Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Kate Bernyk

Commentary: Martha Stewart’s swimsuit cover is a stunt. It's not diversity

Here we are again: A company not particularly known for being diverse has used inclusion as a way to “break the internet.”

This time, it’s Sports Illustrated, featuring 81-year-old business tycoon Martha Stewart in stunning beachwear as the oldest model to grace the cover of its swimsuit issue.

Stewart is not your average octogenarian. She’s outrageously rich, reportedly worth $400 million, and just so happens to be Snoop Dogg’s business partner and best friend. And yet, despite being such a force in her own right, she admitted that, while she didn’t “starve” herself, she stayed away from bread and pasta for a couple of months and took Pilates classes every other day to “prepare” for her cover shoot, presumably to ensure she got as close as she could to the universal body standard we’ve come to know and hate in this country.

Despite my general state of cynicism, I love that Stewart felt comfortable flaunting how proud she is of her body and, more important, her legacy as a savvy and resilient businesswoman. The problem is that it’s hard not to see the cover as just another example of a company holding on to old branding strategies while feigning diversity (not the first time for Sports Illustrated), all in the hopes of getting clicks and boosting sales. When the excitement fades, brands need to pay attention to the ways this strategy puts people off. According to a 2021 survey from Deloitte, 57% of consumers are more loyal to brands that are committed to embodying inclusiveness in their actions – and not just in front of the camera.For all the praise Stewart got for her cover, there are also women who feel like a magazine that has long promoted impossible beauty standards was at it again with a different target. Many likely found themselves either screaming out loud or quietly wondering: “What 81-year-old really looks this smooth and wrinkle-free?” If the intention was to represent how beautiful and sexy older women can feel, why stick with the same formula of photoshopping away many of the imperfections that come with age?

A cover model or splashy viral ad campaign featuring a celebrity with a historically underrepresented identity can grab eyeballs, but the end results rarely challenge the deeper, underlying systemic inequality in any meaningful way.

With Stewart and Sports Illustrated, it’s age, but it comes in other forms. Pop star Kim Petras — a transgender woman — is also in the latest swimsuit issue. Companies often try to be inclusive when it comes to race, age, size, disability and gender identity without admitting the ways they’ve contributed to a monoculture that has routinely excluded those same demographics.

Take Bud Light’s collaboration with Dylan Mulvaney, a trans social media influencer and actress with millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram. Bud Light clearly saw value in Mulvaney’s popularity initially, but when the company faced backlash from right-wing, anti-trans consumers, celebrities and lawmakers, things changed. Instead of boldly standing by its decision to work with Mulvaney, the company went silent, then tried to appease its critics by releasing a couple of patriotic-themed ads, leaving Mulvaney to battle the trolls alone.In 2018, the world lost its collective marbles when plus-size model Tess Holliday graced the cover of UK Cosmopolitan. It was a genuinely watershed moment of positive visibility for fat women who don’t fit the typical hourglass figure, a la Christina Hendricks or Ashley Graham, we’d seen before. UK Cosmo got credit for that historic move, and I was among the many who celebrated it. And yet, just two issues later, the same magazine featured Olivia Munn on its cover, an actor who famously joked in her 2010 memoir that she would “fix America’s obesity problems by taking all motorized transport away from fat people” and build "fat tunnels, where all the fat people can walk.”

The success of new brands like Rihanna’s Fenty and Lizzo’s Yitty, which were built on making all shapes, ages, races and genders feel accepted all the time, means that companies that have been around for decades have competition. Doing inclusion right when you aren’t necessarily known for it is not impossible. When I talk to brands and executives about authentic representation, I often cite Refinery29’s 67 Percent Project from 2016.

While the website's follow-through on its promises has left much to be desired, there were laudable steps Refinery29 took at the time to not only bring attention to the fact that media horribly underrepresents American women when it comes to body type — it also took responsibility for contributing to the problem rather than just accepting cookies for pointing it out. It committed to reshooting stock photography and redesigning illustrations to more accurately reflect the women in this country.

And perhaps in direct contrast to Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, there was ESPN’s annual Body Issue (2009-2019), which focused entirely on the incredible diversity of what peak athletic bodies look like and are capable of.

Brands need to approach diversity of age, race, body, gender and sexuality with more authenticity and transparency beyond a “breaking the internet” moment. True representation goes beyond a single campaign or photoshoot; it involves consistent efforts to include diverse individuals in all aspects of brand communication, from advertisements and spokespeople to the makeup of company leadership and how to interact and communicate with communities on social media. Throwing your audience a bone here and there doesn’t, and shouldn’t, cut it anymore.



Kate Bernyk is a writer and communications strategist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.