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‘Thou shalt not age’

‘Thou shalt not age’ by Nuala Mahon.
In part three of the Context and Narrative course, students explore the notion of self. Students are asked to produce work in response to a diary. Nuala Mahon explains in the introduction to her work, how the idea of invisibility with age intrigued her. She explains on her blog:

“But the idea of how or why women feel invisible interests me. Is it driven by consumerism that glorifies youth and perfection? Is it that, with age, we are less sexually attractive? Or is it that one really does become invisible with age? I wanted to try to represent this invisibility.”

Being of a certain indiscriminate age (46 if you must ask), and with several of my closest friends a few years older I wasn’t sure how to take being asked to write about this work.
Like the student, I turned grey many years ago. Recently I made a conscious decision to go with it and forgo the battle of hairdressers and dyes. What happened, I felt happier but there was a distinct change in how others approached me in social situations. This was mainly from people that I met for the first time, but I was being treated as old. In business meetings I was taken less seriously, good for making the coffee and baking cakes, my knowledge of technology was often disregarded.
At first, I didn’t realise this was happening. The image Inside I’m twenty from Nuala’s work accurately sums up how I feel as well.

The issue of the aging women has been explored recently by Helen Walmsley-Johnson in her book The Invisible Woman, she writes:

“It’s tempting to align this whole business with the way older women feel they fit , or not, within society as they age, to look at it as a by-blow of the importance placed on female physical beauty, as we currently define it. To put it very simply and generally, with age men become wealthier, more powerful, dignified, and wiser while women growing older sense all of that slipping away as their faces and bodies age and they feel themselves becoming more and more irrelevant, apparently. It might not sound like much but the small stuff, such as not being taken seriously (as a consumer, as an employee …) grinds us down and the further down we go the less cortisol we produce to deal with the stress of being on the lower rungs of the social pecking order.”

Nuala’s work touches on many of these ideas. In the image below the use of the mask creates a barrier between the viewer and subject. The idea of masquerade is well explored within photography.

The series of images is both arresting and interesting. There is a mix of styles and photographic technique, which could lead to the series appearing disparate. However, with the use of the overlaid text, the images are linked one to the next. At the same time, each image is able to stand on its own individual merit. The phrasing on all the images is not questioning but direct. The photographer it seems is instructing us on how we should question our views.
My own views on this work, are of course influenced by my feelings on the wider subject and part of the sharing of this work is to elicit responses from a wider audience.
What do other ages or genders feel about the aging process? Is it culturally specific as well? When I asked Nuala about the work, she cited her personal experience from being in France and Ireland as being very different. In France all ages seem to be happy to socialise together, whereas in Ireland she describes the younger generation as wishing to be totally separate from the older generations

In the final image of the series, we are met by the gaze of the subject. The look is direct, straight at the viewer and the text references a very well know slogan from the beauty industry. The addition of “I told you” is both definite and defiant.
This quote from Helen Walmsley-Johnson seems to encapsulate this work:

“That we will all age is inevitable and inescapable but it doesn’t alter the person we are inside; our character, memories, strength, personality and intelligence are what make us us.”

Posted by author: Andrea Norrington
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16 thoughts on “‘Thou shalt not age’

  • I wonder how much the invisibility to others is due to feeling invisible to ourselves? It was something I became aware of after my menopause. I dressed monochrome in my 50s and felt vague, ungrounded, not sure of who or where my cohort was. No longer young and attractive, but not old and venerable either. Uncomfortably in between!
    Something changed when I hit 60. I started to dress brightly, and coloured my hair because it wouldn’t go white or silver. I decided to be a very visible older woman. I’m 72 now and even more determined. We project what we feel inside, and even if I have to wear neon yellow to feel it, I will remain visible!
    It’s easier here in Spain where four generations can be seen sitting round tables having Sunday lunch, often including a great-grandparent in a wheelchair having an outing from the old people’s home (which in our town looks like a boutique hotel). It feels like all family members know and respect their place regardless of age. It helps that here in the Mediterranean we live a lot of our lives outside, and that makes it easier for everyone to be more visible.

    • Thanks for the comment Linda, it is interesting that their seems to be timeline of being invisible and then pushing past it. A few people I have spoken to have mentioned cultural differences. Here’s to the neon yellow!

    • Thank you Alison … the post seems to be triggering a female only response so far. Maybe neon yellow is the way to go as per the comment from Linda!

  • My hair went grey when I was in my forties.
    In my early fifties , young (male) passers-by gratuitously abused me as `you old bag”; kind people started telling me where I could get over 60s-discounts and offered to see me across the road; and even my own mother, herself in her late 80s, told me I looked `a real old woman,’
    So I coloured my hair.
    Result? No more age-related abuse, being patronised or being taken for 10 years older than I am.

    • It is really interesting how hair colour has such a profound effect on how we are viewed. Having spoken to many people on this now and it seems to be a very similar experience. Thank you for sharing.

  • One of the aspects of advancing age that perplexes me is the number of society’s ‘rules’ regarding appearance that we are expected to comply with. The subject of ‘hair’ is a biggie … apparently long hair on an old head is completely unacceptable. I’m 68 years old and I have waist-length white hair which I generally wear loose (ie: not in a bun or pony-tail). The number of negative comments that I attract from complete strangers is quite staggering (and I must point out that these comments come mostly from other women – particularly those aged 40+). My hair isn’t sparse: it’s always clean and well-brushed … apparently it’s the length that bothers people – although the same length on a younger head would be regarded as perfectly acceptable!
    So my own view on aged-related invisibility is that it is a ‘social norm’ that is foisted upon us … step outside your cloak of invisibility and you can expect a lot of unwanted attention from random strangers.

    • It is intriguing that hair, whether colour or length seems to be one of the defining characteristics of a woman’s age. I like the idea of stepping outside the cloak of invisibility though …

  • There you go, Alison. See what Averil says, and don’t give in to beige-ness!
    I do wonder, though, if the invisibility of one’s fifties isn’t partly due to transition? It’s when we don’t know who we are – so others don’t, either. A bit like the pupae – butterfly stage? Perhaps it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of a rest between one stage and the next, a bit of ambivalence. It would be hard work being noticed all the time.
    Just look around, there are plenty of good role models – older women who have emerged as beautiful butterflies, and it’s their life experience shining through which gives them their beauty.

  • Thanks very much for this – very timely and important. I enjoyed the Helen Walmsley-Johnson book – also reminded of the poem ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph – ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…’

    • Thank you for the comment, the Helen WJ book is very interesting, I could have referred to it a lot more (and written a much longer post) and thanks for the reminder on the poem.

  • I love that poem. I read it at a funeral for a wonderful 85 year old who wore what she liked and didn’t give a damn. i think the message is wear what you like , do what you like – now.

  • Interesting that you should be feeling this in your 40s because at 70, I don’t remember that affecting me then or in my 50s. For me, it’s something I’ve suspected might be happening more recently, but that what I maybe sense now is not gender-specific. There’s food for thought here.

  • Definitely food for thought. I hear that in the UK there has been the suggestion that retired people – in other words OLD, and PENSIONERS – pay into a fund monthly for their health care so that that younger people don’t suffer the burden (didn’t people already do that when they were working?)
    It put me in mind of a story by Margaret Atwood, Torch the Dusties (Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales). Seems that attitudes to the elderly are rapidly changing.

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