Midlife women's perceptions of their changing bodies: an ethnographic analysis




Banister, Elizabeth M.

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The purpose of this study was to document, from a developmental perspective, midlife women's perceptions of their changing bodies within the larger cultural context, and to use ethnographic research as a tool for researching midlife women. The central question guiding the analysis of midlife women's lives was: What are midlife women's perceptions of their changing bodies? The self-reported experiences of 11 midlife women (ages 40–55) were obtained and the data analyzed using Spradley's (1979) Developmental Research Sequence Method. Data were collected by using individual and group interviews. During the individual interviews, three kinds of ethnographic questions (descriptive, structural, and contrast) were used to explore how each woman conceptualized her experiences. After the individual interviews were completed, three consecutive group interviews were conducted. The group interviews provided a context for determining the women's shared meaning of their changing bodies at this pivotal time of their development. To solidify the credibility of this qualitative study, the understandings derived from the study were subjected to member checking and the application of content analysis. Four general themes emerged from the analysis of the data. The first two themes—the media and medicine—involved aspects of the culture that most influenced the women's interpretations of their changing bodies and were, therefore, structural in nature. The second two themes—loss, and redefining of self (including the development of self-care)—involved the more personal aspects of the women's narratives such as reflected meanings and attitudes. Results of the study indicated that the midlife period in a woman's life encompasses a broad spectrum of experience, full of contradiction and change. Issues of loss, change in role functions, cultural influences that perpetuate ageism and sexism, ambivalence, strong emotional responses, lack of consistent information about menopause and sexuality, questioning, critical reflection, coping mechanisms, redefining self self-care—all played a central role in the women's lives during this important time of transition. Midlife events prompted the participants to question and challenge traditional cultural expectations about female roles and behavior; and in this way they reinterpreted their experiences and created new meaning from them. The women reformulated their self-definitions from that of caregiver to care receiver, from caring for others to caring more for oneself. This could be seen as a major developmental change in the women's lives, since through this process of facing the challenges of midlife, the women moved from self definitions that were based on negative cultural stereotypes to self definitions that were based on an affirmation of their ability to experience the events of their existence as autonomous individuals, less bound by stereotypes than they had been before. Health professionals can attempt to examine some of their own biases and assumptions about midlife women that could influence their treatment of, and attitudes towards, these women. Furthermore, health professionals are in the position to help their midlife clients question and become critically aware of the social, historical, and political context that defines women's midlife experience, so that midlife women need not take for granted the established interpretation of their physical changes. Suggestions for further research are included.



Middle-aged women, Middle age, Psychological aspects, Women, Psychology, Attitudes