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Why Martha Stewart doesn't need to pretend she's a 25-year-old swimsuit model
Editor’s Note: Have a question about which medications tamp down manic episodes and delusions of grandeur? Ask Elon Musk, even if he’s clearly not taking his. Any other questions? Ask Matt Labash at email@example.com
A certain situation you’ve addressed in the past has now reached critical mass, and what have we gotten from you? <crickets> I’d no more recovered from cataract surgery, when what accosted my new and improved vision but 81-year-old Martha Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue in all her made-up, filtered, weirdly contorted glory. Talk about bad timing! Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for women of a certain age—-of which I am one—living their best life for as long they can. I’m over the moon that two grandmothers—Kim Mulkey and Patty Gasso - are at the top of their illustrious coaching careers. I even applaud Martha for her get-out-of-jail-richer accomplishment and her genius in promoting her brand. But as my daughter Kristin suggested, maybe part of aging gracefully is knowing when to say no. What do you say? Am I a traitor to my gender? Am I being age-ist to suggest that mature women should find other ways to demonstrate their worth rather than with their questionably sexy bodies? In no way am I suggesting older women should feel compelled to hide their bodies. If they want to go swimming, by all means don a swimsuit and go. But does it send a mixed message when we support the 80-is-the-new-25 claim with filters, full body makeup, professional photography, and a small army of stylists? Thank you for weighing in on this critical topic…again.
First, Dee Dee, your women’s sports references are completely lost on me. Don’t think me a sexist. It’s just that my sports fandom has declined so much in recent decades, that I barely even watch the NFL or NBA playoffs anymore. The human brain can only warehouse so much useless information, so I refuse to dedicate what little remaining spare capacity I have to college women’s softball. Second, allow me to congratulate you on your cataract surgery coming off without a hitch. Though I have to admit that I’m looking forward to getting cataracts myself. Not only so that I don’t have to bear witness to all the human suffering that surrounds us (caused by avarice, hatred, and Hunter Biden’s laptop), but so that I no longer have to watch that nails-down-a-blackboard Jardiance diabetes-medication commercial, inflicted on a near hourly basis by Big Pharma. It has turned me into a horrible person who now actually roots against the diabetes dancers and for elevated A1C levels, whatever those are.
Third, I’m really sorry that the first sight you beheld with your new improved vision wasn’t a majestic sunset or riverine marvel, but an octogenarian lifestyle guru trying to pretend she’s a 25-year-old swimsuit model, which, aside from stroking her own considerable ego, is purportedly about making people feel better about aging by projecting a completely unrealistic image of what aging actually looks like. (Spoiler alert: it does not typically involve being a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl.) You kind of put it as well as I could, and thank God you did, since you’re “a woman of a certain age,” giving me just enough fig leaf to say my piece on the matter. And since my life insurance is all paid up, I think I will. Why the hell not? It’s been a while since I’ve shaved with a buzz saw, and I enjoy the heedless danger of it all. It keeps me feeling young, just like Martha.
I should state at the outset that I have nothing against Martha Stewart. I think she was unduly punished for her insider trading episode, something our congresspersons do all the time as they go scot-free, still able to carry on their important work of steering our country into a ditch. Stewart is an attractive, well-preserved woman - on the outside, if not the inside, having fostered a reputation for being a ruthless perfectionist and a bully. And of course, whenever I need to know how to give my bedroom a boost with a self-stenciled batik headboard painted with a flat sash brush, or to make rose-scented goat-milk soap with exfoliating crushed walnut shells, well, Martha’s my sensei.
