Watch out women — there’s a new battle in town: the cleavage wars. It was triggered by this month’s cover of Sports Illustrated, which featured 81-year-old Martha Stewart in a bathing suit looking either fabulously or disgustingly young, depending on your sexual politics.
For some, her unlined face and voluptuous bosom are a cause for celebration. Others, though, have been quick to condemn her.
Thrilled to be on cover of the @SI_Swimsuit issue! I hope this cover inspires you to challenge yourself to try new things. Pick up on newsstands May 18th! #SISwimsuit #SISwim23 @ruvenafanador pic.twitter.com/DsRgLr6crK— Martha Stewart (@MarthaStewart) May 15, 2023
Anna Murphy in The Times despaired that so many older women have become obsessed with the urge to look younger. “I am all about body positivity. But I can’t help feeling that endlessly turning your body into published property is a reductive and objectifying act.”
Meanwhile, Zoe Williams in the Guardian railed against the pressure on women to conform to “the unattainable standards of beauty and perpetual youth.”
Feminism has, of course, long been plagued by this conflict. Is it a woman’s right to be radiant, or is any attempt to improve one’s appearance a submission to the patriarchy? Sometimes the contempt for those of us who want to look good verges on the dogmatic.
And have you noticed how often it’s beautiful women who are the first to tell us that looks don’t matter? In her searing polemic The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf extolled the wonders of the ageing face. Lines and wrinkles, she assured us, tell a precious story.
“A lifetime of kissing, of speaking and weeping, shows expressively around a mouth scored like a leaf in motion.” But even now, 20 years later, she’s still drop-dead gorgeous.
I’ve always resisted the somewhat Puritan disapproval of those of us who prefer to improve our faces. I may not go as far as Joan Rivers, who had at least two facelifts, breast reduction, regular dermal fillers and a tummy tuck.
But I do take Botox, have five colours in my hair and keep fit courtesy of my muscle-bound personal trainer. Not that Joan would have approved. “I don’t exercise,” she explained. “If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor!”
Despite my efforts, I’m prey to constant reminders of encroaching mortality. Like many women, I live on a tightrope — trying to balance between looking good (and young) and fretting about my local bank closing, battling with multiple passwords, and forever losing my keys.
I try to keep up with music trends but can’t in all honesty tell the difference between hip-hop, grime and rasta-rap. And although I’ll get down on the floor to play with the granddaughter, it’s harder and harder to get up again.
I feel a little like the apocryphal old Jewish lady, weeping loudly outside Waitrose. “What’s the matter?” asked a concerned shopper.
“I’ve got a wonderful lover at home,” she sobbed. “He brings me breakfast every morning; flowers every day; makes love like a sex god and cares for me like an angel.”
“So what’s the problem? I can’t remember where I live.”
So would it be easier to glide more gracefully into my later years? That’s what Germaine Greer urged us to do. In her book The Change she advocated letting go, becoming invisible and facing age as a natural and welcome next stage.
But I’m not going to. I may be a bit more frail these days, but I’m not going to give in. Instead, I’ll emulate the magnificent Jane Fonda.
In her latest movie, Book Club: The Next Chapter, she and co-stars Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen set off for another giggly adventure, all looking fabulous and refusing to grow up. Jane, who happily admits to having cosmetic surgery and relishes playing silly, still remains the same feisty, principled rebel she’s always been. And she will never, ever become invisible.
She’s a kindred spirit of Raging Grannies, a group of social activists who campaign across North America on peace and environmental causes, emphasising their power to resist the dying of the light.
Who cares, really, whether some women flaunt grey hair and take pride in their wrinkles while others iron out their furrowed brows or flash their enviable bazookas? What matters is our determination to be ourselves and to keep on keeping on.
And if you’re not there yet, you can always follow poet Jenny Joseph and start planning to grow old disgracefully right now.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.