I didn’t notice at first. It’s hard to sense the lack of a thing, like when you don’t realize your headache is gone until an hour after it starts to recede.
It’s not like I’d ever been a head-turner. Reasonably attractive, I’ve never stood out in the ways that make people either excited or uncomfortable. But I was pleasing enough (and pleasant enough) that I’d gather grins and glances.
But somewhere in my early 50s, people just stopped noticing me.
I started to have to say “Hello?” at the register to get the cashier’s attention. As I repeated my coffee order, I could see their eyes moving past me, lighting on younger, bolder, more interesting people.
“This is it,” I thought. “I’ve become invisible.”
I used to be visible. The attention I got from men ranged from appreciative smiles to flirting to catcalls that often turned to anger when I didn’t react the way they wanted. It could be nice, until it wasn’t, and it was tricky to see the line until it had been crossed.
Some guys flirted, and it felt sweet and sexy and fun. Others just gave me the creeps. The same behavior from different men could feel very different, which made navigating these encounters tricky. Constant vigilance is exhausting.
And sometimes I just didn’t want to be bothered. I wanted to go about my business without being sized up by entitled men who act as if you’ve been placed on the earth to please them. And that you should be grateful when they deign to notice you.
Google “women,” “50” and “invisible,” and you’ll get two kinds of results. The first will tell you that yes, it’s true, women stop being noticed in middle age. The next will give you all kinds of advice for beating the odds by staying relevant. Not surprisingly, that means staying relevant to men, the arbiters of power and bestowers of good fortune.
I grew up with casual sexism, as well as all those other isms. I learned early on that I was expected to smile, and prevaricate, and laugh along with misogynist jokes. My intrinsic pleaser fought with my internal rebel. I twinkled, I raged.
I wanted the male gaze, and I hated it. I was ready for love, ready for sex, and I wanted boys to notice me. But in order to be seen, I had to run the gauntlet of male cruelty. I’ve been busty since age 16. “Healthy set of … lungs!” said Paul. “I like your shirt ― especially the front,” said Blaine.
Jokes about my period, comments on my body, the razor-thin line to walk between being a prude and a slut; honestly, I wouldn’t wish female adolescence on anyone. Actually, that’s a lie. There are a lot of men who would benefit from being forced into a “Freaky Friday” situation with a teenage girl.
I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with the guy who would become my first serious boyfriend. We were listening to music ― my music. Lou Reed came on, and my soon-to-be-paramour asked, “Do you know who this is?”
And did I answer then as I would now? “Um yeah ― I made this tape.”
I paused, shy, and suddenly worried that “Walk on the Wild Side” might indeed be sung by someone I couldn’t identify.
At 19, I was constantly second-guessing myself, worrying about the way I was perceived. And that’s the black beating heart of it: These boys could tank my self-confidence with a word. How did they do it? They seemed endowed by their creator with a sense of self-assurance that I couldn’t muster. That must be what it is to walk the earth as a man.
It’s so exhausting to be a woman in the world. And it can still be scary, still requires vigilance. But I no longer feel that I’m being constantly evaluated, and it’s a huge relief.
I have so much more space in my head. Other people’s opinions have become less important over time in general. But when you’re not being watched, you’ve got a little more space in which to observe. And what I saw was an enormous number of people whose opinions don’t matter in the least.
Here’s what I’ve learned: People who love you think you’re beautiful. They care about your feelings. They’re interested in what you have to say. Those who ignore me, don’t matter to me. Their opinions don’t count. I decide if I’m relevant or interesting or valuable, not them.
So I’m embracing middle age, with its pains and surprises. Do I wish I looked the way I did at 30? Well sure, I’m human. But it doesn’t torment me. It’s the mirror I want to please, not the marketplace.
A few years ago I bought my teenage daughters T-shirts that say “Women Don’t Owe You Shit.” It’s everything I wanted to tell the world when I was 17, only the world didn’t want to hear that from me.
At 57, I have simply ceased to care. Sure, there’s a little disappointment to feeling like I’m no longer interesting. But on balance it’s just such a relief to walk down the street carelessly. I’m not braced for unwanted attention. No one invades my personal space.
No one has told me to smile in at least a decade.
It turns out I like flying under the radar. There are a lot of other extremely cool women hanging out with me down here, all of us equally invisible. And that, at last, is a group whose opinions I’m truly interested in.
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