Feeling Invisible After 35


May 9, 2017


“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?



Written By The Swaddle Team

  1. Billy

    Very interesting article. It still baffles me that the biological factor is not being taken into consideration that women reach peak fertility in their youth. That explains the invisibility when they reach a certain age.

    • John

      Exactly. But if a guy tries to tell women this they say it’s made up, a social construct, mysoginist, etc. Ok, they will see unfortunately

    • Jason

      I can understand why this is a horrible thing for women to face. Being an attractive woman in your late teens and twenties, and receiving all the attention, special treatment, and benefits that come with that, in dating you have endless numbers of men going out of their way to talk to you and you can just select the best ones.. And then that slowly fading away as you get older, and as you reach your late 30s you find that men are less interested and whereas once they came to you, you are now finding yourself having to take on a much more proactive role if you want to date.

      I genuinely feel sorry for women that struggle to accept this. And not to mention the fact every time you go out, the sight of that hot young 20 something in her tight dress (and seeing all the men check her out), is a brutal reminder that you were once that, and that you’re not anymore..

      Men are primates, at the end of the day, as are women. We have evolved to find women who are in PEAK fertility, attractive. Youthful (and therefore fertile) features STAND out to a man. It is not a “choice”. It is not “socially constructed”. You literally see a slim 24 year old woman with a youthful face and your eyes automatically go there. We are not doing so out of malice, or out of smug dismissal of older women.

      In the end this is one of those things for which there just isn’t a happy ending. I hope that women who are in this situation can find it within themselves to not become bitter towards men. The stark reality is that this is about a woman’s difficulty in facing her own mortality. The loss of her youth, the loss of her looks, the loss of her ACTUAL fertility.

      The truth is that yes, you are going to die, no, you will not be young forever, and no, men are not being deliberately cruel when they pass you over for the hot young 20 something.

      It’s a result of the amoral, ruthless facts of evolution. Hard, and a terrible thing to accept, I know. But at the end of the day you either make peace with this or you stay bitter forever

  2. Callie

    What I find even more baffling, is that men seem to be completely oblivious to their own dwindling attractiveness as they get older. We younger women only desire their age-related accumulation of resources and may have the ability to temporarily overlook the thinning hair, bad breath from aging organs, sagging skin, and semi-erections. Get the ring, wait a couple of years, then file for divorce. If you don’t have a pre-nup, you’re set for life! It’s not rocket science. If men over 45 were smart, they would hang it up and stop hitting on us. You heard it here first, kids! 😉

  3. Lennert Cornette

    Poor poor women!
    You can do literally ANYTHING between your 18-30, you got 12 years you can get a nice decent guy yet you waste your prime on assholes and you have your fun when you are hot. After you turn 30 basically you just learn to know what 80% of men experience between their 18-30. Most guys are invisible for women who all aim for the top 20% guys. So I can’t feel any pitty for you. Try to settle when you are young, not when your looks start to fade.

  4. Jack

    Listen nature is cruel. It’s cruel to both men and women it depends on how you look at it. Women should not settle in their 20s they have the pick of the litter men pursue like crazy. After 30,35, well women haven’t made their choice or fallen into a bad relationship etc.. it will get a lot harder. Please don’t blame men for biological feelings. Eventually we all get older and we go for what we want or what we can get. Nature again is cruel but that’s how life is. That doesn’t mean women can’t find someone after the age of 35, they just need to put a heck lot more work. Essentially they may have to. R one the pursuers. All in all women normally should “win” the game in terms of picking mate. But if not we’ll it’s time to put work into it. I have sisters and I love them I love women they are excellent companions. Also to men stop hating on women because things didn’t go your way.


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