The BLOG: Lifestyle

Old Bags Project tackles body image issues

The Old Bags Project is a contemporary conversation presented in a multi-media format by architect Faith Baum of Lexington and filmmaker Lori Petchers of New York. The former Connecticut neighbors theorize many mid-life American women were experiencing a loss of identity, and a sense of marginalization, believing they are held captive in a consumer culture that causes them to feel invisible as their youthful appearance ages.

So often seen as a status symbol in an arriviste culture ubiquitous shopping bags announce desirability. Expanding the metaphor, before being photographed Baum and Petchers asked post menopausal women to disrobe to their underwear and place a self-selected shopping bag over their heads. By design, the double entendre of the desirable iconic bag covering the nameless, faceless older women makes their point satirically.

The project makes no trite suggestion everyone is beautiful in some way. The photo narrative avoids sugar-coating experiences of middle-aged women. Baum and Petchers don’t attempt to answer questions raised by their art. Instead they say, like themselves the project is not done growing. They welcome more women to participate in this social expression of mid-life experience by photographing themselves and their friends similarly disrobed, en-bag, and send the pictures to [email protected]. The pictures will be posted anonymously on their Instagram account to further the culturally relevant conversation in hopes of normalizing and demystifying the aging process.

The Cary Memorial Library in Lexington hosted an Old Bags Project presentation May 26th. A documentary film about the work and it’s participants preceded occasionally emotional feedback of the mixed gender attendees. Of those assembled many spoke with resignation of mid-life’s unavoidable sagging dull skin, thinning gray hair, and an awareness of wasting time watching time expand a once trim waistline. Support for the Old Bag thesis was offered anecdotally by library guests prompting laughter and tears. Some wondered why our culture gratuitously accepts an insidious pro-forma assignment of value on women as they blossom and after they age. They wondered why worth is related to a sign of fertility when the hour-glass shape is such a transient part of a whole life.

A few attendees said the impact of middle-aged invisibility was meaningless, never having been considered attractive as younger women, the experience of post menopausal rejection is nothing new. Invisibility means “we’re free to be creative or cantankerous, after all ‘we’re only old bags.'” For them it’s another expression of being mean to ourselves and mean towards each other.

Some participants shared personal memories of marginalization. One woman expressed humiliation being told by a local boutique “they don’t make clothes like these in your size.” Others feel surprised and embarrassed their once rockin’ baby-boomer body has morphed into an unrecognizable set of creases and folds. They theorized unlike Europeans, our American preoccupation with youthful beauty mandates older people cover up sagging breasts, rounding bellies, and thunderous thighs. Seeing middle age reality for the first time is for some a nightmare. One invincible woman refusing to accept the cloak of invisibility stood to say “The next time some old guy in Boston elbows me out the way to watch a young woman sashay I’m going to fall down and yell ‘you’ve hurt me and I’m suing’!”

Botox injections and surgical procedures were part of the discourse. A woman was prompted to questioned the advisability of squeezing into workout clothes designed for women three decades younger, to exercise the right to run towards a mannequinizing treatment of her features. She thought ultimately it seemed a pity to attempt to cling to a look outgrown decades ago in the vain attempt to appease vanity and deny reality. She wondered why looking one’s age is so wrong these days.

The Old Bags Project is more than an exploration of generational frustrations with personal overtones. It supports broader examination of how our society will co-opt viable talents of people who are expected to shatter ideations of life expectancy. As agism is our culture’s last bastion of acceptable prejudice our society must reject traditional judgment placing unrealistic value on the appearance of women looking twenty in perpetuity.

Overt and subliminal marginalization of middle aged women who remain capable of contributing culturally and economically demoralizes one of the largest demographics of our society. Resultant access to and diminution of talents accrued through a life time of education and experiences will be trivialized or lost if middle age women become virtually invisible. Relevant, valuable engagement will be collateral damage of the unspoken societal bias. The cohort will become less of a vibrant ongoing contributing force in American society and more of a financial burden if they become unemployable, and reduce spending habits.

The composite result of this project may be a catalyst for a broader frame of reference developing a new language for Old Bags. By necessity the contemporary conversation continues.