Feminist icon, author and activist Gloria Steinem has always had a complicated relationship with her looks. Among early feminists she was known as the beautiful one, a designation that rankled.
“Before feminism I was pretty — only after feminism was I ‘beautiful,’” she says. “The low expectations of what feminists looked like had elevated me! People thought if you could get a man, you wouldn’t be a feminist.”
Less was made of her beauty as she aged, and she’s found that freeing: “I want people to listen to me.” Yet she looks terrific at 83, and like most of us, she takes care with her appearance. “I certainly think about my looks,” she says. “I try to look like myself, does that make sense? I feel free and happy, and I like to look that way.”
Steinem talked to PEOPLE exclusively for the 2017 World’s Most Beautiful issue about what beauty means to her, the tyranny of plastic surgery — and why a woman’s never too old to wear a motorcycle belt with studs.
Botox? Fillers? Cosmetic surgery?
Botox: no. Fillers: No. Cosmetic surgery: never. I definitely color my hair, but I’ve been doing that since my 20s. God alone knows what’s under there. I get it done every couple of months — if you get those little crayons with the terrible name, Tween Times, you don’t have to go so often.
Do you work hard to stay so slim?
I exercise sometimes. I’ve always been conscious of weight because my father and my sister both weighed over 300 lbs. for most of their lives. So it’s like being in a family of alcoholics — you don’t drink. I’m not that careful, I love to eat. I just binge in moderation.
Do you feel bad about your neck, like Nora Ephron did?
Yeah, but not that bad. Nora Ephron started to feel bad about her breasts when she was very young — she just felt bad about herself, period. I was so sad that she wrote those articles about breasts and neck — I don’t know what was going on in her head.
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Why would you never consider cosmetic surgery?
Recently I was in Florida speaking at a book club that benefits services for older people. And the degree to which plastic surgery has taken over is frightening. People would look so much better without it! To look out at these hundreds and hundreds of faces with hair extensions and false lips and false breasts — it made me want to cry. The culture is perfectly clear that it’s gendered — men don’t [feel the need to] do it to the same degree.
But you’re genetically blessed…
Well I don’t know. My neck is sagging, everything is sagging. My skin is terrible. But so what? [If I had plastic surgery] I would be afraid no one would listen to me. Talking to someone with bad plastic surgery is like talking to a man with a bad toupee. You cannot think about anything else.
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Is there any particular look you aim for as you’ve gotten older?
I’m just wearing what I’ve always worn. [Recently] I saw a motorcycle belt with studs and sequins in the window of a men’s Harley Davidson’s store and went in and bought it. The guy was kind of appalled. I am conscious of trying to look cool, but I do occasionally think to myself — maybe an 83-year-old woman should not be wearing a motorcycle belt! Then I do it anyway.
Do you think about looking sexy?
Listen, after you’re 70 you have no interest in being sexy. You have no interest in sex, so the idea of being sexy is like, hello, I have all those brain cells now for something else! The culture is so sexualized, it’s hard to explain that you don’t miss it. It isn’t better, it isn’t worse. It’s just different.