Sex & Relationships

The Invisible (Older) Woman

Apparently, some people find it’s funny that women over a certain age become invisible. A friend in Arizona who is about to turn 60 told me it’s a running joke in her family that people are always overlooking or ignoring her. “I was at lunch with my family recently and the waitress went around the table taking everyone’s order. Then she walked off without taking mine,” she reports. “I had to get up and find her to give her my order. When I returned, everyone was laughing that here was the proof that I really was invisible.”

But for those of us who have been looked straight through as if we were no more substantial than Casper the Ghost, it’s not funny at all. It’s disconcerting, frustrating, even hurtful. And the most wounding part is when the blind eye comes from someone of our own gender, like the waitress serving my friend’s lunch.

I have long understood that the male gaze would someday fade away, as surely as the headiness of a new shoe purchase does. I’ve braced myself for that, realizing that sex appeal is an accessory that’s mostly the province of the young. But why would other women look at one another without a flicker of human connection, I asked some of my female friends to see what they thought.

Why Women Make Other Women Invisible

Janet Rosen, a 59-year-old literary agent and writer from New York, believes that some women unconsciously feel there is a finite amount of “visibility” to go around.“If women let someone else have some, the feeling is, there isn’t enough for them.” She also thinks women 10 to 15 years younger than her are most guilty of making her disappear. “They seem to be fearful of reaching their 50s and older so they pull out the invisibility shield,” she says. “Obviously being post-menopausal is contagious and they must not acknowledge” the existence of such creatures.

Another friend, Dorae Stevens, 59, from Dripping Springs, TX, thinks feeling invisible may have more to do with what’s going on internally than what someone is (or isn’t) doing to us. “The seasons and roles in my life are changing dramatically,” she says. “In a way, I am rebuilding my own identity, who I am and where I fit in. Maybe I feel invisible to others partly because I don’t recognize myself at the moment.”

I have my own theories, based on my experience as a receiver and (guiltily) an enabler of invisibility. I found myself at one point trying to make friends with the younger women in my Zumba class because in my mind I was one of them. After all, I still feel 29 inside. I didn’t sense that I had anything in common with the “older” women in class—though those “older” women were my peers. I assumed I had nothing to talk about with these women, that we were in different life stages.

But I wasn’t getting much of a response at all from the younger women. It just came to me one day—probably thanks to that huge mirror in the Zumba studio—that there were many other women in that class who looked more like me but I hadn’t really noticed.

I kept thinking, how could I have been so blind? How could I have committed a psycho-social crime that is so often perpetrated against women like me? I began wondering if maybe subconsciously we still want to be in the cool group—like in high school. We want to surround ourselves with people who reflect well on us. It’s as if we think the physical traits of the greater group will rub off. If we associate ourselves with women who are visibly older than we are—grayer hair, deeper wrinkles—maybe people will assume we’re in the same demographic. But if younger people take us into their young crowd, we hope that we’ll absorb some of their vitality.

What We Can Do About It

Since my realization of how I might be culpable in the invisibility game, I’ve deepened my awareness and made a conscious effort to avoid doing that again and to not let it be done to me either. Here’s how I and some other women handle the situation.

Look for gray hair. I am on the hunt for women my age and older and make sure I “see” them. I smile at them, or ask how they’re doing—even if I haven’t ever met them. That acknowledgement builds solidarity. “It’s such a nice way to say, `Hey we’re in this together,’” says Curlin Sullivan, 56, an artist from Savannah, Georgia.

Cultivate friends of different ages. This isn’t high school. Your friendships aren’t based on who sits behind you in home room. This is life, where we can choose to widen our horizons. Younger women can offer a fresh perspective; older women can offer the wisdom that comes from scouting out the road ahead.

Keep it small. Big gatherings are where you’re most likely to feel lost in the crowd. Lisa Kay, 53, of Wimberley, Texas says this, “I try and avoid being in the `circle’ much if at all and prefer one-on-one time with the ones who don’t make me feel invisible.”

Speak up. If you’re feeling invisible, don’t just stand there and let someone’s X-ray vision burn right through you. Introduce yourself. Ask them questions about their lives. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t answer? They excuse themselves and run? That’s a worthwhile risk. After all, aren’t we at that age when we care less about what people think? When we feel lonely and overlooked, we want someone to do something, but the thing is, we are that “someone.” And we can do something. That’s reassuring and when put into practice, rewarding.

