I’m a 56 year old parent of two near adult sons. I’ve had operations on many of my joints, I have been diagnosed as well having ADHD and bipolar; I work in the civil service and I make photo art/protest projects when I am not working. I have a strong interest in how we are as individuals and how societal rules and expectations affect us. I’m also fascinated by how we can break free from those expectations if they don’t suit us. I also believe that it is good to stop, to question and to make changes in our lives if we are not yet satisfied.
Ages is a photo/protest/body positivity project. And, it is about the social construction of age, not about how many years we happen to have been alive. What do I mean by a social construction? I mean nearly all of the things that we think, believe and ‘know’ about age that aren’t to do with how many years we have been alive.
The vast majority of that awareness isn’t based on an objective truth, it’s based on what we as members of this society have been stewing in since we were tiny. That awareness is built on foundations that we repeatedly add to, over time. We construct what we know about age just as we construct most of what we ‘know’ about people from their gender or the colour of their skin.
I think age is largely a harmful construction. It messes with how we think about ourselves and about other people. It’s deeply ingrained and most of it is bullshit. I think we need to pause, stare at its puffed up and bloated form, stick a large pin in it and watch it parp off into the distance.
Ages invites people to offer a snapshot of their lives through writing, through images of how they are dressed and in their skins, naked. I’m gradually adding more people and hope, eventually, to have participants from all ages of life from 20 upwards. Each person has a story to tell – me too.
I am a naturist in the broadest sense – I am a human animal and I feel comfortable naked in the environment. I enjoy the sense of freedom from being naked and from not feeling a need to hide myself away although I respect the fact that not everyone wants to see nudity. For me though, being naked in the sea and under the sky is deeply joyful.
Very often, when people pause and reflect on their lives in the middle or older years of our lives, we find that we would like to be living in a different way. Some of us make a change, we step or leap in a different direction All my life I’ve really not wanted the ‘man’ label that has been attached to me – I have no interest in conforming to what is expected of me as either a man, or as a woman. Has that been a hard thing? Absolutely! But what’s the value of life if it’s not the life we want?
I’m trying to reject what I’m expected to be like at the age I am too – it’s not easy either. And I am inviting the participants in the Ages project to tell me and to show me who they are, whatever age they are. If they are wanting to be different, or to be better able to accept their bodies, they tell me that too.
I’m not denying that age has an impact. It’s obvious that as we get older our bodies change and we pick up the marks of the lives we have lived.
The Ages project isn’t just about older people, it’s about all ages. I’ve been researching age as a subject for a year or so and it’s clear that we mainly think about it in terms of negatives. Most of the connotations are negative and most of them are linked to older ages, but there also negative stereotypes attached to younger ages too. It’s as if there is nothing more positive to offer than hollow compliments such as ‘well you look good for your age’ or to offer some rather ridiculous phrase such as ‘I’m 75 years young’. It doesn’t matter what age you are – talk about who you are.
Those in their teens and 20s are subject to endless absurd expectations of what they should look like and what they should do to fit impossible ideals. The ‘perfect’ body type is shown constantly in the media and social media. But that ideal body type is rare – most of us have never looked much like that ideal – and nor should we. Most younger people are fatter, thinner, taller, or shorter than whatever they are being told they should be like. With all the pressure there is on younger people to fit in, to develop and show their worth, it’s extremely hard on many of them. When I hear older people denigrating these aspects of contemporary, I think of it as a failure to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Empathy is a life skill that one hopes older people have developed.
We often talk about the problems with the young – the millennials. There can be the stereotyping of young men as aggressive youths or ‘snowflake’ younger people who are portrayed as being overly offended by all manner of issues. And yet, as we did, they are trying to negotiate a very complex world and they are doing their best.
We set up youth as an ideal and, somehow, we are expected to try to retain the youthful look of that ideal – one that most of us have never attained. Or we cease to bother, we ‘let ourselves go’. Well, some of us do let ourselves go.
Some of us reject the whole lot of it. We choose to try to live our lives as we wish to live them irrespective of how we are supposed to be, at a ‘certain age’.
