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.
Clearly scarred by her experiences with fellow journalists after doing her Playboy piece at the beginning of her career in social justice, Steinem avoided talking about what women looked like for the rest of the 60s and 70s. She focused on issues like income inequality, women in the workforce and abortion. It wasn't until the 1980s that she started to discuss beauty. In 1981 she wrote the essay "In Praise of Women's Bodies," where she remarked upon how much she enjoyed being with other women in a gym locker room, witnessing the many bodies that surround her. In the essay, Steinem advocated for "the diverse woman":
...one of the strongest, most thoughtful feminists I know still hides in one-piece bathing suits to conceal her two Cesarean scars. And one of the most hypocritical feminists I know (that is, one who loves feminism but dislikes women) had plastic surgery to remove the tiny scar that gave her face character.
Perhaps we'll only be fully at ease with ourselves when we appreciate scars as symbols of experience, often experiences that other women share, and see our bodies as unique chapters in a shared story.
To do that, we need to be together unselfconciously. We need the regular sight of diverse reality to wear away the plastic-stereotypical-perfect image against which we've each been taught to measure our selves. The impossible goal of "what we should look like" has worn a groove in our brains. it will take the constant intimacy of many new images to blast it out.
While Steinem and her fellow Second Wave feminists had certainly discussed their frustration with standards of female beauty, they were much more focused on tackling tangible legislative issues. But for Steinem in particular, her comfort with discussing these issues seemed to grow as she aged out of the period when they would have been directly applicable to her own life. And as her looks became a less important part of her legacy, the conversation about female beauty changed. In 1991, as Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi came out with Backlash, the feminist community had officially accepted that what we look like and how people perceive and discuss that matters.
On Sunday, Gail Collins published a beautiful homage to Steinem in the New York Times entitled "This Is What 80 Looks Like." The piece took up the entire front cover of the Sunday Review with an illustration of Steinem's face; its title is a play off Steinem's self-described "most quoted line," which she once told New York magazine "was said completely off the cuff":
Some other editors at Ms. magazine were throwing me an omelet party at some restaurant in the neighborhood for my 40th birthday. And a reporter said to me, kindly, "Oh, you don't look 40." And I said, just off the top of my head, "This is what 40 looks like — we've been lying for so long, who would know?" Age really was a great penalty for women.
In her piece, Collins writes that "very few people have aged as publicly" as Steinem, citing her hosting of a "This is what 50 looks like" party on her 50th birthday to raise money for Ms. magazine as proof positive of her embrace of old age. (For her 80th, Steinem held a "This is what 80 looks like" benefit for the Philadelphia Shalom Center.) As Collins explains, in her later years, Steinem has been more willing to speak about her looks as they have become more of a fascination and less of a defining characteristic of her personhood. Instead of fixation on how how her ageless beauty might be at odds with or beneficial to her work as a feminist, How does she look so good?! is the refrain Steinem gets now:
Ever the positive thinker, Steinem composed a list of the good things about starting her ninth decade. A dwindling libido, she theorized, can be a terrific advantage: "The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things."
"I try to tell younger women that, but they don't believe me," she said in a pre-Botswana interview. "When I was young I wouldn't have believed it either."
Her famous hair is colored, but otherwise, there's been no outside intervention. She likes to recall a friend who proudly reported having rebutted the feminist-got-a-face-lift rumors by announcing: "I saw Gloria the other day and she looked terrible."
Actually, she doesn't look terrible at all. She looks great. She looks exactly the way you would want to imagine Gloria Steinem looking at 80.
"I think for her as an individual, in one sense aging has been a relief," writer and feminist activist Robin Morgan told Collins. "Because she was so glamorized by the male world and treated for her exterior more than her interior."
Though it's not the way she intended for it to go, Gloria Steinem's personal and professional struggles with her looks have been one of her greatest feminist lessons. She taught us that looking good and being a feminist is okay, but that you can't ignore the power of aesthetics. If you're a woman, what you look like won't ever be uncomplicated. Scratch that, if you're a person it won't ever be uncomplicated. We're animals; we have opinions about appearances. It's what we do about those opinions that matters.
Images via AP/Getty