But when I saw that Stewart was tapped to be one of four SI swimsuit issue cover models for this year’s offering, I groaned a little. And not the kind of groaning I did as a wayward youth, back when the swimsuit issue was my impure-thoughts bible, and supermodels like Kathy Ireland and Elle Macpherson still populated the scene. Yes, I was objectifying them from afar, even if in subsequent years, I have met both of them from anear due to various journalism endeavors. (They were still lovely, gracious women in middle age, who I now appreciated not just as beauties, but as co-equal partners in the search for truth.) But objectification was the whole point of the enterprise, if we’re being honest. Not the self-empowerment hokum that now plagues nearly every instance of public semi-nudity, a tired refrain forever sung by third-wave feminists (or are they fourth wave? I always forget what wave we’re on), body positivisits, and other members of the bleating herd who are no longer able to admit what Kathy and Elle seemingly did back in the day. Which was to say: “Look at me! I’m hot as hell, and nearly naked! Enjoy!”
Life was so much simpler then.
Now, of course, almost all instances of public exhibitionism seem like instead of being some sensual act or demonstration of physical perfection or symmetry, like say, Michelangelo’s David or Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo (which weren’t perfect, either – Venus was missing her arms and some say David’s Little David came up a bit short), they are instead offered up as an opportunity to camouflage vanity and to bludgeon us with Theory. Which is why now, if you get a Victoria’s Secret email ad for a “panty party” sale, the model in question might be packing a little extra meat into his stretch-cotton, because nothing puts the “secret” in “Victoria’s Secret” like featuring some biological dude who’d called it quits on manhood, trying women’s intimates on for size while attempting to pass.
Or take the omnipresent bathing-beauty shots of the singer Lizzo, who can’t seem to keep her clothes on, her dimpled jelly rolls hanging over her thong like a pastry assortment laid out at your least favorite bakery, as the body-positivists try to bully us into celebrating the “healthiness” of her obesity. (At one point, Lizzo reportedly weighed 306 lbs, which, for you pro-science enthusiasts, eleven out of ten doctors will tell you is the exact opposite of healthy.)
And now, of course, Martha Stewart is doing the sexy grandma act, with her drooping décolletage and strategically placed upper-arms wrap, meant to cover the skin that slackens in us all as we age, part of nature’s cruel and inevitable process. I don’t like the Laws of Nature, either. But I didn’t write them, I just have to live by them. As do we all.
And so, I was strangely moved to something like sadness when reading a Variety interview with Stewart, vehemently insisting that she’s had no plastic surgery whatsoever (who needs plastic surgery when you have an art department to airbrush you to within an inch of your life?), that she has healthy good hair, that she drinks green juice every day, and takes her vitamins, and has good skin doctors, and wears hats and sunblock all the time, and that for the SI shoot, she did Pilates three days a week, quit carbs, and stopped drinking alcohol, adding, “I’m not a hairy person, but I got a complete body wax.”
I just wanted to hold Martha (platonically), and say, “It’s okay, dear. You’re 81-years-old. You don’t have to pretend you’re 21. Have some bread. Leave some hair on your naughty bits. Have a drink, for God’s sake. I suggest a Mezcal Bloody Maria with Clamato juice, horseradish, fresh-grated ginger, and celery salt.” (I got the recipe for it off of MarthaStewart.com!)
Stewart is no stranger to modeling, of course. She not only spent half her life on television, but in her twenties, was an actual model working with the likes of Richard Avedon. And yet, as I read about her prep work, I wasn’t left thinking, “There is a woman who is secure in her age.” But rather, “There is a woman who can’t let go of youth, even if it long ago let go of her.”
Half of society these days tries to tell us that we over-sexualize women by buying into conventional beauty myths, which they then combat by oversexualizing women who are well past their conventional sex-object prime. It’s not only tiresome, it’s logically contradictory.
Yes, I understand this bucks all our modern Empowerment Themes, pretending as though we’re all going to live forever, or are supposed to. But think about how ridiculous it would seem if a man did the same. If another 81-year-old male edition (Googling a list now) - think Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Ronald Isley or Bernie Sanders – was putting his wares on display in his banana hammock on the cover of AARP magazine, we wouldn’t be expected to “oooh” and “ahhhh.” We’d just “ewww” and “ewww.” They would be objects of sport, not sex objects. Which doesn’t mean we don’t still love them or admire their art, that we won’t still enjoy listening to Graceland or Blood on the Tracks or Sanders singing “We Shall Overcome.” (Okay, maybe that’s an object of sport, too.)