When we read or speak about people in middle age, the tone is often jokey or patronising. We joke about body parts no longer working so well, about middle-aged men trying to comb-over their thinning hair, or middle-aged women as ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’. Our middle-aged crises are seen to lead us to stray from marriages and from ‘good taste’.
And yet, we could consider it to be a wise thing in one’s middle years (or at any point in our lives) to pause, to consider the direction we are going in and to check it’s where we want to go. I suspect that any yearning to own a sports car or get a boob job has more to do with just continuing with that urge to show off the signs of youth that most of us have never actually had.
Most of the information that you’ll find about ageing is about the older ages. Most of it is to do with the problems of older age and the language is largely (not entirely) negative. The focus is on poor health, disability, frailty, dementia, the loss of vitality, on becoming stuck in our ways, or becoming the rather bigoted, ‘miserable old sods’.
Yes, we need far better support and care for older people but we, you, are not ‘past it’ and speaking to us as if we are children is unacceptable – it’s not even a good way to speak to children! I spent a good deal of my time in the last 10 years witnessing my parents and their lives in care homes, observing how other people and the staff spoke to them as if they were childish idiots rather than simply more and more confused and lost in their own minds.
With a lack of information about age that isn’t more rehashed stereotypes, I decided to create a photo and story collection of intimate snapshots of people’s lives. They are, at once, ordinary, and, of course, exceptional and unique. They are united by being people who have gradually come to hear about my Ages project and have felt that it’s right for them.
The majority, so far, are in their 40s and 50s, there are some 70 year olds and some in their 30s and 20s. It’s an organic project and I’m in no rush to fill gaps in the spread of years – that will happen gradually as people come to the project. If you read the stories they tell and look at their photographs, you will see that they have some things in common – such as being absolutely wonderful people. Some are fatter, some skinnier, some older, some younger, some fitter, some disabled – and I really hope to have more people with all sorts of body types and skin colours.
It really concerns me that we have so many images and stories about the really small number of people who happen to fit the ideal type. They are a rarity and yet theirs are the body types we see the most. I don’t think that is healthy.
So far, I’ve attracted many more women participants than men. And it’s interesting to note then when people are surveyed, women are far more likely to say that they have negative views about their own bodies. There clearly are expectations about how men should look, most of which are unobtainable, but generally the pressures are less extreme than they are on women.
Perhaps because of that, I think that many women come to reject the expectations and rebel. We can choose to reject the expectations of having to look like a ‘fit’ 20 year old but it’s not easy, and that applies to 20 year olds too.
Many of the women in the Ages project have mentioned how they have sought to cast off what is expected and to stick two fingers up at how they are supposed to be and to start again. They are growing into their bodies, being their bodies, being their scars, their arms, legs, fat, skin and bones.
Having people join the project, taking their photographs and reading their stories, is a huge privilege for me. I have met wonderful people and I feel deeply humbled and grateful for the time and thought they have put into the project.
It’s not been an easy process for most of the participants, and that includes me. It is very exposing to write about oneself and to pose dressed and even more so naked. And, it is yet another challenge to have that information made public. However, one thing that is obvious to me is that facing challenges, such as accepting how we look, and overcoming them, is deeply satisfying. Without exception, the participants have said that they feel really positive about the experience – it’s been good fun as well as challenging.
Clearly to be able to take part, the participants all have to have reached a point in their lives where they are ready to accept who they are. Or, they are ready to move further along on that journey of self-acceptance. It was harder to be among the first few people in the project as we were just one of 2, then 3, then 4. Now we are one among 19, and soon we’ll be one of 30 or more. Our individuality, our uniqueness, will be retained. And our normality as examples of what people just happen to be like, whatever age they happen to be, will be increasingly apparent.
And, it’s not for everyone – although I would encourage everyone to find a way to stand naked under the sun from time to time. There is something deeply liberating about being naked, especially outside. Quite apart from the wonderful feel of the air and sun on one’s skin, simply being naked, being seen and saying ‘this is me – I am not that different from you’, is liberating and joyful.
If you would like to take part, and you are not far from Brighton, you can contact me through the website starshumansnests.com/phil-pool-art/contact