Column: Martha Stewart got her swimsuit cover at 81. But she also set an impossible standard

Martha Stewart smiles while wearing a black outfit and holding a black clutch purse
Martha Stewart attends the CFDA Fashion Awards at Cipriani South Street on Nov. 7, 2022, in New York.
(Evan Agostini / Evan Agostini/invision/ap)

Well, as annual swimsuit editions go, this is certainly a departure for Sports Illustrated.

The latest cover model served time in federal prison.

And she’s 81.

Martha Stewart seems to have reinvented herself yet again, and it can’t be long before she’s hawking a new line of perfect bathing suits, if she isn’t already, in addition to the perfect cookware, pruning shears and window treatments.

Of course, I stumbled upon a HuffPost headline that announced: “Where to Buy Martha Stewart’s Swimsuit Cover Looks.”


That was fast. Martha hasn’t even had time to dry off yet — and she does, by the way, have a signature line of bath towels.

In my Golden State column, I aim to cover all aspects of aging, and that means celebrating the achievements and contributions of older adults and raising a fist against stereotypical representations and outright discrimination.

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

So seeing an octogenarian on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — a year after Elon Musk’s mother, Maye, made the cut at 74 — is, arguably, a good thing. Beauty does not have an expiration date; you can be attractive in so many ways as you age.

But there’s something patronizing about SI’s sudden leap across six decades, from 20-year-old beach nymphs to over-branded, sex-kitten pensioners.

Oh, take a gander, everybody. It’s a senior citizen who doesn’t look her age. She’s not decrepit at all.

In her own comments about the swimsuit issue, Stewart, one of four cover models, comes off as both a champion of aging gracefully and as someone who is setting impossible standards for others.


Early bird dinner specials seem to be few and far between these days. Is the longtime tradition cooked?

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“My motto has always been: ‘when you’re through changing, you’re through,’ ” Stewart wrote on Instagram. “So I thought, ‘Why not be up for this opportunity of a lifetime?’ I hope this cover inspires you to challenge yourself to try new things, no matter what stage of life you are in.”

In an appearance on “Today,” Stewart said, “To me, it is a testament to good living, and I think that all of us should think about good living ... and not aging. The whole aging thing is so boring.”

I’m thinking about not aging, but it isn’t going so well. The clock keeps ticking. It might help if someone transported me to an exotic beach to try on some fancy bathing suits, but nobody’s going to want to look at photos of that.

The Washington Post reported that some celebrities were duly impressed with Stewart’s photo spread.

“You are amazing!” 51-year-old actress Jennifer Garner proclaimed.

“You continue to school us all in what it means ... and what it takes to be extraordinary,” actress Ellen Pompeo, 53, said.

OK, but this is what it takes to be extraordinary?

Stewart gave up bread and pasta, took Pilates classes and was flown to the Dominican Republic, where she was coiffed and primped and handed a few designer bathing suits to try on for size. It’s not like she opened an orphanage, became a molecular biologist or was shot into space.


Susan J. Douglas, a University of Michigan cultural critic and author of “Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media,” found herself both cheering and questioning Stewart’s debut as a swimsuit model.

“On the one hand: Yeah, go Martha!” said Douglas. On the other hand, “most women who are 81 do not have access to groomers and dressers.”

There’s societal pressure to look a certain way, said Douglas, whom I last spoke to when she cheered actress Mimi Rogers’ decision to avoid cosmetic surgery and age naturally and gracefully.

Reader response to Steve Lopez’s column about older drivers having to take knowledge and eye exams was all over the place. Said one reader: ‘All of my friends are at least 75, and I wouldn’t let half of them drive me anywhere.’

April 15, 2023

“There’s one image where Martha is leaning forward, with some cleavage, and you know, my God — so let’s say we make it into our 80s, and now we’re supposed to be sexy?” said Douglas. “You still have these standards of beauty and sexiness imposed on everyday women that we either don’t have the genetics or the money to achieve.”

That’s the reaction of Zan Dubin-Scott, a West L.A. clean energy activist and public relations specialist and a former Times staff writer.

“Uggggggggg,” she groaned in an email to me, suggesting that Stewart “looks nothing like what you see in those perfectly lighted, perfectly posed photos.”


I don’t know that to be true. But it would not be a total shock to learn that someone who was found guilty of lying to federal investigators about her financial dealings might have allowed a photo or two to be airbrushed.

“Can’t we stop forcing women to not look their age?” Dubin-Scott asked. “We won’t really be free ... until we let women and men act their age. And they don’t have to be all sexed out in slinky swimsuits to be attractive.”

Dubin-Scott told me she was getting both praise and pushback for her Facebook posts on Stewart’s turn as a swimsuit model.

“A lot of younger people see this as a feminist expression of power,” said Dubin-Scott, but she’s concerned about women of any age being portrayed as “extremely youthful, hyper-sexualized and ... super energetic.

“We can’t look saggy, we can’t look wrinkled. I wear makeup and I color my hair and I like to wear a short skirt now and then,” she added. “But the real liberation ... is when we don’t have to live up to an unrealistic standard of beauty. That’s power. When we don’t have to buy into social pressure.”

Maybe it’s a good thing Stewart has helped spark a conversation about beauty, about aging, about new frontiers.


We’ll have a year to talk about it, and then, who knows? Next spring’s cover model could be in their 90s. Feel free to send me your nominations.