Post #3130: We are all disappearing


After I turned forty, I started to become invisible. At forty-five, this process has become undeniable – as a woman past a certain age, I have to make an effort to be seen.

There are some definite advantages to this. On a trip to New York last summer, the border agent did not even look at me, let alone ask a single question. I travelled through airports without anyone trying to make eye contact or buy me a drink. On another occasion in the gym a few months ago, I felt self-conscious about lifting weights in the same space as some eighteen year old boys – until I realized that they couldn’t see me at all and I could pretty much have stripped naked and done push-ups in front of them without the slightest tremor to shake their adolescent narcissism.

More generally, how I dress, and the length of time between haircuts goes unnoticed by pretty much everyone; and it probably goes without saying that I can now be friends with men without tension. This is partly age, and partly the fact I am solidly and happily married, ie: safe. Also, people have stopped asking me when I’m going to have children.

On the other hand, wait staff in restaurants treat middle-aged women on their own terribly. This means to be not only ignored, but in some cases I have been refused an available table and deposited in the corner at the bar, even though I am short and hate sitting at the bar more than anything. I know from working in restaurants when I was young that there is a perception that middle-aged women don’t tip and thus are subject to worse services as a result (this, you might note, is a self-fulfilling prophecy). After a certain age, women’s health complaints are simply chalked up to either being fat, or lacking the right hormones. And unless we aggressively pursue our careers, we are more likely to stall out at this point, senior in our knowledge but no longer sought for new projects in the way our male colleagues of the same age are.

I am told by male friends that they too undergo this process in part, but it seems to happen about a decade later. I wonder how much this is connected to pheromones broadcasting our fertility/virility – as the forties are when most women start to edge around menopause, while men don’t enter andropausal states until their mid to late fifties.

If this is the case, I expect I will be pretty much transparent by the time I reach fifty-three, as that is when I predict my menopausal transition will have ended. I know that I am just at the beginning of a process, one designed to show women how un-needed we are once we can no longer produce children.

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After I turned forty, I noticed something else started to happen – which is that I suddenly became visible to women much older than me. (My hair has been almost completely grey since around that time, and since that transition I am often placed as older.) While I was working on my Master’s degree, it seemed that the older women around suddenly took me and my life experiences seriously when I talked, and they more readily shared their stories with me.

At the time I told Brian, “It’s as though a door has swung open, and there’s a party going on that no one told me about.” I noticed, in contrast to one of my classmates who is a decade younger, I had entered into a different phase of community with older women, that she was still outside of.

While I am perceived as “young” in the community where I now live (the average age is 58 on Gabriola), I am no longer seen as having no life experience, and I notice when I go to volunteer in the community, there is an easiness in talking with women in their seventies and eighties that never existed in my younger life. They tell me about their children who have died, the sudden arthritis that challenges their independence, the husbands who no longer exist, the careers they once had.

Is it because I listen differently now? I’m sure that’s at least a part of it. I don’t feel the need to be somewhere else most of the time, and I see that my future lies in these stories – they are guideposts to survival when the unspeakable things of life happen (as they surely will). But I also think that my grey hair is the flag of a ship which has changed course towards another shore.

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We laugh at women who make themselves up extravagantly in their forties to attract younger men (such are the constant jokes about “cougars”). Ha ha. But the onset of invisibility reminds us that there is only death at the end; the start of this process terminates with complete and utter disappearance.

Perhaps forty is too early to begin this contemplation and this sexual acting out is a form of denial – not unlike the trope of the man in his mid-fifties who purchases a ridiculous sports car and younger wife. I’ve served these men in fancy places where I once worked – and they live up to all the obnoxiousness of their stereotype. We think he’s pretty funny too – but we can’t put our finger on quite exactly why it makes us cringe to see it.

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Our little boats bob along this journey, one that has no straight course in the wide open sea. As one aspect of our life becomes unavailable, another becomes possible, but only if we re-set our sights, and let loose some of our sails. Or to put it another way, hurtling towards an external and public mid-life crisis is not the only way to deal with the disregard for middle aged and older people.

Perhaps my growing invisibility gives me permission to turn inward, focus less on the fertile youth I am leaving behind, and take my place in the community of older women to which I increasingly belong. Perhaps this is what it means to become lighter and lighter, letting go of the layers until we are nothing at all.

2 thoughts on “Post #3130: We are all disappearing

  1. Great post – thanks! Another restaurant experience I have now is that servers will exclude whole tables of middle aged women out together, as though we can’t possibly want more than one drink or more food/dessert menus etc. Drives me crazy on the rare time I’m out with a big group to be given a bill before I’ve been asked if we want anything more! And I still tip well in memory of what those jobs are like, but so annoying!

    1. I know exactly what you mean – and I think the problem may actually lie in my pheromone question above. Sometimes it feels as though younger people can only see young people – which you can understand from an evolutionary perspective – like bees to a flower! But like all our baser drives, it is possible to train ourselves to see beyond them – so I don’t give those servers a pass on this behaviour.

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