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+.