Ageing with attitude: ‘Old bags’ stand up for right to live a full life

Margaret Jennings discovers a novel project which challenges our preconceived ideas about older women, who often struggle with ageist labels.
Ageing with attitude: ‘Old bags’ stand up for right to live a full life

GETTING middleaged women to stand in their underwear with a bag over their heads isn’t an everyday occurrence and that is why we tend to sit up straight and take a second look. The images draw us in and defy — even for a few moments — the populist belief that post menopausal women become invisible.

However, so far 60 women — aged 45 to 70 — have posed this way as part of a project called Old Bags Taking A Stand, which is thumbing its nose irreverently at consumerism and the stereotypes of female ageing.

The women don the branded shopping bags, to represent the cultural pressures put on them, but they are also taking an ironic stand against the derogatory slang term ‘old bag’, meaning a haggard perpetually grumpy older woman.

The images appear in the book Old Bags Taking A Stand, which features additional interviews about ageing, with women not photographed. It is the culmination of a five-year multi-disciplinary project exploring the reality of being a middle-aged woman through documentary, visual art and social media.

Behind it are two post-menopausal women, Faith Baum, a 63-year-old architect and Lori Petchers, a 57-year-old documentary maker, who although they have so far drawn most of their participants from Connecticut, hope to expand their “empowering, funny and universal” venture beyond America, through their online presence.

“Old Bags Taking A Stand is not a soap commercial about how everyone is beautiful,” they say. “It’s a statement about refusing to allow an anti-ageing culture to have the last word about who we are and our place in society”.

Most of the content of the interviews came from The Midlife Project, a documentary carried out by Petchers. For the photographic aspect, the bags maintained the women’s anonymity but the underwear gave each participant the ability to express her identity, tastes and styles in a small way — while also mirroring how women look when they try on clothes in a store dressing room.

Baum says she felt a disconnect between her mental age, late 30s, and her biological age, when she hit menopause as a “late bloomer” at the age of 58.

“I was surprised that I felt sad about not being fertile anymore. I was surprised that in the workplace I was discounted as old school, ‘not of the future’.

“My discussions with Lori and my female contemporaries helped me to sort my feelings. My encounters with the participants of our project brought a sense of camaraderie and writing the book with Lori provided perspective on the passage into middle age.”

So what was it like when she herself donned a bag? “When I was photographed for the project and my head was inside various bags, I felt an unexpected awareness of the dimension of my entire body. The fact that my identity was hidden made me want to laugh. I liked not seeing the other people around me. I liked not looking them in the eyes and wondering what they were thinking. It was very centering.

“Afterward, when I looked at the photographs of myself, I had concrete proof of exactly what had become of my body over the past 50-plus years. The image of my face was not there to distract me from an objective picture of my physical self. I wasn’t horrified or upset, but until that moment, I didn’t really have a mental picture of what had become of my corporal self.”

The experience helped Faith, she says, with that feeling of disconnect between her mental age and her biological age. Perhaps it is that disconnect between what we are capable of and how we are perceived physically as we age, that is the key to so-called invisibility that women complain about?

“Feeling invisible is feeling you are not seen in a context that you wish you were,” says Petchers.

“For many women it is being not seen as a sexual being, but for others it is not being seen as competent at work, or being able to be ‘current’ with trends. For some it is having your ideas diminished because they are assumed to be outmoded. As women, we have to demand to be ‘seen’ and not become shrinking violets and succumb to ageism. We cannot just blame society for we are society.”

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