28 January 2014

Midlife wrinkles

Midlife crises have long been the privilege of men in society.  The seemingly impulsive desire for a sports car or the beginning of an extramarital affair or the sudden ending of a marriage have been emblematic markers of, and excuses for, midlife crises for some men.  (I'm not sure that this is applicable to Monsieur le Président Hollande of France whose current philandering was the subject of my previous post--see La trahison, Jan. 2014--but for whom such behavior seems typical rather than tied to his particular age.)  In the sociological literature on the topic of midlife crises, there are plenty of articles exploring men's midlife transitions; one even considers the possibility of male menopause (Isaac 2002, citation below).   Midlife crises though are no longer the exclusive domain of men.  We've heard a bit about midlife crises from the U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama who revealed last year that cutting her hair into bangs was her midlife crisis (Michelle Obama's "midlife crisis" bangsby Morgan Whitaker, MSNBC 2/19/13), and who, upon turning 50 recently, hinted at her midlife interest in the dermatological wonders of Botox treatments (A First Lady at 50, finding her own path, by Jennifer Steinhauer, The NY Times 1/16/14)  Had my French been better, I probably would have recognized similar attention to women's midlife crises in France, but now I am certainly hearing more about U.S. women who are in that midlife demographic and who are experiencing what sound like crises or turbulent life transitions.  Some of these are on the order of big personal changes such as extramarital affairs and comings-out, or sudden departures from well-established careers, while other manifestations are of the Michelle Obama variety, such as a new or renewed interest in combating facial wrinkles and blemishes and the other physical outcomes of aging or menopause, and the thinking about one's social role and functions as one's children leave childhood.

Obviously, midlife as a human age affects men and women alike, but it does so only as society and its members define and recognize it as a salient time in one's life.  There may be physical and hormonal shifts that affect the human body at midlife, sure, but it is the social construction of this period of life that probably has a more important effect. (We socially construct the meanings of all ages of life: see my postcards of 'little adults' in my post La jeunesse, July 2013 for how we have done this with childhood.)  At the midway point in human life, be it at age 50 or in the range say between 40-60, besides physical changes, people may experience boredom, discontentment, emotional upheavals: work conditions are changing, one's children are reaching early adulthood while other loved ones are becoming ill or dying.  These events will affect how we as individuals understand and experience a particular life stage, and how our society as a whole then constructs the meanings around that stage of life.  Broader social forces, like prevailing economic conditions and political climates, are also going to affect our personal and the social conceptions of midlife, or any other stage.  Previously, midlife was thought about as a mostly male transition but today, the social temporalities have changed, to put it more sociologically (citation below for Kearl and Hoag's seminal piece on midlife crises and this idea of social temporalities, 1984).  Our perceptions of this time of life, they are a' changin. Today, we recognize and accept, as a society, that women may experience midlife transitions as men have, some more or less publicly, dramatically, and radically than others.  Helping to make midlife crises more accessible and acceptable for women is the presence of strong, outspoken, visible women who tell us about theirs.  Certainly, midlife crises are not something we may want to celebrate--think of the potentially disruptive and damaging effects on families and friendships--but the explicit acknowledgement that women can have these too is a small step towards gender parity.  Perhaps we'll really be 'there' when middle aged men begin to publicly consider their wrinkles and the merits of bangs and Botox.

Isaac, E.P. 2002. Male menopause and men of African descent.  Journal of African American Men, 6(4), 3-16. 
Kearl , M.C. and L.J. Joag. 1984. The Social Construction of the Midlife Crisis: A Case Study in the Temporalities of Identity. Sociological Inquiry 54(3), 279.

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