Why Julia Roberts Being 'People's Most Beautiful Matters

by Mary Kate McGrath
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Every year, People magazine names a celeb the World's Most Beautiful. The award is about outer and inner beauty, and the magazine typically chooses a woman (or, in the past, sometimes a man) who represents something bigger than their physical appearance. This year, People's Most Beautiful is Julia Roberts, and the choice sends a powerful message about ageism in the entertainment industry.

At 49 years old, Roberts is an accomplished actor, a mother of three, and a positive force in her personal and professional life. Her award is a reminder to women not to let the culture of ageism erase their accomplishments and that women should remain visible regardless of their age. It's also part of a larger trend toward recognizing older women, as the past few years, the magazine has chosen women in their 40s to grace the cover of the beauty issue. Sandra Bullock is the oldest women to be given the honor, so far, named in 2015 at age 50.

While this year's award holds a particular significance, this isn't the first time the Roberts received the honor. The actor first appeared on the cover in 1991, a year after starring in the hit Pretty Woman. The enormous success of the romantic comedy launched her career, and that first award commemorated her introduction to the entertainment industry. Upon accepting the Most Beautiful honor this year, Roberts has been named a record five times. The fact that Roberts continues to be recognized is important, and may represent a larger shift toward a fairer representation of women in Hollywood.

The ageist culture in the entertainment industry is no secret. While men are able to maintain careers well into their old age, an older female actor is seen as an anomaly and roles are more difficult to come by. Hollywood puts a high premium on female youth, and it is yet another way to limit opportunities for women. Many actors, like Olivia Wilde and Anne Hathaway, have claimed that they were turned away from roles for being "too old", though both stars are under 35. It's also an issue that male love interests tend to age, but their female counterparts do not. The most egregious instance of the romantic age discrepancy may be from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who at 37 says she was deemed too old to act alongside a 55-year-old love interest.

The past few years, People's picks have been particularly notable. Previous winners have included Beyoncé, Sandra Bullock, Lupita Nyong'o, and Jennifer Aniston. All of these women represent success, confidence, and positivity, regardless of age. It's clear from these picks that People honors women who project an uplifting outward message. For Roberts, that message is that it is possible to thrive in middle age and that weight and value should be given to women in that period of their life and beyond.

The star's Most Beautiful title is a small win for those fighting the ageist culture of the entertainment world. While this cover gives visibility to older women, it's not enough for women to be seen alone, they also need to be given a voice through film and television roles. The lack of older women's stories from Hollywood also needs to be addressed, and hopefully the industry will embrace narratives from women outside of their twenties or early thirties as the acceptance of aging continues to grow.