Current affairs

A step forward for age positivity?

04 Aug 2023 | Written by Hannah Thomson

The Joy Club’s Founder CEO, Hannah Thomson, reflects on a recent cover of Sports Weekly, which raised pertinent questions around our perception of what ‘age positivity’ really looks like…

Controversial take: I don’t think that Martha Stewart gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at 81 is a step forward for age positivity.

Yes, she looks great. Yes, good for her that she’s made a personal choice to celebrate how she feels about her body at 81. Yes, it’s good that it’s started a conversation. Many have proclaimed this a ‘historic win’ for age positivity – solely because, with this shoot, Martha Stewart became the oldest cover star ever to grace a Sports Illustrated cover. 

BUT aren’t we celebrating her because she DOESN’T look 81? Versus it being a celebration of her at 81? Which is actually intrinsically ageist because the underlying presumption is that youthfulness is the currency and source of value here? So the cover is age-negative, not age-positive?

I’m not the only one doubting the positive impact of this cover…

Body-positive influencer, Alex Light (@alexlight_ldn), posted the cover on her Instagram, with the caption:

“This is so cool! Especially in the media, women tend to become increasingly invisible past the age of 30, so to see this representation on such a huge platform is fantastic!

But I don’t think we should ignore the fact that it’s not exactly realistic for most women to look like this at 81.”

Guardian journalist Zoe Williams took a firmer line on whether this particular cover qualifies as age-positive representation… 

“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 [are now parading] 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?”

Agree or disagree, these conversations highlight an important and oft-overlooked area for discussion. Here at The Joy Club, we often hear stories from members of the community about the compounding effects of sexism and ageism. Members have explained that their societal value felt rooted in their youth and beauty. Some have said that, as they’ve aged and decreasingly met the definition of youthful beauty, they have felt increasingly invisible in society at large.

And amongst all of this is the importance of individual choice. Can I honestly say that I’d say no to a Sports Illustrated cover shoot in my 80s? Or even now? Not sure.

All of these conversations around Martha Stewart’s cover-stardom bring to mind feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s response as to why she conformed to female beauty standards. Whilst she theoretically rejected the construct, she was a hostage to it – like all women – taking a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands: “Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else.”

For me, this perfectly articulates why it is so difficult to defeat any ‘ism’… because that form of discrimination is so deeply ingrained in society, we sometimes achieve personal gain by conforming even though it may undermine our group or movement as a whole.

So, in summary, what I’m feeling is that this is great for Martha but bad for older women in general. It celebrates a version of an older woman that is unachievable for most, as it is a version of an older woman who looks like a younger woman… and the passage of time is one of life’s inevitabilities!

I’d love to see genuine celebrations of women of all ages, who are diversely beautiful inside as well as out.

Would love to hear from others! What do you think? Is the cover age-positive? Or age-negative?

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