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Understanding experiences and expectations of ageing through old and young bodies: A narrative study

In Western society, ageing is currently framed by the narrative of decline (Gullette, 2004). Randall and McKim (2008) argue that this perspective has downplayed the deeper dimensions of ageing, and reverted to representations of ageing where the focus is on the bad news, far more than the good. As a consequence, insights into the other side of the ageing story - the progressive, growth focused, thicker narratives - remain largely unexamined. Generating awareness of alternative stories of ageing is important if the stronghold of the decline narrative is to loosen its grip, and more meaningful ways of ageing be imagined and lived.

Using narrative theory, to gain insight into ‘the deeper dimensions of ageing’, my research examines expectations and experiences of the ageing (sporting) body. Exploring the body via narratives involves examining how stories embedded within certain bodies are negotiated, struggled against, created, and have consequences for ones lived experiences of everyday life (Waskul & Vannini, 2006).  My previous research (see Phoenix & Sparkes, 2006a, 2006b) illustrated how intergenerational relationships are significant in shaping young people’s perceptions of their ageing bodies. Young people draw upon narrative maps of ageing, which are projected by older adults, in order to make sense of what presumably awaits them in the future. This process can contribute to the social reproduction of the narrative of decline by confirming cultural stereotypes of ageing and forms of embodiment or, alternatively, act to challenge and problematise these stereotypes.

Projecting stories about the ageing process which might dilute the stronghold of the narrative of decline can facilitate more positive perceptions of self-ageing in young people. In turn, this can lead to more meaningful relationships between different generational groups. Neikrug (2003) suggests that young people who worry about their old age are likely to display ageist attitudes towards the elderly.

The current project explores the experiences of thirteen (male = 11, female = 2) mature (ages 50 - 71 years) natural bodybuilders 1. It contributes to a small body of literature concerned with the lived experiences of master athletes, and the potential they might have for developing different ways of envisioning ageing (bodies) (e.g. see Tulle, 2008; Dionigi, 2008; Kluge et al., 2010). The present study extends this knowledge base by examining the impact of presenting stories of ageing told by the natural bodybuilders to young people, thereby gaining insight into how they might be interpreted. The rationale for this approach is highlighted by Randall and McKim (2008) who suggest that while it is correct that stories about physically active older adults can educate and expand horizons, this is only possible if the stories they tell are engaged with by others. How other people perceive and engage with the stories told by and shown physically active older adults (as farcical? inspiring?) is immediately relevant to the level of success that can be expected of policy initiatives promoting physical activity alongside positive images of ageing, and meaningful intergenerational relationships.

The first phase of the research project involved life history interviews with each of the natural bodybuilders. In addition, a range of participant produced visual data (see Phoenix, 2010), and researcher produced visual data were collected. These data sets were analysed using categorical content and structural forms of analyses (Leiblich et al., 1998). The outcomes from these multiple forms of analyses were represented via a short DVD, which was constructed by the researcher for the purpose of phase two.

The second phase of the research project involved focus groups with university students (one male group, and one female group) which took place on three separate occasions. The purpose of these three meetings were to:

1. examine the participant’s perceptions of (self) ageing

2. show the DVD and invite initial reactions to it, and

3. revisit the topic of ‘old age’ and explore the extent to which sharing the stories of active elders had impacted upon the young people’s perceptions of (self) ageing.

The findings from the first focus group meeting confirmed that young people generally hold negative perceptions about the ageing process. For example, when asked to list any five words which they associated with growing old, the participants typically produced descriptors such as: “decrepid”, “restricted”, “slow”, “uncomfortable”, “dependent”, “useless”, “haggard”, “wrinkly”, “grey hair”, “bad health”, and “bowel problems”. These key words demonstrate how young people currently draw upon and reinforce the narrative of decline in relation to the ageing process. It also suggests a limited availability of narrative resources (via narrative maps) that can drawn upon to envision alternative versions of growing old.

The DVD was developed in order to represent the experiences of mature natural bodybuilders. Reference to a number of struggles and dilemmas that they had faced (e.g. relationship difficulties, ridicule, etc.) were purposefully included in order to avoid inaccurately presenting this lifestyle as ‘the solution’ to negative perceptions of ageing. Replacing one limiting narrative of ageing (e.g. narrative of decline), with an equally limiting one was certainly not the intention of this research. Rather, highlighting the diversity of ways that people “do” ageing by projecting alternative versions of the ageing process, can provide greater narrative resources for young people to draw upon when giving meaning to the ageing process.

