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Fearlessly defy the age barrier

Alongside photographs that symbolize courageous approaches to aging, 50 women — including movie and television personalities, musicians, and Olympic athletes — dispel many of the myths about growing old. Redefining midlife, these stories challenge the other 38 million women in the Baby Boom generation to live the second half of their lives to the fullest. Authors Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Ken

Alongside photographs that symbolize courageous approaches to aging, 50 women — including movie and television personalities, musicians, and Olympic athletes — dispel many of the myths about growing old. Redefining midlife, these stories challenge the other 38 million women in the Baby Boom generation to live the second half of their lives to the fullest. Authors Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Kentz were invited on the “Today” show to discuss their book, “Midlife Portraits of Fearless Women.” Here’s an excerpt:

When the three of us — Mary Ann [Halpin], Marilyn, and Nancy — set out to create an inspiring book about and for women in the middle of their lives, one boldly and aptly named "Fearless Women," we had no idea what it would bring. By exploring the lives of “fearless women” like the ones in this book, we hoped first of all to bring attention to the fact that so much has changed for women in the twenty-first century. Fifty years ago, sixty was considered old age, and a woman turning forty was thought to be on a downward slide. But with today’s medical advances and healthy lifestyles, women are living longer and making the most of the productive, fulfilling years before them. For many women now, turning forty offers new opportunities, a chance to reflect on younger years and explore the possibilities ahead. We wanted to honor those who are redefining midlife. So we began our journey to find women ages forty to sixty-something who discovered, in their middle years, newfound opportunities to make a real difference.

It took us a year to gather fifty representatives who demonstrate that midlife is our prime time, but we did it! We found great women who understand that time and experience are the prerequisites for becoming the strong beings they are now, inspiring other women their age to stand tall and proud — fearless, even. The women we met and photographed have not shied from the light or considered themselves washed up, but instead revel in their heightened passion, have an unquenchable thirst for life, savor their wisdom, trust in their incredible insight, and simply overlook their baggy knees.

We found them in all walks of life. Some who might have seemed ordinary on the outside proved to have extraordinary attitudes. Some who pushed through personal hardship then used their experience to make a difference in others’ lives. They came from rural areas, small towns, cities, and suburbs. Some could have been the woman next door. Some were of the Hollywood elite. All of them prove that women, no matter what their age, are the nurturers, creators, and caretakers of the world — and feel they are at their best now.

For this book, we asked each participant to express her power by holding a sword — a symbol of courage. We also asked each woman to share a snapshot of herself in her twenties, at the time in life when society suggests that women are most desirable. But as women who have been there ourselves, we know that what lies under that silky, glowing skin is often something other than perfection. In our twenties, some of us looked exquisite on the outside, but had a lot of growing up to do on the inside. Some of us were insecure approval-seekers, some were struggling to come to terms with a desperate childhood, and some were basking in a little too much vanity. Comparing ourselves with who we were in our youth and discovering that our lives are much better today blows apart the myth that it’s all downhill after forty.

Convincing society of this, however, proved to be a bit tricky, especially when celebrities were involved. When we began contacting the representatives of the famous women we wanted to honor, we found that once the word midlife came into play, the celebrities were often suddenly out of town. Is it any wonder, when these women have to compete in an entertainment business that casts men in romantic leading roles along with actresses young enough to be their granddaughters?

But we did find some well-known personalities who love what we’re doing. These awesome women defied conventional Hollywood thinking to participate in this book, holding their swords tight and heads high. That alone made them fearless, but that’s not why we chose them. We wanted to honor those who used their influence to make a difference. We found television stars who became goodwill ambassadors, icons who created foundations to save wildlife, and famous names who spend most of their time raising money to support families of Alzheimer victims.

Fittingly, each of us happened to be going through our own midlife challenges during the making of this book: Mary Ann had to have emergency surgery as well as tend to the needs of her eighty-one-year-old mother, who was healing from a serious car accident. Marilyn was dealing with empty-nest heartbreak as her youngest daughter prepared for college. And Nancy was performing a balancing act as an exhausted forty-nine-year-old working mother of an energetic two-year-old. But during the course of the photo sessions, something magical happened. Certain moments put everything in perspective.

