New exhibition proves there’s plenty of life in the old girls yet
Are you kicking up your calloused heels, relishing retirement and growing old disgracefully?
Then why, in all the images you see of women your age, are they depicted as either frail and past it, or obsessed with every wrinkle and saving up for Botox?
A new exhibition aims to challenge the stereotypes that depict older women as either tired, grey and past it - or desperately trying to cling onto their looks.
Look at me! Images of Women and Ageing, features 41 local women, aged 43 to 96, who took part in workshops to explore how older women feel about their representation in the media and society.
“I wanted to challenge some of the stereotypes we have of older women,” explains project leader Dr Lorna Warren, of Sheffield University’s Department of Sociological Studies, whose team worked alongside Sheffield cultural development agency Eventus, photographer Rosy Martin and Derby University researchers.
“We discovered the complexity of women’s feelings. Some said ageing made them feel invisible, others that society marked them out as fragile or less capable.
“Many said the belief that they were losing their looks was being heightened by the anti-ageing products sold by the beauty industry.
“They said images of women were either of frail and sick elderly ones or young, healthy and beautiful ones, so we encouraged them to create their own.
“This is not a cosy exhibition of images for the mantelpiece. It is instead a very honest, sometimes challenging, sometimes humorous display, showing women exploring their own feelings about being or becoming ‘older women.’
Look At Me! is at The Workstation, Paternoster Row until Wednesday, Sunwin House on the Moor and Furnival Gate March 26- April 7 and Sheffield University’s Jessop West Exhibition Space, Leavygreave Road, April 11-15.
Hey Jude! Head who became a child again
Her skirt is round her neck and her white knickers are on show.
But Jude Grundy doesn’t give a fig. At the age of 60, she can still do a hand-stand.
Even more remarkably, though, Jude is a headmistress.
She dared herself to do the playground stunt during the Look At Me! workshops after discovering images of herself as a carefree, outgoing child.
“I had grown up to be the exact opposite, so I decided to re-find that child in me.
“The hand-stand was really liberating.
“And yes, my pupils would be amazed to see me that way!”
Jude has no issue with her ageing face and body.
It’s her ageing brain that concerns her.
“I fear losing competence and not being able to function at the fullest level,” she says.
She still fires on all cylinders, though; last year, at an age when many women consider early retirement, Jude took what she admits was the daunting step of moving to London with her partner and taking on a headship at a school in special measures.
She knew she could do the job - but she did worry whether, at 60, she would be given it, reveals Jude, who was a head teacher in Sheffield for 12 years, latterly at Tinsley.
“And I did worry about how long I could physically do it for.
“But I think much of that is because society expects you to be slowing down at this age. I decided there was no point in wasting energy worrying about it.
“I definitely worry a lot less about things than I did when I was younger - I have learned to live for the day.”
She May Be 86 But Hermi’s In The Driving Seat
All her life, Hermi O’Connell has wished she could drive.
And now, at the age of 86, she can.
Her mobility scooter reminds her neither of her advancing years nor of the arthritis which plays havoc with her knees.
“It’s my freedom,” she beams. “I can’t walk very far - I certainly can’t do hills. But I can get all over the place on my scooter.”
Hermi whizzes off to the doctors solo and scoots onto city-bound trams. Until recently, she and a scooter-owning friend would gad all over the city together.
Vienna-born Hermi, pictured in youthful pose on her scooter in the exhibition, is a great example of how a positive attitude can offset the ageing process. Her body may be getting slower and stiffer, but widow Hermi still enjoys her life and still strives for independence.
She lives in a care home in Norfolk Park but wishes she didn’t. She misses Bill, the British soldier she met at a dance after the war, married and moved to England with at 23. But she’s not lonely. Three children, ‘loads of grandchildren’ and surfing the internet fill her time.
She doesn’t feel 86, but neither does she feel any pressure to look younger. Commenting on people’s dependence on anti-ageing products as they age, Hermi says: “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’. There was a woman of 75 on television. ‘I won’t go outside without my slap,’ she said. And I thought: my God, she wants one‟.”
Hermi sees getting older as a means of escape from the pressure to look good. “All those rules about what you should and shouldn’t wear,” she says.
“If I want to wear a sleeveless top, I shall. I’m an old woman - I’ve got old arms, so what’s the problem with showing them?
“And if my bra bothers me, I shall bloody take it off. The silver lining in old age is that you can do what you like and nobody can tell you any different.”
The conclusions younger people jump to about the elderly never cease to amaze her, though. “They think you’ve lost your marbles, just because you’ve got wrinkles,” she says, remembering one particular outing to the shops. While her daughter was busy at the beauty counter, she moved away to look at something else: “When my daughter caught up with me she was laughing and laughing. The assistant had said to her: ‘Your mother’s wandering off; is that alright?’
“I think she must have thought I had Alzheimer’s or something! She was concerned about this poor old woman! We just thought it was hilarious.”
Life in the fast lane as Shirley goes through the gears and snaps up sports car
When Shirley Simpson went to buy herself a new car, she had something sensible and practical in mind.
A Fiat Punto, perhaps.
So, what made her walk out of the showroom with the keys to her first ever sports car, at the age of 57?
It was a question Shirley kept asking herself. Despite being thrilled with her racy new two-seater, she felt embarrassed.
“I found myself telling people: it’s my mid-life crisis,” she admits. “I think I was expecting them to laugh at me.”
She thought they would think she was mutton driving as lamb. But then she realised she was making herself a victim of the stereotypical view that older women should ditch fun for practicality. - and that she was old enough to do what she wanted.
“Now I love my red Mazda MX-5 and I’m going to keep it for as long as my hips hold out,” she says.
“I’ve always had safe and economical cars. Why not have a sports car while I’m still mobile and can still afford it?”
Getting older had made her take stock of life and swap her full-time career as an NHS primary care manager for a part-time role in education in the quest for a better work-life balance.
“I’d been so strongly defined by my job I thought I’d feel a bit lost, but quite the opposite has happened. I’m enjoying it,” she enthuses.
But she admits that watching time and gravity change her face and body had been getting her down - and was her main reason for taking part in the Look At Me! project.
“I was treated as attractive when I was younger.
“But I’d started to look in the mirror at my saggy, baggy face and feel quite shocked sometimes. I’d think: Who is that old woman?
“Some days, I’d see my mum’s face staring back at me.
“Taking part in the project helped me to come to terms with looking older. First I faced my fears and dressed up as an old woman. I went without make-up and put on a headscarf and baggy grey clothes.
“Then I dressed as a glamorous younger woman. I looked a bit Joan Collins; I wore a sexy basque, lots of make-up and a dark wig the colour my hair used to be - and I enjoyed that a lot more.
“I like a bit of glam. My favourite pair of shoes is shiny, red and high.
“The car and the shoes represent the part of me that still has a bit of fire and sparkle.
“But when I was photographed taking it all off, I realised I actually liked myself as I am now - with my grey hair and without the things that mask age - that I should be celebrating the fact that I have lived this long and am still OK.”