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Valued Identities and Aging Experiences in a Diverse Sample of Middle-Aged Women
AdvisorStewart, Mary W.
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Aging has been consistently found to carry negative meanings in Western societies, particularly for women. The goal of this study was to investigate aging experiences in a diverse sample of middle-aged women, as well as to explore the possible links between those experiences and women's valued identities. In general, it was expected that women would experience aging more favorably if they had opportunities to maintain or achieve the identities that they value as they get older, and that differences in women's valued identities would translate into diverging aging experiences among participants occupying various social locations. In addition, circumstantial factors such as relationship status and quality or type of employment were also expected to influence feelings about aging among the women for whom those aspects of life are significant.Previous writings have often linked women's feelings of age-related loss with their diminishing sexual attractiveness. However, much of the existing literature reflects the views of White, middle-class women and has focused on their heterosexual relationships rather than on other factors that may make aging more difficult or more rewarding. In research on African American and Latina women, as well as poor women, identities situated in other areas such as motherhood, extended family relationships, or religion have been found to be central, and those identities may be associated with different types of aging experiences.Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with twenty-one women between the ages of 40 and 65, including Caucasian and Latina women with various social class standings. The interviews focused on women's valued identities and their feelings about aging. A brief demographic questionnaire was also administered prior to each interview. The qualitative data were analyzed using a thematic framework analysis approach.Confirming the research expectations, women's feelings about aging were frequently related to their valued identities. Further, several ethnic and social class patterns emerged with regard to participants' most central identities, although investment in heterosexual relationships did not vary based on women's social location. Even more surprisingly, the vast majority of the participants did not bring up or were not seriously bothered by loss of sexual value, regardless of their important identities, background characteristics, or life circumstances. Thus, even though the (primarily psychological) gains associated with aging were often juxtaposed against various concerns about issues such as illness or discrimination, the participants' responses contradicted the expectation that changes in physical appearance and their implications for heterosexual attractiveness would be perceived catastrophically, at least by some of the women. The implications of this study are discussed in relation to the existing literature, and considering its possible limitations.