Millions of women wait years to fulfill their dreams — or to figure out what their dreams are. Here are some of their stories.
Image above of Ernestine Shepherd in her hometown of Baltimore (photographed by Marvin Joseph for the Washington Post.) Became a champion bodybuilder after long avoiding exercise
When women turn 50, the world starts to tune them out. Employers see them as less valuable and are more likely to discriminate against them, according to research. Hollywood disproportionately portrays them as unattractive, unfriendly and stupid. Many women describe a sense of invisibility. But something else happens as women leave their 40s behind. “[For] everyone I know around my age, there’s this major energy shift in being able to ask the question: Well, what do I want now?” writer and cultural critic Heather Havrilesky, 49, told The Washington Post. “Without feeling totally cowed by what you should want, what seems selfish.” The world may tend to forget older women, but they feel freer than ever.
For American women in middle age and later, that might mean returning to ambitions set aside years ago to raise a family or follow a spouse’s career. It might mean finding ambitions they never had before or reaping long-overdue success. “Our culture tells us a story that we’ll lose and lose and lose as we get older,” says Havrilesky. “And it’s not true.” The Post asked eight women who achieved personal or professional milestones after the age of 50 to share their experiences, in their own words. — Jenny Rogers
At age 11, I got hit by a car and broke my ankle. The bones didn’t heal correctly, and the doctors said I would never be able to do any type of exercise or ride a bike because one leg was slightly longer than the other. So I was always afraid to try. Then, in my 50s, my husband invited my sister, Velvet, and me to a church picnic. He said, “You girls can wear bathing suits.” Velvet looked at me in the swimsuit and started laughing, and I looked at her and started laughing, and she said, “We need to do exercise.”
Velvet started working out and was looking good, and I was looking like nothing. She said, “If you want what I have, you have to do what I’m doing.” So I started doing aerobics and working out. When I first started, I didn’t think I could keep up with everyone in the class, and I was afraid to do anything with my left leg. But when I started doing the exercise, I proved to myself that I could.
Velvet said to me, “If anything were to happen to me, do you think you can continue what we started through prayer, exercising, eating healthy, walking, running, lifting weights?” I said, “Yes, I could do it.”
Velvet died of a brain aneurysm in 1992. I suffered anxiety and depression and cried all the time because Velvet and I were very close. I stopped exercising. Then one night about two years after she died, Velvet came to me in a dream and said, “You’re not doing what I asked you to do.” In church, I said: “Here I am, Lord. I have heard you.”
I began slowly with walks and aerobics. Then I started working with a trainer at age 71, even though I thought I wasn’t up to it. He said, “You’re an athlete, and you will do it, and remember what your sister wanted.” In seven months, he had my body ready for my first bodybuilding show, for novice competitors of any age. I won first place.
Now I live by and teach a mantra: determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit. I always tell those I work with that age is nothing but a number. Many of those I have trained say they never thought they could do what they did at their age.
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