Jeannie Ralston is the editor of NextTribe, the online lifestyle magazine for women 45+.





27 responses to “The Invisible (Older) Woman

  1. I’m a 48 year old male. I do see women’s face light up when I make time for them and talk to them and fully envelope to get lost in conversation. But I am the minority most men consider women over 50 used up and discarded like a broken shovel in the garage. I see a role of wisdom for them to help educate and pass on life experiences to younger women there role changes from nurturing families to more of a mentor ship role, Embrace invisibility and consider it a gift. People reflect back and mirror how you present… the change you want to see in others.

    1. Hey Brian, i’ve always looks 20 years younger so it was a hard and fast learning curve for me when I was 45 I was sleeping with a 21 year old and I didn’t know how old he was and he didn’t know how old I was. But after four major life events. Being hit and run by a car during a triathlon cycling training, followed by two surgeries and a third to look forward to and then my mom falling and breaking a hip and then being diagnosed with terminal cancer and then my spending eight months trying to work remotely and do hospice and then getting a new boss who had no clue and then parked me when I came back to work. I lasted eight months and then I returned to a divorce and then my daughter was dangling loose and a gangster took her and eloped. And now you’re telling me I’m supposed to embrace being old. Anybody who went through all of that would be old. And I also moved her entire estate right after the funeral and moved from the East Coast to the Midwest bought a home got a new job and put her stuff in this place and I was supposed to do all of that.All at once and I was supposed to stay thin and pretty and popular and successful

      1. Kelly your response to Brian is a perfect example of why ( in my opinion) there are very few women your age that are interesting to talk to. When the male gaze moves elsewhere, many women turn to navel gazing.

    2. I got old really fast after four major terrible life events. One of them damaging my body and requiring extensive surgeries. I’ve always looked 20 years younger. I feel a great deal of hate when people say what you said because when I was 48 I went out with a 21-year-old who thought I was maybe four years older. It’s a hard learning curve for someone like me. I wasn’t being a cougar I thought he was a lot older than he thought I was a lot younger but we were really into each other. Now I’m just supposed to disappear? I don’t understand this

    3. You are assuming people of had kids and have a ton of life experience. Lots of us don’t really have any more to give than you do. At 48 you probably look older than I do. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say

  2. Hello.
    I am a southern woman living in Vancouver BC. Your article really spoke directly to me.
    A little bit of Mardi Gras in my dressing everyday while blogging,
    my weekly blog has brought me so much joy. Invisibility be GONE!
    Giving ourselves permission to express ourselves with beauty and humor is my thing, yaw’l.
    Find me at my blog or the Instagram account to join the conversation.

  3. I am 63 and I feel like I’ve become invisible. To me, it’s like gaining a super power. I dance in light up shoes at the gym or in the middle of a busy airport and I swear, no one sees me. I can do just about anything crazy and no one will notice. The only thing that’s sad is I feel I am feared by younger women because they don’t want to face if are lucky enough, they will get old too. So all I can say is BOO to them….their time will come soon enough. Life is short! Let your light shine!

  4. Yeah, I have noticed that waiters (men) seem annoyed with older people. I recently felt that way at a very expensive restaurant in Berkeley. The service wasn’t great but younger and people dressed better than my partner and I were given a lot of better treatment. I won’t go back.
    I have had grey hair since my twenties and when I went out with my friends the waiters spent more time looking at them before he got to me. Who cares.
    If people find it funny that we are invisible I would prefer not to be in their company. It is important to hang out with people that don’t treat you that way. I am making direct eye contact with anyone I have contact with in business, restaurants etc. It brings a different response when people see I am directing my attention to them.
    So try that.
    Otherwise the people who don’t want to deal with me as a senior are missing some great conversation and points of view.

  5. People age in different ways, such as how we look, how we function, both mentally and and physically. I am now 83, but look younger. I am mentally alert, but my ability to express myself has changed as I often am looking for a word, a name, etc which slows down communication and probably tries the patience of those younger who are still better communicators. I have friends 15 to 20 years younger and grandchildren who fill my need for more youth in my life. I have friends my age and older who like to remain involved with life, people and activities. Growing older with grace involves accepting any impediment that begins to show up. It involves learning to love the stage you are in as part of a full life. Age may spend more time alone, but if you have learned to be your own good friend you can still feel alive and involved. Keep learning and feeling a sense of awe over this blessed, sacred gift called life.

