Why Are We Still Shocked About Older Women in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit ?

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In 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Graham. She had just graced the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit for the first time, which was also the first time the legendary publication featured a plus-size model front and center. At the time, it was hard to know if this long-overdue move was a one-time gimmick to grab headlines and sell issues or an indication of actual change. In our conversation, Graham was confident that it was the latter—and for all intents and purposes, she was right.

Guided in large part by the refreshing vision of editor in chief MJ Day, SI Swimsuit has spent the past eight years shedding some of its sunburnt skin. Although it has still featured what makes the Swimsuit issue the Swimsuit issue—gorgeous women in swimsuits—it became noticeably more inclusive. After decades seemingly dictated by the male gaze—and one that squinted quite narrowly—SI Swimsuit has proven its commitment to normalizing a broader concept of beauty and sex appeal. In addition to plus-size models, the magazine welcomed greater racial diversity, models with disabilities, models with conditions like alopecia and vitiligo, transgender models, and women who graduated high school in the twentieth century. It was just last year that SI Swimsuit put its oldest-ever model, Martha Stewart at age 81, on a cover; the previous record holder was Maye Musk at 74 in 2022; before that, the oldest SI Swimsuit model was 57-year-old Kathy Jacobs in 2021, and in 2019, Tyra Banks held the title of oldest cover model at age 45.

People have always had opinions, both negative and positive, about who gets cast in SI Swimsuit (I mean, just look at any social media post about this magazine, ever). And considering that most SI Swimsuit models have been well under 35 years old for most of the magazine’s existence, that applies to the casting of older women, too, as expected. SI Swimsuit has continually leaned into those expectations. Take its latest cover as a perfect example.

This week, SI Swimsuit is celebrating its 60th edition, an obvious opportunity to shine a light on lots of models who’ve been featured in the magazine over the years—models who would, of course, be lots of different ages. Some featured in the glamorous group cover shot are recent and younger, some are recent and older, and some are veterans who were young when they first posed but are now middle-aged or seniors. In fact, of the 26 women on the cover, more than a third are over 40 years old, and of that group, all but one (43-year-old Sue Bird) are aged 50 to 82: Tyra Banks, Molly Sims, Roshumba Williams, Paulina Porizkova, Christie Brinkley, Gayle King, Maye Musk, and Martha Stewart.

That’s a big deal, right?

Right?

It certainly seems SI Swimsuit wants you to think so.

On its own website, it published an article about the model conglomeration, calling out its own diversity and inclusiveness while not letting you forget that some of these women are not young. In the fourth paragraph, you’re reminded that “multihyphenate icons Martha Stewart and Maye Musk [are] the brand’s oldest and second-oldest cover models, respectively,” and farther into the story, we learn that Musk and Banks joked about ganging up on Stewart for stealing their spot as the oldest-ever cover star.

With each piece and post about the older models—whether by SI Swimsuit itself or by someone else reacting to their presence—comes a gentle sort of elbow to the readers' ribs. An “Eh? Eh? Can you believe it? Older models!” And yes, their inclusion is absolutely wonderful. By all means, keep that up. But when do we stop shining a spotlight on the act of including older women and just start letting the older models shine without calling out that they’re older?

We won’t advance past a still frustratingly slow inclusion evolution until we treat it as unremarkable.

To some extent, I understand the reflex to draw attention to what has been a rare sight in media and modeling. For a long time, it was, in fact, completely necessary to congratulatorily point out when older models were included in hopes of turning the conversation into convention. But at some point, especially years into that conversation and with progress visibly underway, we won’t advance past a still frustratingly slow inclusion evolution until we—meaning the media at large and everyday people reading things on the internet—treat it as unremarkable. In other words: Keep hiring older models but let their presence speak for itself.

I truly believe Day’s intentions are good. When she began overseeing which models would be featured in SI Swimsuit, the goal seemed to be normalizing the beauty in people of all ages (and sizes, and identities, etc.). And quite frankly, SI Swimsuit has arguably done more for model diversity than many other big names in media. Although you still get the occasional grumpy guy on Facebook complaining about anyone who’s not young, thin, and white, the celebratory comments aren’t even about what makes the models unconventional or how fabulous they look for their age; they’re just about how fabulous they look, period. And if we keep trying to make A Very Big Deal out of the inclusion of older models, we’re just contributing to the othering we’ve been hoping to put an end to.

The only thing controversial about this new group cover is that the models aren’t wearing swimsuits—not that some of them aren’t young.


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Originally Appeared on Allure