Old Bags: the Female Midlife Experience

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By Katherine Chunchi

Two artists are turning the notion of an “old bag” on its head with a multimedia project that takes provocative and comedic stands against ageist labels.

In February, Faith Baum and Lori Petchers held an exhibition “Old Bags” that celebrates the American female midlife experience. Baum and her partner photographed dozens of middle-aged women standing in their underwear with shopping bags over their heads for the show at the Rabbit Hole in Brooklyn.

They say that bags mock a culture obsessed with youth that often dismisses older women and that they hope to give these women voice and representation.

“What’s interesting is that you go from being this ‘nouveau’ creature, where you’re validated and valued, but once you get to your mid-years, you’re diminished by the anti-aging movement,” says Lori Petchers, who is 56 and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

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This art experiment, explains Petchers, reveals the ongoing issues women face being misrepresented. It places an emphasis on challenging the themes of invisibility and captivity.

Since 2011, Baum and Petchers have explored the journeys of many middle-aged women, including their own. Their goal is to reach out to everyone including women who are not yet in their mid-years, but soon will be.

Elizabeth Davenport, 32, who is an English teacher from Massachusetts, explains that she associates herself with the Old Bags mission. She thinks that it’s necessary to acknowledge the place that middle-aged women have in American society.

“It’s something I internalize because 10 years from now, I’ll probably feel like I’m being belittled,” Davenport said. “This project gives me hope and will definitely shed a light for me when I get to that point.”

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At the event, photos of women of all shapes and sizes hung on the walls of Rabbit Hole. The women wore different colored underwear and had bags over their heads from retail outlets like Old Navy, Abercrombie, and Nordstrom. A photo booth was provided, along with bags, for attendees to pose for their own snapshots.

“Art surprises me everyday,” said a blonde woman in her 50s as she looked at the photos. “I think it’s pretty cool how they captured the women’s postures,” she said. “It’s funny how two out of all the women in the pictures have their heads tilted. That speaks out to me the most.”

Petchers says she feels that the mid-life years are a time to celebrate not denigrate. And in her work, she tries to share those experiences in a creative way.

“We go through menopause, see changes in our bodies, [and to top it off], society incorrectly defines us,” she said. “Faith and I keep trying our best to address this matter and fight against [age discrimination] through our artwork.”

The bags symbolize that many middle-aged women are placed in a metaphorical sack, explains Baum, and made to feel invisible. She says the best conversation is to focus on who you are as you age.

“One woman said to me, ‘I’ve always felt like I was ugly and sometimes I feel uglier, but I see this project and suddenly, I feel that I’m like everyone else —that I belong somewhere,” said Baum.

Baum and Petchers are spreading their message via social media, asking women to take bag selfies and posting their photos online.

“We really are inspired by the idea that we couldn’t have done this without social media,” said Baum. “We like [spreading the word] and having people respond. It’s all about the conversation. We don’t focus on one point of view. And that’s the best part.”

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