Changing the way we think about older bodies

Flesh After Fifty

While our culture’s obsessed with the female form, that doesn’t include older women. But an arts program in Melbourne aims to shift that.

It’s called Flesh After Fifty and it’s the brainchild of Martha Hickey, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne, and former National Gallery of Victoria curator Jane Scott.

Professor Hickey’s patients include many women going through early menopause and she was struck by how much their fear of becoming an ‘old woman’ made that so much harder. She decided we need to change the message about ageing for women.

She and Jane Scott came up with the idea of a program of events and exhibitions designed to both celebrate and normalise ageing. It was scheduled to run at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent this month, but it’s been rescheduled for March 2021 (7 March to 11 April).

The name Flesh After Fifty came from Hollywood photographer Eve Arnold. In her 2002 book she wrote about photographing a nude Joan Crawford when the latter was in her 50s. “Sadly,” she wrote, “something happens to flesh after 50.”

One of the program’s key attractions is a photographic exhibition of nude portraits of women over 50 called 500 Strong.

As the name implies, the plan was to photograph 500 women, though it ended up at 422 because the budget ran out.

Photographer Ponch Hawkes, herself in her 70s, was commissioned to shoot the portraits. The first two she did were of herself and Jane Scott, so they had a sense of what the experience would be like for participants.

The other 420 are of women who responded to a media call-out for volunteers. They were invited to bring a prop and could have their faces obscured if they chose.

What was the attraction? One woman, quoted in The Age newspaper, said she wanted to join in “this great, joyous fleshy statement about being alive.”

Not surprisingly though, for some women taking their clothes off was deeply confronting. But it turned out well.

As Jane Scott has recounted in interviews, after a lifetime of constraint and shame around their bodies, many walked out of the studio as though the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders.

Given the end result includes a diverse range of body types, ethnicities and even scars, the aim to represent ageing as perfectly normal should be accomplished.

While the exhibition won’t happen until next year, you can listen to this interview with Martha Hickey and Jane Scott at


Photo Source: Flesh After Fifty

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