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Mrs. Hughes of Downton Abbey: The Older Woman’s Body Shame

Pat TaubPat Taub

In the opening episode of Downton Abbey’s Season Six, middle-aged Mrs. Hughes is anxiety ridden at the prospect of being seen naked (and presumably having sex) when she marries her finance, Mr. Carson. The year is 1925 but older women’s body shame persists in 2016. It may even be worse today given the mounting cultural obsession with looking young and the corresponding shaming older women feel in relationship to their bodies.

Pat Taub. WOW blog, Portland, Maine

Mrs. Patmore, Downton Abbey’s cook. consoling Mrs.Hughes who confesses to feeling ashamed of her body.

It’s high time we revolt against the denigration of the old woman’s body. Let’s resist the pressure to be thin, go under the knife, cover up at the beach or, avoid sex because we feel fat or because our boobs sag or our tummies puff out.

To quote Patricia Robertson, a feminist professor from North Carolina, who recently wrote on the WOW Facebook page:

Let’s allow ourselves to see the beauty in aging – the internal and the external. Beauty is not owned by the young. The waves in our faces and the rounding of our bodies are lovely. Expand our resistance to perfection to include what we do as well as how we look. Rejoice in mediocrity sometimes! If I had to hold on only to things I do well (won’t even try to talk about perfection) I would need to abort my guitar lessons. I would never sit down at the piano again. I would quit singing loudly and dancing wildly. What a loss…

I love the way Patricia has tied the concept of the aging body to a positive mind-set. Similarly Lynn Segal, author of Out of Time: The Pleasures & Perils of Aging, challenges the old(er) woman to perceive her aging image in the mirror as “protective and comforting rather than threatening.This strikes me as embracing your wise old woman reflection and thanking her for all she has taught you.

Pat Taub, WOW blog, Portland, Maine

Two old friends, Barbara and Sue, comfortable in their aging bodies.

It’s hard work to combat the cultural conditioning that old women are undesirable or unattractive. Just as our younger selves deconstructed our lives during the second wave of feminism, it behooves us to take a similar tact to strike back against the negative images of older women’s bodies.

Menopause is considered the most important physical event in the life of an older woman, typically centered in medical pathology where hot flashes, decreased vaginal lubrication and diminished self-worth are regarded as medical problems, not normative events.  A woman’s post menopause life is barely referenced.  Women become written off by the culture at this stage. Let’s replace this stereotype with one that honors the wisdom stage of the menopausal woman and the acquired wisdom of women in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond.

Pat Taub, WOW blog, Portland, Maine

Agnes Varda at an award ceremony for her film, “The Beaches of Agnes”

A remarkable example of a life-loving old woman with a typical old lady’s body is Agnes Varda, the French film director and installation artist. Her documentary, The Beaches of Agnes, (2008) which she made to celebrate her 80th birthday, brims with humor, whimsy and a soaring spirit that I dare anyone to top, regardless of her age.  If only Mrs. Hughes had some “inner Agnes” . . .

 

Who are your role models for old(er) women who take pride in their aging bodies?

 

 

 

Pat Taub is a family therapist, writer and activist and life-long feminist. She hopes that WOW will start a conversation among other older women who are fed up with the ageism and sexism in our culture and are looking for cohorts to affirm their value as an older woman.

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