What images and words come to mind when you hear the phrase ‘older woman’? Each of us carries an image based upon personal experiences and yet, this image is largely influenced by the media and society.
In Canada, women make up fifty-six percent of the over sixty-five population. However, older men appear in ads ten times more often than older women. Twenty-three percent of magazine readers are older women, yet fashion magazines portray women over the age of forty sparingly, if at all.
Images of women that do appear are often defined by women’s traditional social roles; those associated with marital status and their relationship to family. Women are seen limited to roles of grandmother, aunt, widow, host and caregiver. Responsibilities and tasks are serving others, other women and family – the devoted nurturer, with some recreation time.
We also see images of air-brushed sixty year old women who are portrayed traveling, romantically involved, and living a full social life. In reality, twenty-five percent of Canadian women aged sixty-five to seventy-nine live alone (14% of men do), while fifty-four percent of women over eighty live alone (24% of men).
These media driven images do not show an older woman which resonates with what some older women really desire. Many women experience a conflict between their own internal sense of self and the socially constructed perception of an older woman. However, this has not always been the case.
Historically, elder women held key cultural and societal roles such as midwives and advisors in health care. They were scribes, often responsible for sacred literature and libraries. They performed ceremonies, many of which included the tasks of funerary priestess and transitioning from life to death.
Early Gnostic-Christian scriptures included the wise Crone figure; a part of the female trinity (Virgin-Mother-Crone). Mythology gives us Crone goddesses such as Hestia, Kali and Hecate. The term hag, from the Greek hagia, originally meant “holy one.”
What has happened to the once respected Crone?
One theory is when Christianity entered, religion changed to a Father focused church, resulting in a divinity only to Son, Father and Holy Ghost. The Virgin and Mother remained, but the Crone – the one that stares death in the face, and in her final chapters of life, turns away from man and moves towards self and personal growth – disappeared.
Older women (in their full potential) may have disappeared from the media; yet, it is the task of each woman to consciously discern how meaningfully visible or invisible she chooses to live her aging years.