Is Martha Stewart’s Sports Illustrated cover a diversity breakthrough? No, it’s just window dressing

Martha Stewart, at 81, this week becomes the oldest cover star ever to grace Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. With her tousled beach hair, gorgeous pixie face, professional tan and stone swimsuit, well, it would be against my principles to judge whether she looks older or younger than 81, suffice it to say that she looks incredible.

She has a silken orange cape draped over her shoulders – a bold choice, I thought, since it recalls the orange-jumpsuit uniform of her prison sentence for lying to federal investigators over a share trade in 2004, but maybe that’s deliberate and ironic. Or maybe I’m the only person who remembers that. “I hope this cover inspires you to challenge yourself to try new things, no matter what stage of life you are in,” she wrote on Instagram.

The next-oldest cover star of the magazine was Maye Musk, the insanely good-looking mother of Elon, who appeared in 2022 at the age of 74 and told Hollywood Insider at the time: “Women of all ages, we should walk on the beach and be happy with our bodies.” And all this is great: diversity, inclusion, representation, role modelling, how do we (older women) feel we belong in the world if we don’t see ourselves in the world?, etc.

But ladies (and gentlemen, you’re allowed a view, too), do you ever feel as though you’re being played? The very people who invented the unattainable standards of beauty and perpetual youth that have tyrannised women since the advent of magazine cover stars parade their inclusivity and anti-ageism, ventriloquising attitudes of can-do and self-love through the models, and we’re meant to be … what? Grateful? Happier with our bodies? Challenged to try new things? Come on.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was conceived in the mid-1960s by the then editor André Laguerre, who wanted to find a way to fill a slow winter month, February, when there was not much sport. Different times, and all that: let’s not waste indignation on the fact that men were lauded by Sports Illustrated for what they could do, while women were prized for what they looked like.

Partly by dint of its only annual appearance, the swimsuit issue became a bellwether for the next big thing in modelling, and has made or cemented countless reputations, from Elle Macpherson to Tyra Banks. If this kind of media was, at least until social media took the mantle, the arbiter of female beauty, Sports Illustrated Swimwear Issue was its supreme court, creating the structures of Fordist perfectionism: any shape as long as it’s thin, with a biologically impossible rack.

The aesthetic is often skated to the edge of soft-porn with (some) clothes on; a lot of artfully glistening body oil and suggestive poses, in a pretty frank appeal to the predominantly male readership. Since its inception, it has had complaints from the morality police, and post-#MeToo the woke army got involved – and as a card-carrying soldier in that, I can precis our complaint as “Dude, stop photographing us like food.”

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But the question of representation has always been a little more subtle. Banks was its first cover star of colour in 1997; Valentina Sampaio the first transgender cover star in 2020; Yumi Nu the first plus-sized model of Asian descent in 2022; Martha Stewart, of course, the first 81-year-old. The magazine parades this diversity with flourish and self-congratulation, as though it is making the world a more inclusive space for marginalised groups. However, in following issues, models will revert to the mean.

Real change would look different from this: it would look like a different body shape every issue – it’s not as though there’s an exhaustible supply. For example, eventually, plus-size would cease to exist as a concept, since the idea of “plus” relies on the concept of a single, constant, ideal size. The prospect of that kind of radicalism evaporates when the foe is dressing itself up as an ally; in its place, a piecemeal inclusivity, where “old” is very now for a season and then very last year.

I would contrast Sports Illustrated Swimwear Issue with May’s Vogue: Reframing Fashion features 19 disabled people from fashion, arts, sport and activism, five of them as cover stars. The concept is the same, the underpinning is different: Vogue’s editor Edward Enninful himself has disabilities and worked closely with the disability activist Sinéad Burke, who is a consulting editor on the magazine. If you want representation to stick, it has to be in the foundations and not just dressing in the windows.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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