Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Got It Right With Martha Stewart, And Here’s Why | Mary Katharine Ham

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Martha Stewart is better than all of us.

Her house is better. Her food is better.  The tablescape display she made using a vintage handmade basket looks better. The separate structure in which she stores her inventory of vintage handmade baskets is better than your actual home. 

Stewart started her professional life as a model because of her ability to look better than us before rising to fame and fortune by being better than us at keeping a home, entertaining, cooking,  and running a multimedia conglomerate. And now Stewart can add being better at wearing a swimsuit to the ol’ résumé. 

This is, of course, annoying to some people. But the quicker they find peace with Martha’s betterness, the better off they’ll be. Because she is unapologetic in her Boomer hotness in a way that Sports Illustrated itself could use a little more of.

Quibble With Sports Illustrated, Not Martha Stewart

There are those who don’t want Martha Stewart on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue because they grew up in the Angie Everhart and Kathy Ireland heyday. They long for the halcyon days of a slightly naughty helping of red-blooded sexy showing up in the mailbox once a year. I would note their quibble is with Sports Illustrated, not Stewart.

Since the debut of the swimsuit issue in 1964, it has titillated family homes and offered respite from the winter’s relatively bare sports landscape with even barer asses. 

Until 2019, this was basically fine. Though a bit of a culture-war target, Sports Illustrated reprinted critics who canceled subscriptions over their distribution of “smut” in the aftermath of a Cheryl Tiegs nipple flash in 1978.

For years, the National Organization of Women protested the issue, from the other side of the culture wars. But it was in the face of the #MeToo movement that the magazine finally changed its formula, throwing itself into an identity crisis, flailing around for a culturally approved narrative and models. In the words of NBC News, the swimsuit issue “raises complicated questions during a volatile time for conversations about gender and power in our society.”  Mm-hm, because God forbid it’s just hot people in swimsuits. 

Sports Illustrated decided to solve this problem with “empowering” nude black and white photos of women with words on them, like “infinite,” “lover,” and “mother.” I’m not sure why.

SI Swimsuit Has Empowered Women, Not Held Them Back

There were different body types to celebrate. They added trans models, as a commitment to mere cheesecake became more problematic. The magazine touted a first-ever, all-female crew on a 2019 photoshoot, which was itself a strange kind of erasure of the woman who helmed the swimsuit issue for decades. Jule Campbell, a fashion reporter in the ‘60s, took then-SI editor Andre Laguerre’s suggestion to “go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover” and turned it into an American tradition. 

And for all the feminist critique of the annual publication, Campbell did it with a couple of actually empowering choices. It was the Twiggy era, but she went to California to recruit “more natural kinds of women” and she put the models’ names with their pictures, giving them a stake in the SI brand and a brand of their own, which is credited with ushering in the supermodel era. Kathy Ireland credits Campbell with putting her on the path to building a billion-dollar lifestyle company.

Which brings us to the other type of complaint about Martha Stewart. For some, her appearance on the cover is not empowering enough, you see.

Martha Stewart. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Why? Because even though she defies the traditional age bracket for such a shoot, she sadly still conforms to conventional Western beauty standards. She stands accused of promoting toxic diet culture in the rollout for the cover. A Huffington Post writer called her thoughts on beauty “troubling.”

Are you ready to be troubled? In an interview with “Today” show hosts, Stewart was asked how she prepared for the shoot. She starts by saying she didn’t “starve herself,” which sounds like a rejection of diet culture, before elaborating:

“But I didn’t eat any bread or pasta for a couple of months. I went to Pilates every other day and that was great; I’m still going to Pilates every other day ’cause it’s so great. And I just, I live a clean life anyway — good diet and good exercise and healthy skin care and all of that stuff.”

There Is No Filter For Stewart, And That’s Refreshing

This is the opposite of toxic.  A reasonable focus on food choices without deprivation and strength-based exercises frequently. We should all experience some Stewartesque toxicity. Can I have it with a side of the finest caviar she’s always posting on Instagram? 

For her part, Stewart is utterly unapologetic in her superiority and unfazed by critiques, except those that might suggest she is less superior to mere mortals than she is.

She told one interviewer most of the feedback she got was good, but took issue with reports she got her look through surgery.

“I’ve had absolutely no plastic surgery whatsoever. I have very healthy, good hair. I drink green juice every day. I take my vitamins. I eat very healthfully. I have very good skin doctors. I’m very careful in the sun. I wear hats and I wear sunblock every single day,” Stewart said.

And Photoshop?

“They are incredibly accurate pictures. I was really pleased that there was not much airbrushing.”

As a connoisseur of Stewart’s Instagram feed, I can confirm that, while she has great make-up artists and lighting when she’s going glam, she doesn’t aggressively filter herself.

If she’s really just that good, Sports Illustrated may have stumbled on its most unattainable cover model ever.  It should take a page from her playbook and stop apologizing for its swimsuit issue.

Written by Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is a writer, speaker and Georgia Bulldog who built patience and resilience waiting 41 years for a national championship and now uses those skills to parent four children. She has a podcast called “Getting Hammered,” mostly so she can make serious professionals say “Getting Hammered” when introducing her.


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  1. I have rarely met a beautiful leftist, I mean outside of Hollywood. That’s why they hate physical attractiveness so much. That and “patriarchy” I guess. Anyway, I have enjoyed your work at other media outlets over the year, MK. Are you going to become a regular here?

  2. Who reads SI? I thought they went out of business years ago. But now the only time I ever see it mentioned is regarding comments about who is on the swimsuit cover than anything about their sports reporting. Maybe they should change their name to “Vogue Bathing Suits”.

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