This post is going to be a little different. You can either thank or complain to my son Alex about this. He is the one who challenged, nay dared me, to step out of my comfort zone. His philosophy on writing is that in order to grow as writers we have to climb out of our box and try a different shape. This way we develop our skills to include new ideas and modes of expression. In a way I agree with him, and as one who never backs down from a challenge, I agreed. So, here we go; it’s going to get personal. We are going to talk about the invisible woman, or to be succinct, how society ignores women over 50.
The idea of a women as invisible creatures never occurred to me prior to Saturday, but now it makes so much sense. It is why I’ve been stuck in my personal life for a couple of years now. It is why, when I go out of my way to connect with people, I come home feeling isolated.
The idea that society tends to devalue woman as they age hit me square between the eyes last Saturday afternoon. This is not a concept I’ve developed, nor am I the first woman to notice it. Hollywood and corporate women have been talking about this for years. It is a non-issue for most of us, until it happens to us.
My son asked me to join him Saturday for a belated birthday celebration. He found out that the local university was hosting a mini “Make a Fair”. An event designed to bring inventors, craftsmen, and Steampunk exhibits under one roof. Alex knew I would love it so off we went.
It started off on a high note. As Alex paid for our tickets I filled out a waiver so that we could participate in the interactive events. I gave an exaggerated groan when it came to writing my age down. I told the volunteer that this was the first time I had to write “51”. As much as I try to view age as just a number, it hit me that this was not a number I relished. Good god, I should be thinking about retiring, not starting a new career. The nice lady laughed and said, “I should be proud”, as I didn’t look 51. I smiled but then thought, “What’s wrong with looking 51”? It was a question I mulled as we walked down the aisle towards the first of the science exhibits.
When we came to the fossil exhibit I didn’t hesitate to ask the young man to tell me about them. During my first two years of college I waffled back and forth between science and history. History won, but I took as many natural science courses as time and my schedule allowed. I knew what I was looking at but it didn’t stop me from asking questions with child like wonder. Strangely my questions were met with vague dumbed- down answers. The young man turned to Alex and started to talk to him as if he had asked similar questions, only this time giving more in-depth answers. The funny thing was, Alex was not standing near me. He was a few feet away,less interested in the pieces than my reaction to the exhibit. When I asked the young man for information on the museum that housed the fossils he gave a brochure to Alex. It was as if I were a ghost that this man was determined to ignore.
Next we came to a man holding what I can only describe as a fire stick. It was a long decorated stick with a small torch attached to the top. I giggled when I saw it, because it was less science, more Burning Man apparel (if you don’t know what Burning Man is, look it up. Nevada is ground zero for this hippie event). I laughed and said to the fire stick man, “So, teach me about fire.” He responded by saying, Well, it burns”. He then pushed a button on the stick to show me how it worked. When I asked the follow up question, “What do you use it for?”, he turned to my son and said, “Here is when you’d use it”. He then went on to ask my son and his girlfriend their names and demonstrated the stick’s useful features. (As a pitchman he must of learned that this often helps sell a product). Once again, I was ignored.
This theme of talking to Alex while I was the one who asked questions continued. To be fair, some of the vendors talked to me, but only after noticing Alex’s seemingly disinterest. Alex had also observed my invisibility and tried to counter it by disengaging from any conversation. It made our visit a little awkward and not at all as fun as we had hoped. As an experiment I tried light flirting with an older man who was showing off his Steampunk car. Hell, I would have taken light banter, but nope, he answered my questions politely as if he was talking to a child.
You might think of this as an isolated event. It could have been that I had an off day, but it wasn’t. This has become my social life. It’s the social life of my friends as well. We can go out determined to have a good time, determined to connect with others on a human level only to be marginalized and ignored. Oh sure, we are fawned over by sales clerks and waiters, as we are the generation with money, but other than that we are invisible to the rest of the world. We no longer have strangers opening doors for us. We no longer have men vying for our attention at parties. We have become the ghosts that people walk by, noticed only in peripheral vision if at all.
Why? What happens to a woman when she turns 50? My roommate gave me an honest answer as to why men no longer open doors or smile across the room. To put it bluntly, he said, “In general men do not see women over 50 as possible sex partners”. He went to say that men still view women in their 40 this way, but there is something that stops them from giving any thought to a woman over 45. This doesn’t explain the female lack of interaction, other than to think maybe we are no longer perceived as threats, so there is little motivation to engage in friendly rivalry. Or perhaps society just doesn’t know what to do with women over 50.
All societies rely on each member to contribute something to the greater good. Those who are young are looked upon to either contribute by procreating, thus ensuring the continuation of society, or by being productive workers, ensuring that the society thrives. Those over 50 are viewed as burdens; something society will soon need to take care of, rather than look to for contribution. No wonder both older men and women slowly recede into the shadows, men too at some point (though many over 60 are still considered “hot”) find themselves invisible.
I will not go gently into that good night. I still have many things I want to do. I want to finish my book. I want to start a podcast. I want to teach. While you won’t find me dressing like a 20 year old or acting younger than I am, you will find me having a good time. I will not become a bitter old woman. If at some point you see an “older” lady rocking a brown bowler hat, you’ve found me. Come over and say hi, or at least smile. I refuse to be invisible.