for us ordinary goddesses of womanhood.