Summer 2015 and I am six months into my forties. It’s a balmy Friday evening and I’m at the bar at Lewisham Street Feast.
Cute twenty-something barman: “That’s a really nice dress.”
Him: “It’s Cos isn’t it?”
Me: “Yes!” (Impressed)
Him: “I ironed it for my Mum earlier.”
I don’t think I stopped giggling for about half an hour. When do cute barmen stop noticing you and start noticing that you’re wearing their Mum’s dress?! Joking aside, becoming invisible is the great catastrophe that befalls women as they creep into middle age. Or it is if you believe the Daily Mail, which last week claimed “midlife invisibility stings, whatever the feminists say.” Urgh!
Summer 2016 and I’m 18 months into my forties. It’s a balmy Thursday evening and I’m sat in my garden, savouring a glass of white wine and thinking about a conversation with a friend.
Notes > 25th August 2016, 22.35.
Am I invisible?
It’s taken me another 18 months to get any further than that indignant ‘No!’ To find the right way to say that I don’t feel like I am becoming invisible. I feel more visible than I have ever been. Not to young men serving me drinks or the ones who to used to beep at me in the street and now drive by, oblivious. But in my life that I have chosen for myself, I do. I feel a little guilty that my experience is out of kilter with friends who feel differently and while I understand the reasons they give for feeling invisible, to me they are more visible and more vital than they have ever been.
There are many good reasons why women feel they become invisible as they age. We rarely see ourselves in positions of power or represented on the screen. There have been a total of 489 women MPs ever; there are 442 male MPs sitting in the current parliament alone. Just seven of the top 100 FTSE CEOs are women. A review by Harriet Harman in 2010 found that just 18% of TV presenters over the age of 50 were women. An analysis of 414 scripted movies, TV shows and digital series released between September 2014 and August 2015 found that men made up 80% of characters over the age of 40. When we do not see ourselves reflected in our leaders or in our cultural world we learn not to see ourselves.
But why, despite all of this, do I not feel the invisibility creep? I have mulled it over often and have my conclusions but I wondered how these would dovetail with the experiences of friends. So last night I messaged a few.
“I don’t feel invisible at all in work but that’s because I’m in a senior role I guess so it’s probably the only place I’m totally 100% visible!”
“I think being a mum made me invisible. People refer to you only as someone’s mum.”
“As much as I’m body positive and accept others for whatever they look like I miss the person I once looked like, and am at odds with the exponential speed with which [youthful] attributes diminish.”
“There’s a second-tier-citizen feel to it [motherhood] that feels a lot like invisibility. This bled over into physicality in that I completely forgot that I might have any sexual or physical appeal or power, outside of my own loving relationship I felt entirely separated from that whole notion.”
The benchmarks by which women judge themselves so harshly – work, motherhood, our looks and our sex appeal, not to mention our ability to be a success in all of them all at the same time – are all areas that at the moment I am at peace with. I did not want children so I am not experiencing that perceived invisibility. More significantly I am not juggling job and offspring. My business is a success and within my sector I am very visible. My relationship with my body, my looks and with sex is improving with age, in a large part due to this blog and the people and experiences it has connected me to. I think the reason I procrastinated for so long over this post is that I did not want to sound smug. But I am not smug, I just opted out of one big life choice so, for now, my experiences are different, possibly easier and I have more time to focus in on my priorities.
And the thing about the women who answered my questions, and those I did not have chance to message in my rush to write this post? They are spectacular! By the standards of visibility that they personally judge themselves by they may feel they are diminishing but my God, they are not. They are raising kickass feminist daughters and sons. They are looking after ageing parents. They are in senior positions. They are running businesses. They have created happy homes. They are beautiful. They are hot. They have contributed directly to the improvements in how I feel about myself. Through their friendships I am more visible. They are not invisible.
Zooming back out, are things going to improve? I hope so. I hope that #metoo and #timesup create lasting social change. I hope that soon women will no longer be judged on their looks, their ability to ’juggle’ or ‘have it all’. In the UK, today was the deadline on companies that employ more than 250 people releasing their gender pay gap data. I hope that pay transparency will finally result in equal pay for equal work. For single women that means they will be just as well off as a single man doing the same job. For women and men who have families the work/childcare split will no longer need to be decided on financial viability alone. Last year the Office of National Statistics data showed that the number of childfree women has doubled in a generation. Those women are women like me. I employ a 67-year-old woman and two working Mums, all of whom work the hours that suit them. I hope that the rising tide lifts all boats. I hope the increasing number of childfree women in senior positions afford mothers more flexibility. I hope older women in positions of power and influence offer other older women opportunities.
I’m going to give (almost) the last word to Tabitha Rayne, who said this:
“When I was young I heard from women in their fifties that they simply disappear. I decided a long time ago to make sure it never happened to me. However, now I’m in my forties I’m not feeling the same need to be in the limelight. I am happier to sit back, watch others take the lead. I actually don’t care now if I gently fade away. Maybe we make ourselves invisible? Self-contented ninjas. Shadow warriors of maturity.”
Lady! If you don’t want the limelight, that’s fine, but don’t ever think you don’t take the lead. You shine. You make beautiful art and wear your heart on your sleeve. You are leading a tribe into 30 days of orgasms! Self-contented ninjas and warriors of maturity I’m on board with, but there is no shadow. Until the world shines a light on the ageing woman let’s all reflect each other’s light back so women never feel invisible.