The Age of Invisibility is upon me.
I’ve been dreading it.
I thought I had time. I thought it would be years before men started walking past me and letting doors slam in my face instead of holding them open for me. Before teenagers nearly mowed me down with their skateboards because they didn’t notice me directly in their paths.
But I live in Los Angeles. And I don’t do Botox or fillers.
Apparently, that’s enough in La La Land to launch an older woman into invisibility.
For those of you who’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the Age of Invisibility, it’s that time in women’s lives when they hit middle age and most people stop noticing them.
The media and prevailing attitudes often portray men as ageing with wisdom, while women become ‘invisible’ in middle-age and are viewed as a burden in older age. This disadvantage is, in part, due to a tendency to equate women’s worth with beauty, youth, and reproduction.
The impact on older women of not being seen isn’t simply a blow to their vanity. According to the 2007 WHO report, older women “continue to face inequities related to health, security and participation” due to the societal perception that they are invisible or burdensome.
And then there is the psychological impact on older women of not being seen or recognized as contributing, valued members of society. In “The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age,” Joseph Burgo points out:
Human beings are social animals, defining ourselves through interconnection: Although we build self-esteem by living up to our own personal values and standards, we also rely upon the regard of others to feel good about ourselves.
The primary definition of the word regard is “a feeling of respect or admiration for someone” but in its secondary sense, it conveys the idea of looking or gazing. Throughout our lives, when other people look upon us with respect or admiration, it supports our sense of self-worth.
So this failure to be seen impacts older women’s health and welfare as well as their feelings of self-worth.
Which explains a lot. It’s not my imagination, or even my vanity making me feel diminished as I get older (or not just those things).
It kind of sucks, this invisibility. It feels like I’ve done something to invalidate my accomplishments and my worth, as if I’ve committed some unpardonable sin.
Which, apparently, I have. I got older. I aged.I've committed an unpardonable sin. I got older. I aged. Click To Tweet
Here are my sins of aging to date:
I won’t lie. I miss being noticed, if only for my youth. I miss being stopped on the street by an occasional man looking for an excuse to talk to a pretty young woman. I miss getting free drinks at bars and coffee shops. I miss people smiling at me on the street.
That’s right, “people.” Because it’s not just men who have stopped noticing me.
It’s everyone. Little kids, big kids, men and women of all ages, especially young women, who seem to avert their eyes as I approach, as if they’re afraid to see where time will bring them.
I’m not all that old, and I haven’t aged badly. I’m thin. I’m fit. I exercise and eat right (more or less).
But my age shows on my face. Which makes me something other, especially in Los Angeles, land of the uber fit and uber young.
I’m lucky. I’m not a public figure like Uma Thurman or Renée Zellweger. No one’s going to make a ruckus about how I’ve aged or whether I’ve done something to myself in an effort to cling to youth. Though I feel the impact of such attacks. It’s infuriating that the accomplishments of such talented women should fall by the wayside in the wake of the media’s obsession about whether they’ve used Botox or fillers or, God forbid, gone under the knife to maintain the youthful image that is expected of them. Such attacks reflect the very attitude that renders all older women invisible, that makes them feel as if their age invalidates their intellect and value.
If we’re going to focus on the way women in the public eye physically age, then let’s give them the chance to show their age without fear of judgment or scorn. Take the controversy over the leaked photo of Cindy Crawford from a Marie Claire photo shoot. Whether or not the photograph was doctored to add imperfections as the photographer claims, that picture spurred a healthy discussion about what middle age actually looks like. Women around the globe cheered to see how beautiful Crawford looks despite the imperfections–added by Photoshop or not. Charlene White, the reporter who originally tweeted the photo, noted in an article for The Guardian:
I’ve had women – especially mothers – getting in touch who’ve said that it finally makes them feel “normal”. We appear to have reached a level in our lives where a flabby tummy, stretch marks, bingo wings, or large thighs somehow makes us abnormal instead of beautiful.
Let’s face it, stretch marks and flab–that’s normal for women, young and old. And guess what: older women’s bodies don’t look like younger women’s, nor should they. Those bodies have run marathons and birthed babies and have worked hard in general to get us to a wiser, event-filled middle age. Those bodies have earned their lines and pouches and sunspots. They’ve been lived in, fully and fruitfully. They deserve to be celebrated, not ignored.
As Tamara McClintock Greenberg points out in her post, “The Invisible Years: Thoughts on Why the Elderly Become Invisible,” “With aging, our looks may diminish, but being older also offers the incredible opportunity to make better choices, to learn from our mistakes…”
This is how middle age should be approached, as an opportunity for growth and recognition, as a celebration of our accomplishments.
But that approach probably won’t predominate any time soon, given our youth-obsessed culture.
Despite all the negatives, I’ve discovered something surprising about my onsetting invisibility: I’m actually starting to enjoy it. Most days it feels like a gift, a new superpower that I didn’t realize would be so potent.
The people who do notice me are the ones I want to notice me. The nice, older man who offers me his table at Peets as he’s leaving because he sees me there every day and knows it’s my favorite spot–his attention I appreciate. It’s companionable, neighborly. The girl who stops her car in the middle of our quiet street to tell me how gorgeous my dog is–I like knowing she sees me too. The salesperson at the pet store who notices my confusion about where my favorite brand of dog food has gone and who takes the time to lead me to the right aisle–that person can see me too.
In “Women Over 50 are Invisible” Tira Harpaz notes that “…in order to stop being invisible, we have to find places, organizations and people to whom and with whom we feel vital and alive, and if possible, look for ways to become leaders no matter our age.” Which means, as I become more firmly entrenched in middle age, it’s up to me to see myself and my worth, and to look for others who see me too.
The more confident I am about being seen, the more effort I put into making myself visible, not for what I look like but for who I am, for what I have to offer in terms of my knowledge, my intelligence, my warmth and support of others, then I’m even more likely to be seen by those who matter most.
So this new superpower doesn’t render me completely invisible. It only renders me invisible to those who think aging means the end of everything. Who value youth over experience, tight asses over knowledge and insight.
I’m only as invisible as I let myself feel. And I don’t feel invisible at all, when it counts.
I’m still here. And I intend to stay.
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