Have you noticed how middle aged women just don’t seem to show up much in the media?
It’s well known that Hollywood is cruel to women once past the age of 40 and women actors are frequently cast aside for younger women.
And it’s not just Hollywood. The same goes for other high profile media – how many older women are news readers, TV presenters or music stars?
What can we do about this youth obsession of modern culture?
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Perhaps things are changing but there’s still a long way way to go. Women still feel enormous pressure to either BE young or LOOK young if they want to stay competitive in many big jobs. Why is cosmetic surgery such a booming industry?
Menopause, negative taboos and older women
How much of all this prejudice against older and middle aged women is tangled up with the negative view of menopause that is so dominant in Western culture?
Menopause – is taboo because it indicates aging, loss of fertility, loss of youth and … yikes … is a sure sign that we women are mere mortals plodding on our way towards the graveyard. Not good.
Menopause also means that our role as Re-producers is over. Hey – so what are women on the planet for anyway? Unfortunately in many societies – including the West – there is an underlying assumption held by many, that women’s only role in life is to reproduce. Once that’s done – then we are expendable.
Grandmothers make the world go round
But clearly evolution had another idea about the importance of older women.
Evolution scientists believe that human females are the only mammals who survive for a long time after our fertility has ended – with the possible exception of whales.
There are several theories as to why this may be, but the theory that many favour is known as the Grandmother hypothesis. This idea is that pre-historic social groups who had many older, non-fertile women amongst them, lived for longer than those groups whose women died young. This may have been because the older women played an essential role in preserving the life and health of all members of the group.
Although some people may try and convince you otherwise, increasing life expectancy of modern times does not mean that menopause is a new phenomenon. All the evidence suggests that menopause has been around for a long, long time. There have always been women who have lived long lives … into their seventies, eighties and beyond. What has changed is that nowadays many more women are surviving for long periods after their menopause. And fortunately this is creating a social pressure for all of us to re-evaluate the role of older and middle aged women.
Golden post-menopause years
Increased life expectancy and better health in later years mean that older women are fitter than before and a long way from throwing in the towel. At the turn of 20th century a British middle aged woman age 50 could expect to live for just another 20 years, often in poor health. Today a 50 year old woman can expect to live to almost 85 years, hopefully mostly in good health.
Sixty-something is still strong and sexy
Middle aged women are becoming more and more visible as they reject stereotyping and seize opportunities to realise their full potential, rather than being full-time grandmothers. Look at women like Meryl Streep, Angela Merkel, Hilary Clinton, Shirley Bassey, Helen Mirren and Margaret Chan just for starters.
Much more than baby-makers
As older women become more high profile, so younger, fertile women are increasingly rejecting roles that limit them to childbearing, child-rearing and housekeeping alone.
The Change is changing
Some social scientists believe that the negative social view of menopause in Western cultures makes women feel bad about their middle age transition and contributes to symptoms. Read more about here about the possible link between older women's social value and menopause symptoms.
Perhaps negative unconscious messages create a kind of reverse placebo effect - known as a nocebo effect?
Post menopausal women are experienced, wise and immensely valuable to society. But only if the stereotypes change can we hope to see a real change in how we experience midlife.
Women and the men who love them need to keep on challenging the stigma of menopause so that older women and their contributions can be valued.
Evolution was right before and remains right today as much as ever, because:
The world desperately needs its older women in order for the human race to survive.
First published: February 2010. Re-written: September 2012