Despite the progress that has been made in women’s stature over the decades, research indicates that many women continue to feel devalued, subordinated, and marginalized within a patriarchal society. According to the research, women are more vulnerable to external pressure from society than men, and as a result face more questions at midlife about issues of aging. Women appear destined to fail in a society that defines success for men in terms of productivity and accomplishment and designates beauty and youthfulness as the measure of success for women. This conflict can lead to anxiety and depression if a woman is not able to discover her own intrinsic self-worth beyond her physical body. Today’s cultural emphasis on youth and beauty can cause serious problems for women as they age, ranging from low self-esteem to depression and anxiety.
In Western contemporary culture, many women feel social rejection and loss of self- worth when appearance begins to change in midlife. Women are likely to cite health problems and concerns about losing attractiveness as the major cause of midlife crises. The issues facing midlife women are influenced by many factors, most of which are societal pressure to look young. The implications are, because women are held to higher standards of physical attractiveness throughout their lives, they are also more negatively affected by the aging process.
However, with the baby boom woman’s entry into middle age, preconceived notions of aging are changing. For centuries, women have defined their identities in terms of relational roles: mother, wife, and daughter. In contemporary society, this is no longer the reality as women assume positions of leadership and power. The process of becoming autonomous will be more difficult for women unless they are able to refute negative cultural stereotypes and realize that neither age, nor beauty is the determining factor of their self worth at middle age. Today, things are evolving and the old stereotypes of what women should be and do are constantly being challenged. Women’s role in society has expanded to include running for the highest office in government. No longer are women constrained by what society tells them they should be or look like. So what does the modern, twenty-first century woman look like at midlife? The following portrait is one possibility to consider.
In 2009, Barbara Millicent Roberts, universally known as Barbie, turned 50 years old. Barbie burst onto the cultural landscape of the baby boom generation as an idealized image of what the perfect woman should be. Barbie, like many women of her generation, was prey to the pressures and demands of a patriarchal society; the pressure to conform to established codes of female behavior and the desire to be accepted. Barbie learned quickly to externalize her identity by a constant need for approval and acceptance in her physical appearance.
Barbie began her adult life as Malibu Barbie, in a pink Corvette sports car, with the manly Ken beside her. She lived in the pink mansion, filled with closets full of clothes, shoes, and every imaginable accessory. In a society that dictated that girls should be attractive, compliant, dependent, and submissive, Barbie represented to the world, the ultimate feminine ideal. However, superstar Barbie lost sight of her own self-worth, feeling inadequate, angry, and at high risk of depression.
As Barbie turns 50, she transitions into midlife. Like many women today, Barbie has defined herself in terms of physical appearance and how others view her. The focus of her midlife transition is to challenge the roles society has indoctrinated in her that have impacted her identity. Barbie has empowered the feminist philosophies of the Women’s Movement, and is no longer a passive, dependent woman vulnerable to the despair of her aging body.
Having abandoned the cultural stereotype of “what women should be”, Barbie is liberated from the preconceived role as the ultimate symbol of feminity. Barbie is more than her plastic parts; she has reconstructed her identity as she faces the next phase of her life. For Barbie, midlife is a journey toward self-discovery and the self-awareness. Barbie is evolving and transforming from her embodiment as the cultural icon of the “perfect” woman to a confident, independent and autonomous woman.