Ageing with attitude: Book shines a spotlight on women who refuse to fade

A book challenging the belief that females become invisible after the age of 60, features subjects telling their life story through props, clothes and, especially, words, writes         Margaret Jennings.

WHO says women become invisible at 60? Not Jenny O’Connor, a photographer who has created an amazing book composed of powerful portraits of 60 women, the year they hit their sixth decade.

Definitely, not the women themselves, who wrote personal pieces to accompany how they had chosen to dress up and be seen by the world — with such a long life journey behind them.

The portrait on this page is of Jenny herself, which features in the book, called Visible: 60 Women at 60 — though her husband pressed the shutter on that one.

As she headed towards her own 60th birthday in February 2012, she sensed it was a milestone.

“I wondered what other women my age were experiencing; how they felt when they reflected back on the years; how did they see themselves now, and how does society see women of that age,” she says.

She took the first picture a month after her birthday, but the book has been three years in the making. Now 63, the Wellington, New-Zealand-based mother of two and grandmother of four says: “I love taking photographs of people in a way that challenges stereotypes and perhaps some of the myths of ageing.”

Though the women tell their own story through the props or clothes and, especially, the words they write, the photographer was most impressed by how each one brought her portrait alive by “her eyes, her expression and the direct engagement with the viewer through the camera lens.”

Jenny is aware of the challenges many of them had experienced in their lives and is in awe of the “strength and courage and sheer guts that it had taken to get to where they are now, the resilience and strength of women.”

The statements written by each woman when they sit alongside their image make it very powerful.

And what other impressions has she experienced of how women negotiate this milestone? “I’ve noticed for women that this is a time of deep reflection — looking back on our lives and all the choices we made.A very common theme has been to think about our mothers at this age and to reflect on how our lives have been so different, and especially how being 60-plus is so different. Given that our generation had choices that no generation of women before us had, many of us have hit our 60s still working, able to travel, start new careers and surprisingly often, new relationships.

“Yet mortality comes into it; time does feel short and there does seem so little time left to do the things that weren’t possible when we were younger.”

Though Jenny has lots of energy, she says she is aware of physical changes happening quicker: “They sort of creep up on you, just small things that are age related. I’m lucky, as I’m still quite fit and mobile and have no health problems at all. I feel the continued loss of oestrogen and elasticity of my skin. I’m feeling confident in ‘my look’. I have longish grey hair and love it.

“The uncertainty I feel is more around what will life be like if something happens to my husband, living alone?”

Her own mother died of breast cancer, at the age of 54, when Jenny was 27, and her dad four years later, which spurred her on to make the most of life.

She has decided to let the project age as she does, now photographing women of 60-plus. Following the book, there was an exhibition; stage shows where women tell their story; and an evolving website.

Jenny works as a management consultant for part of the year so she can fund the venture. “I have invested tens of thousands of dollars into it so far and I love it and want to continue,” she says.

In the words accompanying her own portrait she says that at 60 she feels “there’s a lot more past than future in the physical world”, so her picture “brings together elements of the past and present and perhaps a glimpse to the future.”

Wendy the doll was given to her, by her grandparents on her mother’s side, when she was two. She had worn glasses since she was nine months old and “that really defined my childhood, not always for the better”. She also says: “The costume harks to my love of design and creating things and the part of me that likes to break the mould.” She is certainly breaking the mould for older women.

To see two of the women from the book telling their powerful stories in the stage show see here and here.

MUSIC MAN

An poc ar buile: The life and times of Seán Ó Sé, by Seán Ó Sé with Patricia Ahern; The Collins Press, €17.99

If you are 60-something upwards, you will well remember the explosion on to the Irish traditional music scene of the song An Poc Ar Buile. It was recorded in 1962 by West Cork man Seán Ó Sé with Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann.

It may seem like a sepia-tinted far away memory now, but Seán Ó Sé, who is almost 80, is very much alive. The former principal of Cork City’s Knocknaheeny school recalls his story, including his musical career, his family life and his struggle with cancer in this newly launched book.

SILVER SURFER

Choosing healthy meals as you age http://goo.gl/ q4oXCL

FACING AGEING

Struggling with your ageing looks? A face-lift might not be the answer, according to a recent study in New York. Although the participants – mostly women aged 58 – thought they looked nine years younger after the procedure, it did not alter their self- esteem much.

In the small study, the researchers looked at what the 50 patients said about their own sense of self-esteem, and scored them both immediately before plastic surgery and six months later.

The study was reported in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery and lead author Dr Andrew Jacono, himself a plastic surgeon, said it was silly to expect that one operation could alter the more complex issue of self-esteem.

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