Feeling Invisible After 35
“I feel invisible now,” a friend recently said. She will be 30 in a month. “The other day, someone made kissy noises at me in the street and five years ago, I would have made faces and complained. That day, I smiled because it felt like someone was noticing me, as a woman.”
With shows like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and Feud: Bette and Joan, on Star World in India, with 49-year-old Julia Roberts named this year’s Most Beautiful Person by People magazine and grey-haired models making waves on last year’s runways, it seems like middle-aged women are having a Cultural Moment. But talk to the average woman and the Moment feels more like tokenism; for many, a growing sense of invisibility, of gradual erasure, starts in their 30s.
(Or earlier; in China, age 27 is when unmarried women officially become “leftover pearls” – a euphemism that manages to doubly insult once you a realize a pearl is a calcium carbonite barrier bivalves create to contain an invasive parasite.)
It’s tempting to write off women feeling invisible after 35 as evolution. That evolution drives men to seek out younger, more fertile mates is an accepted narrative for explaining why in most May-December relationships, men are the older party. Except, research has shown that the most fecund men are men whose partners are six years younger – not 10, or 15, and certainly not 20 plus. If evolution were the explanation, men would be going after women much closer to their age – more May-August.
So then, this invisible feeling that grows in women from their 30s onward must boil down to the superficial, to the unlined and nubile beauty of a 20-something’s face and body. This is borne out by the 2014 book Dataclysm, which examined the preferences and habits of people with profiles on the dating site OKCupid, and found that men, at any age, are most attracted to women in their early 20s.
But the 40-something Mumbai men we spoke to for this article don’t dwell on their much younger partners’ physical attributes. Instead, they describe these women, compared to the men’s female peers, as “less jaded,” “more flexible whether it comes to your schedule or your mindset,” with a “greater sense of innocence, optimism.”
“In some way, sharing wisdom I have accumulated over the years is also fun,” said S.M., a 49-year-old restauranteur who has been in a relationship with a woman 20 years his junior for several years.
This calls into question the trade-off many women accept as compensation for the erasure of aging: that the social currency they lose in looks, they gain in confidence, experience, opportunity.
Google “invisible to men,” and you’ll hit scores of articles by women, most 50 and above, but some younger. Inevitably, they all meander in different ways to a similar conclusion as Preeti Singh: “Despite the creeping invisibility I feel invincible. I am financially independent, healthy and have a huge appetite for life,” she wrote in 2015. “As I embark upon a second career, one of writing, I find this invisibility very liberating.”
Except… it isn’t; not in real terms. That exchange of youth for experience is a poor trade for women, one that typically leads to less visibility, less financial gain, and less opportunity, compared to men. As one woman commented in response to a recent article decrying the ageism against older women in the legal profession:
“I am in my fifties (although I lie and say I am in my forties) and I can see the wall coming quickly. Experience, age and wisdom are not desirable qualities in women attorneys as they are in male attorneys. If I am aggressive, I am criticized. If I am polite, I am criticized.”
Read more on the barriers to women in the workforce.
“Of course, assertions of the invisibility of older women in positions of power are countered by the exceptions that prove the rule,” wrote Suzanne Moore last year in an article on the invisibility of older women in the workplace. “‘Look!’ everyone says about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde. This is of no help to me whatsoever unless I can retrain as leader of a country I don’t live in. Is there an evening class for that?”
If there were, the final exam would probably be on the power (and paradox) of “aging gracefully,” so well-captured in Deborah L. Spar’s 2016 column in the New York Times:
There are virtually no wrinkles on Hollywood stars or on Broadway actors; ditto for female entrepreneurs or women in the news media. There are few wrinkles on the women in Congress and even fewer on Wall Street. Chief executives, bankers, hospital administrators, heads of public relations firms and publishing houses, lawyers, marketers, caterers: Certain standards of appearance have long been de rigueur for women in these positions, from being reasonably fit and appropriately dressed to displaying attractive coifs and manicured nails. But more and more, these standards also now include being blond, dark- or red-haired and nearly wrinkle-free….
Perhaps this is the root of women’s so-called jadedness as they age: that to capitalize on the experience and confidence they’ve accrued, they must give the illusion of (relative) youth. To be visible, they must give the appearance of “innocence, optimism,” qualities encoded into hair colour, skin texture and waist size.
Some women play the game to varying degrees of visibility and power; others shun it. But probably most roll into middle age confused by how expectations could have been so far off base, and wondering what went wrong. They might make sense of it by finding value in liberation from insecurities, or familial obligations, or in pursuing a career change, reframing (or disguising) stalled professional arcs (compared to men) as a matter of choice. They might write articles about sagging, aging bodies, about how men ignore them, but fawn over their 20-something daughters’. Studies are conducted on what this lack of sexual attention does to their (already lower) confidence.
All of this obscures the real truth behind the invisibility of women as they age: that the attention society – men – deem women worthy of is more about elastin of spirit, rather than of skin, about being malleable, mouldable, a blank slate.
But a blank slate has nothing written on it. Which begs the question: Were we ever really visible at all?