Key themes were identified within the bodybuilder’s stories, including; the experience of life long learning (via knowledge gained in relation to diet, training programmes, health, and so forth); the pleasure of feeling physically challenged; and, previous perceptions of ageing versus their lived experience of the process. For example, illustrating this final theme, Bill (age 71) explained:

When you were younger, you just think in you're mind that when you're old, you have to sit in a chair once you reach a certain age. That you do a nice gentle walk, or you go down to the pub and sit, but you don't go to a  gym and train because your body wouldn't cope with it. But what I've found is that by keeping my body doing it all those years, my body is accustomed to it and doesn't know anything else.

By projecting stories which highlighted inconsistencies between earlier perceptions of ageing, and their lived experiences of being older, the bodybuilders had the potential to unsettle the determinist, foreclosing nature of the narrative of decline. Moreover, the results of the study suggested that by enabling these stories to beheard and seen by younger people (in this instance via DVD), such stories could become inscribed into their bodies, and drawn upon as a resource in (re)storying their own ageing process. After watching the DVD, Liam commented:

The bit that rang out to me was the bit where the guy said “I’m 71, and if you’d asked me 40 years ago, I would have thought, oh no, I don’t want to be 71”. But he said that he felt great. Bodybuilding is quite different to my sport, but hopefully the same message can be possible; That I can feel good when I’m older, just through keeping active ... That part stood out to me because I don’t want to get old, but he’s old, and he’s alright.

Whilst there is certainly potential, providing additional and alternative narrative maps of ageing by increasing storytelling between different generational groups does not necessarily guarantee that young people will utilise them (and nor should it). The process is complex, and imbued with a host of other factors, including but not restricted additional social markers such as gender, class, race; the extent to which the younger person can identify with the alternative storyline being offered (‘That’s (not) like me”); the continued affinity to draw upon deep rooted beliefs / more familiar storylines concerning what the ageing body can and can’t do. This level of complexity was shown in Kim’s response to the DVD:

At the start [of the DVD], I was like ‘that’s pretty incredible, what they’re doing. I’ve tried doing weights, and that takes a lot of effort to keep going, so that part of it is really impressive. But the other side of me thinks you should just grow old gracefully, I thought that maybe they were taking it too far. But, it is incredible. Yeah, I’m just not sure.

Promoting storytelling between different generational groups can facilitate the projection of multiple, varied narrative maps that highlight the deeper dimensions of ageing. In this sense, narrative mapping might be a useful site for intervention when attempting to challenge the prevailing negativity about old age that is often inscribed into the bodies of young people. However, the process is complex and requires further research to understand more fully how and why certain storylines are engaged with - by certain people, and at certain times - more readily than others. Importantly, such ‘narrative interventions’ should not be viewed as opportunities to replace one oppressive narrative (i.e. the narrative of decline) with another (i.e. responsible elders should maintain fitness). Understanding the deeper dimensions of growing older means listening to and valuing all stories of ageing that are projected by, and inscribed into, individual bodies across the life course.

1 Natural bodybuilders must have been ‘drug free’ for a set period of time (ranging from 5 years to ‘life’ depending upon the organization) in order to align themselves with the relevant governing bodies such as the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation (BNBF) and Natural Physique Association (NPA). Natural bodybuilders are routinely tested for illegal substances (via urine samples and / or polygraph tests) and are banned for any violations from future contests.

This project was funded by The Nuffield Foundation.

Dionigi, R. A. (2008). Competing for life, older people, sport and ageing. Saarbrüken: VDM.

Gullette, M. M. (2004). Aged by Culture. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Kluge, M. A., Grant, B. C., Glick, L. & Friend, L. A. (in press). Seeing is Believing: Telling the ‘Inside’ Story of a Beginning Master’s Athlete through Film. Qualitative Research in Sport & Exercise.

Randall, W., & McKim, E. (2008). Reading our lives: The poetics of growing old. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lieblich, A., Tuval-Mashiach, R. & Zilber, T. (1998). Narrative Research: Reading, Analysis, and Interpretation. London: Sage.

Neikrug, S. (2003). Worrying about frightening old age. Aging & Mental Health7, 326-333.

Phoenix, C. (in press, 2010). Auto-photography in aging studies: Exploring issues of identity construction in mature bodybuilders. Journal of Aging Studies.

Phoenix, C., & Sparkes, A. C. (2006a). Young athletic bodies and narrative maps of aging. Journal of Aging Studies20, 107-121

Phoenix, C., & Sparkes, A. C. (2006b). Keeping it in the family: narrative maps of ageing and young athlete’s perceptions of their futures. Ageing and Society, 26, 631-648.

Tulle, E. (2008). Ageing, the body and social change, running in later life. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Waskul, D. D. & Vannini, P.  2006.  Body/embodiment:  Symbolic interactionism and the sociology of the body.  Aldershot, Hampshire:  Ashgate Publishing.

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