Gloria Steinem turns 80 today. She makes 80 look good, logistically speaking: her schedule is just as jam-packed as it ever was. She also makes 80 look good physically speaking: to the amazement of her fans, she appears far too young to have spent eight decades on Earth. But for all her accolades and accomplishments, Steinem has spent her life talking about what she looks like far more than she ever wanted to.
Gloria Steinem is clearly a beautiful woman and because of that, during her early career, as much as her looks helped her at times, they hindered her at many others. She was able to write her famous essay "I Was a Playboy Bunny" because she was good-looking enough to actually go undercover and pretend to be a Playboy Bunny at the Playboy Club, but she spent years dealing with the outcome of that career-defining choice. In her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions published in 1983, Steinem called the decision to report the piece an "early mistake," writing that it "swallowed up" her first major piece in Esquire magazine on the pill, lost her reporting jobs she wanted and "became the only way I was publicly identified."
"Eventually, dawning feminism made me understand that reporting about the phony glamour and exploitative employment policies of the Playboy Club was a useful and symbolic thing to do," Steinem admits in Outrageous Acts. "But at the time, I had no protection against the sex jokes and changed attitudes that the Bunny article brought with it; and my heart sank whenever I was introduced as a former Playboy Bunny or found my employee photograph published with little explanation in Playboy."
After writing that "I Was a Playboy Bunny," Steinem struggled with supporting the Bunnies she had worked with while feeling as though her "only chance for seriousness lay in proving my difference from them." And who could blame her – that was all she had ever been taught. "We don't want a pretty girl," one editor at Life told her. "We want a writer." Media outlets talked about her looks all the time, often in conjunction to who she was dating, speculating endlessly about her love life. As her friend and fellow feminist Flo Kennedy said to Newsweek at the time, "Unfortunately, her principal value may be that she is so glamorous. That's what she would like the least, but that's the package part and we are a package-oriented society…I think it is important for the girls on the campuses to know that you can be beautiful, gracious, strong, daring...."
Ironically, it was those looks that she hated to focus on professionally that ended up helping her in the long run. "...Steinem was able instantly to create a bridge to feminism when she revealed, simply by appearing, that one did not need to be man-hating or 'shrill' – the media presentation of a feminist – to be a feminist," biographer Carolyn Heilbrun explains. "Though a combination of beauty and power threatened men, it reassured women." It look a long time for Steinem to realize that, if she ever did. For the entire time she was considered sexually viable by the world around her, Steinem shied away from this gift and curse; as Nora Ephron would note, Steinem began downplay her attractiveness after getting on the cover of McCall's as "Woman of the Year" in 1972, beginning to wear more casual, less glamorous clothing, and never really looked back.
When I was working on my college thesis paper – which is when I first started researching Steinem's aesthetic focuses within the context of her feminist peers – I came across an Eyewitness News "exclusive" from 1971 with Steinem. During the interview, reporter Jim Bouton asked Steinem if there was "a paradox between women's attitudes toward, you know, the fact that they don't want to be treated as sex objects and the fact that you dress very sexily?" Steinem [who, by the way, was wearing blue jeans, a leotard, and her then-trademark glasses] said, "Do you think I'm dressing very sexily?" Bouton responded, "That's a pretty sexy outfit, I'd say."
Steinem always deflected comments like these with her usual good sense of humor, though she was likely not actually amused by them. This particular interview ended with Bill Beutel saying, "I hope you forgive our masculine notion that you're an absolutely stunning sex object." Steinem replied, "Well, I should comment on your appearance but I don't have the time." Steinem didn't use the opportunity to rail against the incredibly sexist comments the men around her were making, but she did respond differently than, let's say, Barbara Walters might have. (Walters admitted that she took pleasure in being mistaken for a Playboy Bunny when she did a piece about working for the club in 1962, choosing not to respond to a co-host Hugh Downs' comment that he "really enjoyed" seeing her in the outfit.) She wasn't comfortable engaging with the topic, so she mostly ignored it.