Flesh After 50: changing perceptions of ageing women

The coronavirus pandemic may have dashed Professor Martha Hickey’s hopes of launching her Flesh After 50 exhibition in late March, but the reasons behind it haven’t gone away. Martha, who is Deputy Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, came up with the idea of an exhibition of photos of 500 women – “naked, without ornamentation” –  as a result of her clinical practice at The Women’s, where she is Director of the Menopause Symptoms After Cancer Clinic. She was shocked at encountering young women facing early menopause and loathing the idea of getting older.

“Older women are in need of the opportunity to celebrate their aging bodies and young women are in desperate need of positive images of older women to alleviate the fear and misgivings about healthy aging,” she told MMS.

“Stone the Crows” by Deborah Kelly.
“Stone the Crows” by Deborah Kelly.

“Women over 50 are the largest growing sector of the population and most of them are in paid employment and make up nearly half our workforce. For many people who are in their 50s, it’s a highly productive time and I wanted to change the message that was going out to younger women.”

The program’s ambassadors include Royal Women’s Hospital CEO, Sue Matthews; the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp; Rita Butera, CEO of Safe Steps; as well as MMS professors Susan Walker and Glenn Bowes, and from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health (MSPGH), Professor Rob Moodie.

Dr Lila Moosad (Centre for Health Equity, MSPGH), interviewed 18 participants aged in their 50s to 80s for a research project to be completed in June. She said participants’ motives reflected a deeper commitment to the challenges facing older women than simply shedding their clothes.

“They did it to mark occasions such as retirement or they had gone through illness. One woman said, ‘Older women’s bodies have been the vehicle for so much dignity and all kinds of experience. She said the truth of our bodies is not readily available [through mass media].”

“For some women it was an act of empowerment, the opportunity to be part of a collective project, and there was a real sense of optimism. Some spoke of political barriers, financial stress, and homelessness.”

Professor Glenn Bowes, Flesh after Fifty ambassador (Department of General Practice): “In a whole variety of community and organisational contexts, the amazing leadership of strong and courageous women has been crucial to shaping our contemporary society and making the world a better place.
“Gendered perspectives still remain and can pervasively give rise to a failure to fully recognise and acknowledge the contribution of women. Representations of physical appearance and body image are a part of that dilemma. Flesh after Fifty project is a brilliant response to this situation. Strong, courageous women being themselves”.

Tune into the podcast with Martha Hickey and curator Jane Scott.