      1. I’m 61 and look at least 5 years older. I used to be very attractive when I was young and am having a difficult time aging in this age of Botox, cosmetic procedures…
        Some women look ridiculous and very unnatural.
        Why can we not age gracefully?

  6. Hi there! I’m 65, and sometimes invisible, sometimes not. I dress with some flair and have platinum hair, so stand out when I want to, generally. But when I am invisible, I find there’s some power in it. It frees me to see, instead of focusing on being seen. I learn a lot that way about other people. I’m definitely with Kathleen, though, on speaking up when you feel invisible and don’t want to be. Make a joke out of it, if you’re in the mood. It’s a teachable moment, one that’ll be more likely to take if it comes with a dose of humor.

    Also, Sylvia — maybe this is a good time in your life to start building female friendships. I don’t know what I’d have done all my life without all my gal pals. I love them! Other women are a huge support in traversing this rocky terrain of aging while female in America.

  7. Another thing, I no longer place myself in situations where I am likely to be ignored. I know in advance places and groups where I am likely to feel invisible. Being that I am very sensitive, I simply don’t subject myself to it. Sometimes, but not always, it’s better to stay in one’s comfort zone, even if it means one feels lonely. But what’s a lonelier feeling than being among people yet being alone? To be invisible is to be alone and, perhaps, lonely. We all need to be able to relate to people who share things similar to our experiences and situation. One is free to force oneself on any group of people one wants, but there sometimes comes a rude awakening, which hurts.

  8. I’m also of the view that we should stay in our lane. Whenever I’m with people younger than myself, male or female, I feel maternal or grandmotherly towards them, as though I should mentor or offer guidance in some way. It’s similar to our children, with whom we shouldn’t be “friends.” Warm, cordial, polite, civil, etc., yes! But if an older man is friends with much younger men or women, even now, with all the other societal norms that are being thrown out the window, it’s frowned upon. Why should it be that older women should have “friends of all ages”? It’s silly, and there will be occasions when the difference in age will become stark. It is better to befriend people who are of one’s generation or no more than ten years one’s younger. That way, it’s easier to relate and share similar memories. I once had a conversation with a twenty-five-year-old in which caused me to mention a television show that was on well-before she was even born, and she was quick to say that it had to be a show that preceded her life on earth, which it was. Neither could she discuss with me the best feminine hygiene products for that special time of the month, since I’m no longer getting my cycle. She began the conversation, and then, looking into my face, stopped suddenly and changed the topic. I’m sure she shared the incident with a friend her age with whom she could chat about the best tampons and period pads on the market.

    I don’t think that young women are blind to older women because of fear for the future, when they, too, will be old (if they’re lucky). It’s simply a matter of being able to relate. When an old/older person tries to behave generations younger, she is in denial and purposely trying not to act her age. I wish that I could get on and off the bus with the same speed and comfort as someone much younger than I am, but I can’t. The “serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is a great and noble thing. Acceptance of our stage in life is a point of achieving a certain degree of peace.

    Having no other choice, we should be about embracing our age and being wise. Old age is not the time to become foolish because we wish things were other than what they are, so we try to force them to be what they are not. It is voluntary self-delusion which, if one is in one’s right mind, one will avoid.

    1. While some subjects are certainly more relatable for similarly aged women, surely there is more to relate to another woman about than menstrual products and t.v shows? When I was younger I thrived on my relationships to older women, and still thrive on relationships to women older than myself. Indeed I enjoy relating to people of all walks of life. Certainly you are not obliged to, but there is a vast array of topics and human conditions to talk about with our fellow humans.

  9. Where older women are most invisible is in the world of the media. Just like Blacks recognized their beauty when Black is Beautiful was radiated back to them — we older women need to see naturally aging role models in the media, film, ads, etc. and know that Age, too, can be beautiful.

    Truth is men are allowed to age; women are not. We continue to be objectified by the culture. I look around and see amazingly beautiful naturally aging women — many more beautiful old women than old men. And perhaps a piece of that is because we have been valued for our youth and beauty and as a result take better care of ourselves. I don’t know — I don’t have the answers. But I totally understand feeling invisible as an old woman.

