Women and Aging: Perception vs. Reality

By SMW Staff

Women and Aging: Perception vs. Reality: Sex and the CityWhen the hit television show, Sex and the City, began, all the actresses in it were in their thirties.

When the show ended its six-year run, a successful movie franchise was created. By then, one of the actresses was in her fifties, and all the others had comfortably moved into their forties.

But their fans didn’t care. It was aging — if not gracefully, at least glamorously.

So why can’t we all be so lucky?

According to a recent study, how we view aging may start with perception: our own first, which affects how others view us.

A unique series of exhibitions, which form part of a project aiming to challenge the stereotypes surrounding aging women, are celebrating International Women’s Day.

The project, entitled ‘Look at me! Images of Women and Aging,’ is being led by a team of researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Derby, by Eventus, a Sheffield-based cultural development agency, and by photographer Rosy Martin. The project has taken a new approach to finding out how older women feel about their representation in the media and society.

The exhibitions feature images created by women, who were invited to participate in a series of creative group workshops.  After investigating stereotypical images of aging women, the messages these images give out and how they affect women´s well-being, the project facilitators encouraged the women to create new and alternative images using photography, art therapy and video techniques. The results of this have formed the material for the exhibitions.

Findings from the workshops have revealed the complexity of women’s feelings about images of aging. Aging is undoubtedly about the body, and pressure to deny ageing is a common experience, as is the sense of a marginalized sexuality and the silencing of women in later life.  A number of the women who have participated in the two-year collaborative project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme, were able to display a transformed self to others and this has had a lasting impact on their perception of their own ageing bodies.

Dr. Lorna Warren, from the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, and Project Director, said: “The exhibition captures the power of the collective use by women of their own bodies as a medium for representing their everyday experiences of aging. This is not a cosy exhibition of images for the mantelpiece. From the mundane to the magnificent it is instead a very honest, sometimes challenging, sometimes humorous display of images showing women exploring their own feelings about being or becoming ‘older women.’

“It has been suggested that women give priority to well-being or internal characteristics rather than to appearance as they age, but physical attractiveness remains a key aspect of the feminine gender role. In a context where the media collude in equating femininity with youthful appearance and sex with power, physical signs of aging may be increasingly harshly judged and the importance of individuality downplayed.”

Shirley: Pills, potions & red high-heeled shoes
Shirley is 57 and when asked to pick an object to represent herself, she chose a red high heeled shoe. She recently bought herself a bright red sports car to match her bright red shoes: “The car and the shoes are things that aren’t safe, aren’t comfortable but are still part of me because there’s still that bit of me that has a bit of fire and sparkle… Yes, there’s the part of me that’s ageing, there’s a part of me that’s falling to bits but there’s this other bit and this car represents that.”

Shirley has recently given up her career in business management in order to focus on other aspects of her life. She was always considered very attractive when she was growing up and this has affected her experience of aging: “I was treated as though I was very attractive and I felt very good about myself whereas I look now and I think … you know, just sometimes you catch yourself in the mirror and you think actually I’m just an older woman and you do feel invisible sometimes.”

Shirley wanted to participate in the project because she was aware that she was entering a transition period and feared that these life changes signaled “the beginning of the end.”

In the phototherapy workshop she worked closely with her project partner to create images as she transformed herself from a gray, invisible old woman to a glamorous Joan Collins type. When she removed the Joan Collins garb at the end of the transformation and her partner kept taking photos, the resulting photos proved to Shirley that she was “gorgeous just as she was.”

As a result of taking part in the project, Shirley said: “I am now more confident and accepting of how I look at this point in my life. That it is not what you look like but how you feel and how you express yourself. This was reflected in the photos I had taken during the project. I now feel that it is ok to have my photograph taken – this is me at 57 wrinkles and all. I no longer need to be camera shy just because I am not as youthful as I once was.”
Hermi: the politics of “slap”

Hermi is 85, she was born in Vienna and moved to Sheffield with her husband after the Second World War. On acknowledging her old age she says: “I know I’m 85 so I know I am classed as an old woman. But I don’t really feel like an older woman, even when I’m hobbling about because my knee has got arthritis in it.”

Hermi remembers being in a shop with her daughter and while her daughter was busy at the beauty counter, she moved away to look at the glasses and the person who was serving her daughter said: “She’s wandering off, is that alright?”: “I think she must have thought I had bloody Alzheimer’s or something! She was concerned about this poor old woman! You can’t get away from being old.”

Working alongside professional photographer Monica Fernandez, Hermi posed for photographs which satirised the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos that we are bombarded with in the media.

Commenting on people’s dependence on cosmetics and enhancements of various kinds as they age, Hermi said: “I mean a longer life is alright if it’s a life not just ‘oh, my God, I’ve got to paint my face or I can’t go outside’. The woman on television, she was 75, ‘I won’t go outside without my slap’ and I thought ‘my God, she wants one’.”

For Hermi, the advantage of being an older woman is the freedom which accompanies age: “If I want to wear a sleeveless top, I shall wear a sleeveless top and if my bra bothers me, I shall bloody take it off. That’s it. I mean there’s got to be a silver lining in everything, the silver lining in old age is that you can do what you like and nobody can tell you any different.”

The New Dynamics of Ageing Programme is a seven year multidisciplinary research initiative with the ultimate aim of improving quality of life of older people. The Programme is a unique collaboration between five UK Research Councils – ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC and AHRC – and is the largest and most ambitious research programme on ageing ever mounted in the UK.

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