About Look At Me ! Images of Women & Ageing

Rosys EyeThe New Dynamics of Ageing Project was launched in Sheffield in October 2009. The research project, based at the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield, aims to harness the power of the creative arts to transform the way society views older women.

The research team are in the process of running a series of creative, group workshops to explore how women are represented in the media (newspapers, television, magazines) and society as they grow older. The workshops are investigating the messages these images give out and how they affect women´s well-being. The workshop facilitators will then work with participants using photographic, art therapy, and video techniques to create new and alternative images of women and ageing. To date, “ordinary” older women have not had the opportunity to either comment on, or create, their own images of ageing. This project aims to use a variety of visual methods to enable older women in Sheffield to represent their own experiences of ageing.

The images produced in these workshops will eventually be exhibited in public venues, including an art gallery and a shopping centre in Sheffield. There is also the potential to exhibit the images further afield. At the exhibition events, members of the public will be asked to respond to the images they see to help inform the research team´s understanding of how people react to stereotypes of older women, and if there is any public appetite for images which offer an alternative view on ageing.

The project is being led by a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield and Derby , by Eventus, a Sheffield-based cultural development agency, and by Rosy Martin, an artist and photo-therapist. This is a two year collaborative project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme.

Our Approach

The Madrid International Action Plan on Ageing identified as one of its objectives the ‘need to facilitate contributions of older women and men to the presentation by the media of their activities and concerns’ (Second World Assembly on Ageing 2003). The importance of creating new images of ageing and counteracting preconceived biases and myths was identified as a particular concern in relation to older women. Older people are heavily under-represented within our image-saturated society. Those images that are available generally represent older people as either frail and dependent or as ageing ‘positively’ and belying their physical age. However, ageism is gendered: women’s experience of ageing is deeply rooted in their appearance, in particular the perception of their aged bodies which ironically renders them invisible in later life and can subsequently impact on the assigning to them of social value, resources and opportunities. Such invisibility is being increasingly explored and challenged by women both within popular culture and through academic work but still in limited ways: for example, Trinny and Susannah’s efforts uncritically buy into the anti-ageing industry and focus on heterosexual women, while biographical accounts have been written largely by white, middle class feminists (e.g Germaine Greer) and/or focus on relatively specific aspects of embodiment. However, with a few exceptions, ‘ordinary’ older women have not had the opportunity to either comment on, or create, their own images of ageing and old age. Indeed, while the participation of older people in research is broadly accepted as a good thing, its potential remains underdeveloped. Even where democratic approaches have been taken to participation, with an emphasis on process and empowerment, older people have typically been involved narrowly as (potential) users of welfare services.

A range of visual research methods will be used to produce knowledge and gain an understanding of older women’s everyday experiences. Although visual methods are being developed by sociologists, they are generally under-represented as a research method in the social sciences and, in particular, within social gerontology. However, social science researchers are increasingly concerned with developing collaborative approaches that rise to the challenge of producing knowledge and understanding that resonate with everyday lives. Visual techniques offer considerable innovative potential within this context. The use of images has been identified as a particularly useful springboard for discussion of sensitive topics with women.

Outputs

The impact of the ‘Look at Me! Images of Women & Ageing’ project will be:

  1. Practical, in older women’s production of visual materials providing powerful statements about women’s experiences of ageing and equipping them with a novel means of challenging stereotypes.
  2. Methodological, in developing new approaches to participatory research with older people.
  3. Theoretical, in demonstrating the contribution methods developed in the arts can make to the discipline of social gerontology.
  4. Applied, in providing the policy-making arena with new ways of capturing needs and fostering well-being and social inclusion through longer-term interest in arts among older women and also the audiences viewing their images.

The outputs from the project will include:

  • Images reproduced as postcards and banners and represented in local media, in addition to being shown at the exhibitions;
  • A DVD to be distributed to participants and relevant stakeholders;
  • A consolidated research report on ageism, gender, the arts and social inclusion;
  • Academic journal articles and conference presentations in the fields of gerontology, the arts, visual and cultural studies, expressive therapies, sociology and social policy;
  • Presentations, articles and policy briefings for professionals and practitioners involved in arts and health projects within the region;
  • The potential of producing a photographic “coffee table” book to document the project will also be explored with participants.