“I think you should do whatever works for you to make you feel better. But as long as you do it for yourself.” – Interviewee, age 52, discussing makeup
In American culture, menopause is generally misunderstood through inaccurate perceptions, definitions, and representations of women’s experiences with aging. Anthropologists have examined menopause and the American culture’s interpretation of middle-aged women through a critical lens focusing on cultural distributions of behavior, variation in symptoms, and the ongoing scientific knowledge about geriatric health and the effects of aging on the physical condition (see selected references). My study examines ideas of identity and societal perceptions that emerged in open-ended interviews of 10 women, ages 44-55, who live in Saratoga Spring, New York. Women explained how they comprehend preconceived notions of menopause and aging and the effects these ideas have on their emotional and physical experiences. The analysis focuses on the self-perceptions the women have of aging and the ritual of beauty upkeep, their evolution of makeup use, and variations in self-esteem as they aged. While expressing unique aging experiences and variations in makeup use, each woman shared a similar positive perspective on female middle age and life transitions. The interview data suggests that the degree to which women interacted with makeup seemed to be an empowering practice, which ties directly to midlife outlook during the perimenopausal and postmenopausal years. While shifts in career, family, and marriages varied among the subjects, each woman’s decisions about cosmetic use were linked to efforts to assert their autonomy. This study challenges negative cultural expectations of middle age womanhood and seeks to advance female empowerment and positive self-esteem by highlighting the ability for women to assess and articulate their decision-making process with makeup. These women’s experiences reveal significant degree of presence and certitude during what can be a productive and exciting phase of a woman’s life.