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On Old Women, Invisibility, and the Concept of Beauty
Because I can't get the attacks against Martha Stewart off my mind.
Two days ago, I wrote a piece defending Martha Stewart’s decision to be the cover model for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. As is usually the case with our group of amazing readers here at Constant Commoner, the comments were thoughtful and intriguing. We didn’t all agree but that made it even better. We could talk about how we came at the story and, more important, why, and we could do it as amiable friends.
I’m not still dwelling on that story because of what happened here. No, what happened here is exactly what should have happened. We came at it from different angles and then we moved on. Nobody felt diminished or insulted. (At least I HOPE that’s the case!)
But then I went outside and began reading what the ‘influencers’ had to say. I won’t name names, but I will say they’re all women and they’re all younger than Martha and me by 20 years or more.
They’re women who pride themselves on defending women and their choices. They understand and decry the attempts to make women immaterial or invisible. In any other time, they celebrate beauty and guts and the need to be unique. Yet they refuse to see their attacks on an 81-year-old woman posing seductively on the cover of what is essentially a men’s magazine as ageist flapdoodle.
As a woman four years Martha’s senior, I’m here to tell them they’ve got it all wrong. I’ve never seen such a turnaround. Suddenly a woman who shows her bare arms and legs and neck and half her breasts is ‘ludicrous’. (Yes, I saw that word more than once.) Martha ‘made a big mistake’ and ‘should never have done it’ and ‘looks fake’.
It’s as if the tide has turned and women should stop making up and enhancing and beautifying. Women should stop dressing seductively and coloring their hair and drawing attention to themselves in ways that could be seen as not real. Artificial. Fake.
But wait! Not ALL women. Only those of a certain age. And it’s the younger women who get to decide what that age should be.
I’m calling bullshit. I’m calling it loud and clear. I’m old, I’m a woman, and I’m not going to let anyone get away with telling any of us how we should look or how we should behave now that we’ve reached an age they’d rather not have to think about.
From my vantage point as that ‘elderly’ woman, I’m seeing it this way: Most women in their prime (whatever that is) would prefer to look at us without recognizing that they may be us someday. They want us to stay in our place and become innocuous. That is, not looking and acting in any way close to the way they look and act. We have forfeited our place in the spotlight and must now be relegated to the more nostalgic rendering of grandmothers and wizened crones—which, of course, is not them.
Martha Stewart crossed the line. She dared to encroach on their territory. While women my age might see what she did as beautiful and brave, to other younger women she became an unseemly caricature of a sexy woman. She committed the unpardonable sin of reminding them their own days of dewy youth are numbered.
Some of the arguments against her—anywhere but in Sports Illustrated, for example—are specious. None of that should matter. This was her choice. She was thrilled to be asked, and terrified at the idea. But someone thought she, at 81, still had it and could still flaunt it. So why not?
It should have been a delicious coup for a woman in her eighties. Instead, it became a cause célèbre, a reason to deride and humiliate an attractive but decidedly old woman.
You’ll never be able to convince me that all that fuss was anything but ageist. It saddens and infuriates me, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because we old women have spent our lifetimes being told we have to step aside for someone else. We grew up in those years where women were expected to conform, to never make waves. We were expected to behave.
We’ve lived our lives and now we’re old. Really old. Many of us find being old pretty miraculous. Any chance we get to celebrate our agedness, we’re going to take it. And when one of us goes full bore and throws all caution to the winds, accepting a role that’s both scary and exhilarating and WILD—a role that hurts no one and brings joy—it’s pretty damned infuriating to see it being crushed. Ruined. Not just for Martha, but for many of us close to her age.
Stop raining on our damned parade.
Part of the argument—again specious and phony—is that by posing like that Martha made women feel bad about themselves. Seriously? In what way? Did I grow up feeling bad because Elizabeth Taylor was prettier than me? That would be insane. Even now, I can look at Jane Fonda’s fake perky boobs and think, “You go, girl!” I can do that knowing what an 85-year-old woman’s boobs are supposed to look like. They don’t look like that. Trust me.
Nobody felt bad about Martha Stewart’s SI cover coup except the cranky younger women writing against it. I have no idea why, but they need to get over it.
Maybe they ought to try talking to us old women first to see what we might think about it instead of just guessing. We’re really not that hard to find.
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