Martha Stewart is still a very attractive woman who looks better than all of the aforementioned. (Except maybe for Ronald Isley – because “black don’t crack” as my esthetician friends like to say.) And I don’t say any of this to age-shame. Quite the opposite. There is something wondrous and beautiful about aging. And it’s not about being wily enough to fool young people into thinking you’re one of them. Trust me, you’re not fooling anyone if you’re attempting that, except yourself. As a fiftysomething man, this is why I don’t wear “skinny” suit pants, cut four inches above my ankle, as an expression of my individuality, which would actually just be an expression of conformity – trying to fit in with people who won’t think of me as one of them no matter how hard I try.
But that’s okay. Being able to stop pretending is one of the actual advantages of aging. I used to sleep with women in their twenties and thirties all the time. When my wife was in her twenties and thirties. Now that she’s in her fifties, like me, I’m perfectly content – indeed, I even look forward – to sleeping with a woman in her fifties. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she still turns my crank and looks like she’s in her thirties. Which is better than I can say for me, my face now starting to resemble a craggy catcher’s mitt left out too long in the sun. Which has really put a damper on my male modeling career.
But I love things about her now that she didn’t have when I was sleeping with her in her twenties. She’s smarter. She’s wiser. She is an unbelievably competent and effective mother, and not just to our children, but to strangers. She has fully inhabited the best parts of herself, and has shed the parts that she realized needed letting go. Which is hot as hell. Much hotter than Lizzo oiled up on some beach. Or even a young Elle Macpherson, for that matter – which the 17-year-old in me doesn’t say lightly.
One of my favorite novels is Light Years by James Salter, published in 1975. It’s largely about a happy marriage that came apart over time, told in episodic flashes, like scenery flitting by the window of a moving train. It is also a reckoning with the aging process. And one of its many crushingly perceptive passages comes near the end when Nedra, an aging beauty, catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror:
The light was mild. A mole near her jaw had darkened. There was no question, she looked older, the age of one who is admired but not loved. She had made the pilgrimage through vanity, the pages of magazines, through envy itself to a vaster, more tranquil world. Like a traveler, there was much she could tell, there was much that could never be told. Young women liked to talk to her, to be in her presence. They were able to confess to her. She was at ease……..There was one….whose husband had left her, who acted as if she had already drowned herself. One afternoon Nedra showed her how to paint her eyes. In an hour, just as Kasine was said to have changed an actress, she transformed a plain, defeated face into a kind of Nefertiti able to smile. She could see the lives of such young women clearly, things invisible to them or hidden.
So no, Dee Dee, in my book, you are not an ageist traitor to your gender. There is an ease – a grace – that comes from living in the world for a good while, of more intimately knowing its triumphs and despairs, and of being okay with the passage of time - which we can’t stop anyway. Of relaxing in who you are and the life that’s already been lived in a way we’re not always able to do when we’re young and in a hurry. Often, only to try to turn back the clock once we get where we thought we needed to go.
There is genuine beauty in knowing this, and not the kind that needs airbrushed.
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Bonus Tracks: Here’s Ronald Isley, mentioned above, and the Isley Brothers doing my very favorite Isley Brothers song, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You),” written by one of the great songwriting teams of all time, Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland (along with Sylvia Moy). Sadly, it only peaked at number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966, which feels like a crime against good taste.
And here’s one of my favorite old-man songs, which I’ve loved since I was a young man (I had an old soul, even as a teenager), The Band’s “Rockin’ Chair.” The song itself is below. But if you’re a Band fan – and who in their right mind wouldn’t be? – beneath that is a bonus to the bonus. A clip from a wonderful 1997 rockumentary episode called “Classic Albums: The Band,” which features everyone from Robbie Robertson to Bernie Taupin to George Harrison talking about The Band’s songcraft and harmonies. And then, finally, Levon Helm sits at the production board with a master tape, breaking the song down to its component parts, telling tales along the way.