    Until the advertisers and media wake up and begin showing images of naturally aging older adults, especially women, many of us will continue to feel invisible. We need to see ourselves mirrored in the media with more images Annette Benings, Charlotte Ramplings, Judi Denchs, Maggie Smiths to begin to own and respect the relevance and beauty that comes with age. Jane Fonda as a role model for an 80 year old thanks only to extreme surgical enhancement is an insult to all of us….

    1. Mentioning the menstrual cycle and an old TV show was just to make the point that on some matters, an older woman may be out of touch and can’t really relate to a younger woman, except to reminisce., unless on the recent past, not when the younger one may not have even been born But she can speak about female matters based on experience. I agree that, yes, it’s nice to be friendly with people of all ages. But it’s unrealistic to fail to acknowledge that if you’re an older woman among younger women, you’re going to be and feel the odd-woman out. You will feel invisible because the younger women can better relate to one another generationally. They speak a lingo an older woman might not understand and subscribe to more liberal views and social practices. Anyone can try to fit into demographics of which they are on the outside, and to an extent, they will succeed.

  10. Also keep in mind that we’re not all the same, that some people age slower than others. You may be more attractive than another woman your age. But you should prepare yourself mentally for the time when that will no longer be the case. If you keep living, it’ll happen, trust me. There comes a time when it is incumbent on all of us to become less vain and find deeper, more spiritual values. The Bible speaks of age without wisdom, which we should all heed, as well as Ecclesiastes.

  11. this article is somewhat simplistic…and it is irritating. i am 75. tho i did not grow up in the depression, my parents did and the effects of being raised by parents who also experienced ww2 profoundly affected my childhood. those elders who are older than i am experienced life at a more intense level. speaking for myself, the last 50 years held changes in civil rights, wars, education, and most explosively, the field of technology, pharmaceuticals and population density.

    as elders, our senses are diminished and the active generations of today, accustomed to fast paced dialog, have no patience or desire to slow down for us. being arbitrarily friendly may work for the nouveau elder but eventually isolation from inattention comes to us all… unless, of course, we are so wealthy the world dares not render us invisible

  12. Hi…I’m also a contributor to Senior Planet and found this while looking for my dental article to share with sources. I must stop and comment. With all due respect, I think some of these people are taking things way too personally.
    I’m over 60, single, still get asked out on dates, got flirted with at the bakery the other day by a handsome dude my son’s age and have friends of really all ages. I have never ever felt invisible. But I reach out–I talk to everyone, as a friend I traveled with recently noted. I’m friendly. I think some of this is more the woman’s issue–and believe me, I have my share of issues–than the people she
    encounters. The waitress? I think it was an oversight, pure and simple. I was a waitress once and it’s tough to remember everything! Why didn’t the woman say, right there, hey you forgot my order? Yoo hooo, here I am…Don’t I look hungry?
    I’m into don’t see drama where there is none! Hope this is helpful.

    1. You seem to be in sync with what I, perhaps inartfully, tried to express. Eventually, age differences become keen, especially with younger people today. They don’t have the patience to deal with the elderly, and they certainly lack respect for us. When there are huge societal changes socially speaking, there is a tendency to spread it around to make it cover all social relationships. If age no longer matters (like gender or sexual orientation), then younger people interpret it to mean that they no longer have to respect older people, yet at the same time, age still matters to them and everyone else, or ageism wouldn’t exist. Just a few years ago, when I took a class with a majority of very young people, I wasn’t invited to attend the celebration of the end of the course. While it stung, I understood why, but I no longer attempt to socialize out of my age group.

      I’m sorry if I’ve annoyed anyone here by taking the conversation beyond the subject matter of the invisibility that many older women feel. I only did so because the article mentioned the instance when she was overlooked by a waiter at a restaurant while she was among younger women. What are the odds she would’ve had that hurtful experience if she’d been among her contemporaries? It also goes to the lack of respect for elders I mentioned above.

    1. I’m over sixty as well, but the only visibility that concerns me has to do with the opposite sex. I couldn’t care less than other women find me invisible. I never had female friends to begin with, so I really don’t care very much about it now.

      You may not feel invisible to men now, but give it time: It’ll happen. No one stands still in time.

      1. Some women don’t have the luxury of choosing with whom to spend time. Those who have to work for a living are usually surrounded by a much younger group of women as well as men of all ages and often work for people much younger. If invisibility begins around 50 or so, that leaves women with an agonizing 14 years in the workplace.

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