When we saw the actress Shohreh Aghdashloo posing in a dress made in her native Iran, where the mere mention of her name was banned, and heard about how she fled the country seeking freedom, we were awestruck by her depth and beauty and her graceful dance with the sword. After the photo session, Shohreh took her good-luck necklace off and tearfully gave it to Mary Ann. When Catherine Curry-Williams sat on a bench next to a teddy bear that symbolized her deceased newborn son, we were moved to tears. When Kathy Eldon, another member of the sisterhood of grieving mothers, posed holding a dove named Peace with a shaft of light over her right shoulder, she said it looked as if her son, Dan, was looking down from heaven. Somehow we knew that these passages were simply a part of the cycles of our lives, and we felt so lucky to experience them. These moments taught us to dance with the dark figure of fear and surrender to life.

The real rewards have been meeting these amazing, inspiring women. They have shared their true selves, flaws and all. They have held up the sword for all women to celebrate who they are right now. They have fearlessly told their extraordinary stories. We gave them pride and credence for being strong, and they gave us a moment of sisterhood.

We wanted the final page of this book to be reserved for the fearless woman in your life. There's a place for a favorite photograph of her, and lines to write words that describe her special power to inspire. Maybe this fearless woman is your wife, mother, daughter, sister, or best friend. Maybe this woman is you.

For us, the real goal of midlife is to age gratefully: to be courageous instead of fearful, to be nurturing instead of critical, to use our power to create instead of destroy. Wrinkles and extra pounds need not get in the way of a remarkable, satisfying life. So, here’s to the woman who is full of passion and life, has plenty to say, no longer cares what others think, loves the word reinvention, and is determined to make the world a better place — even if she can’t find her car keys. Here’s to fearless women everywhere.

Erin Brockovich

Age 44, Researcher, Advocate, Author, Motivational Speaker

It would be difficult to find an American who did not know the name Erin Brockovich, thanks to the 2000 movie in which Julia Roberts portrayed Erin (and for which Roberts won an Academy Award). But Erin is a woman who deserves the attention she receives. She consistently stands for what she believes in and tries to make a difference for people whose lives have been devastated. Erin’s first two marriages ended in divorce, leaving her with three children to raise alone. Working to put food on the table, Erin took a job in a law office and in 1996, Erin and attorney Ed Masry spearheaded a direct-action lawsuit — the largest of its kind — against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for their groundwater contamination in Hinckley, California. Erin and Ed won the largest toxic-injury settlement in American history: $333 million in damages to more than six hundred Hinckley residents. Today, she is the director of research at the firm Masry & Vititoe, one of the country’s top motivational speakers, a television host, an author, and a happily remarried woman.

Shohreh Aghdashloo

Age 52, Actress, Political Activist

Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is used to taking long journeys, both physical and metaphorical. Her physical journey began in 1979, when she found her acting workshop in Tehran, Iran, had been closed down by revolutionary guards. She decided at this point Tehran was no places for a liberated woman and she escaped the tyranny of the Ayatollah Khomeini and fled to London by driving across Europe. She struggled as an actress for twenty-five years when the role of a lifetime came in playing Nadi, the Iranian wife of a proud immigrant in the movie "House of Sand and Fog." She made history by becoming the first Middle Eastern actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She is inundated with scripts, but has turned down many offers to play terrorists, fearlessly refusing to be stereotyped.

Kathy Eldon

Age 56, Activist for World Peace

How does a mother turn a brutal act of violence into a quest for world peace? Kathy Eldon fearlessly set an example when her twenty-two-year-old son, photojournalist Dan Eldon, was stoned to death in Somalia. While full recovery from a loss so horrifying may be impossible, Kathy and her daughter, Amy, have found a way to bring healing into their lives. They have created Creative Visions, a film and television production company dedicated to supporting “media that matters.” Together, mother and daughter have created a foundation to empower young people to use various media to influence positive change in the world, an endeavor partly funded by proceeds from exhibitions of Dan’s journals.

Excerpted from “Midlife Portraits of Fearless Women,” by Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Kentz, with photographs by Mary Ann Halpin. Copyright © 2005 by Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Kentz. Excerpted by permission of Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc. a division of Harry N. Abrams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.