Invisible Women

In the middle of a trendy, hip, upscale restaurant a woman of 55 came unhinged, setting shock waves blasting through the affluent clientele.  I wasn’t there, but my friend, Marlys, was among the five women seated with the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

With her flare for sharing dramatic details, Marlys painted the picture for me of what happened to her friend, Stephanie.

Stephanie, as envisioned by the artist Joan Miro

 

“Stephanie reached out and grabbed the waiter as he passed our table.  She didn’t just call out to him, or wave her hand to get his attention.  No, she reached out, grabbed his tattooed arm and yanked him over to our table.”

“She started in a low growl, the words rumbling from the back of her throat,” she continued.  “Stephanie said, ‘We’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes.  Not 10.  Not 15.  Twenty minutes.’

Then she looked around the table at us for confirmation.  We nodded in agreement.  We weren’t about to do anything to enflame her further.”

Marlys continued her description.  “Stephanie’s voice started climbing higher and louder.  The people at the tables next to us stopped talking and turned to stare.  She said, ‘Twenty minutes we’ve sat here, politely waiting for water, for menus, for you to take our drink order.’

‘In that 20 minutes, they,’ and here Stephanie jabbed her arm straight out toward two young women seated next to our table, who leaned away from her pointing finger, ‘they have gotten cocktails, a bread basket and an order of your organic heirloom tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella.  From you,’ and here her arm jabbed at the waiter.”

Marlys sat back in her chair, pausing to let the full drama of the scene sink in.

Of course, I wanted to hear the rest.  “What happened next?  Was that it?” I asked.

“Oh, no, Stephanie wasn’t done yet.” Marlys continued.  “By this time, no one in the restaurant was talking.  All eyes were on Stephanie when she said, ‘You just look around this table, at me and these five women.’”

Marlys said to me, “Well, Georgia, picture this.  Everyone, I mean everyone, in the restaurant looked at the six of us grey-haired matrons.  Five of us wanted to slide under the table.  But Stephanie’s not about to give up the spotlight yet.

‘Twenty-five years ago you’d be falling all over yourself to wait on these six fine women,’ she said to the white-faced waiter.  ‘You couldn’t have gotten to our table fast enough!  Now you don’t even see us!’”

Which is the point of Marlys’ story.  Stephanie has disappeared.  No one sees her anymore.  Men don’t admire her as she passes them on the sidewalk.  Clerks in department stores don’t look at her.  Waiters forget she’s seated at their table.  Even her own husband hasn’t really looked at her in years.

Around the country, a certain kind of woman in her mature middle age has become invisible.  Her hair is graying, her body is thickening, her shoulders are slumping and her eyes no longer seek the gaze of other eyes.

An invisible matron, as sculpted by an artist of ancient Rome

 

I’m not invisible.  Thanks to my stylist, my hair is a beautiful natural blonde.  Thanks to my father’s genes, I’m tall and narrow.  Thanks to my mother’s lifelong example, I wear the same size dress that I wore 30 years ago.

None of that is why I’m not one of the invisible women.  I have my own story to tell, about being visible.

After a night at the theater, I’m standing by myself in one of those slow lines waiting to get up to the parking ticket payment machine.  Behind me are three trendy young things; two girls in boots, short skirts, plenty of cleavage, one boy with one of those boxy visored caps pulled over his forehead.

The girls flounce away from him in a snit, trailing testy words behind them.  He responds with something so short and sharp that I can’t help myself.  I turn to face him, laugh and say, “That was so funny!”

He’s startled, pulls his head back, away from me.  Then he sees I mean it.  I’m laughing, happily, so he laughs, too.

The girls spit out angrily, in unison, “What’re you laughing at?”

He says, “This lady’s laughing, she thought I was funny,” then he sends off another cogent riposte in their direction.

Which was so cleverly put that I turn to face him again.  I say, “I get it.  You and I just saw the same play.  I can hear it in your words.  You just saw The God of Carnage, didn’t you?”

He’s laughing even harder now as he nods his head “yes”.

We’re having too much fun for the girls, so they forget their snit and come join us.  Turns out they had just read God of Carnage in its original language in their French class.  All four of us get wrapped up in talking about the differences they heard in the translation, then we get up to the two pay machines.

They complete their transaction in a flash.  I fumble, as usual, feeding my credit card in every way possible except the right one.  I’m nervous about holding up the line and cast an apologetic glance over my shoulder.  My three hip new friends are standing off to the side.

I finally pull my receipt from the machine and turn to face them.  We all smile and they head off, running up the stairs.

Bless their hearts, they were waiting to make sure that grandma was okay.  I wasn’t invisible to them.  Not because I am tall, slim, stylish.  That’s not at all what they saw through their 20-year-old eyes.  They saw grandma.  But a grandma who was confidant when she looked them in the eyes, who was interested in what they said, who engaged with them.  For those few minutes, I was highly visible in their world.

Being invisible is not inevitable with age.  I swear my 75-year-old widowed mother was never invisible.

She’d walk up the maître d’s stand in any restaurant, me trailing behind this tiny little woman, cock her head to the side a bit, turn those dancing eyes on the person looking down at her, smile that slightly mischievous smile of hers and say, “My dear, I do believe you have a reservation for two for Mrs. Stone.”

All the attention was on her.  My 35-year-old self trailed in her wake as chairs were pulled away from the table then pushed back in with her seated in them, menus were flourished, napkins were spread out on her lap.

She was always so present, so there.  Sure, she kept her figure and her weekly hair appointment throughout her life.  But her real antidote to invisibility was to be always directly engaged with everyone around her.

No need to be an invisible woman.  Not to anyone.  Not if you don’t want to be.

 Here are some questions for you female readers.  Do you feel invisible?  If you do, what’s it like?  If you’re not, why aren’t you?

To my male readers, are the women of a certain age in your life invisible to you?  Why?

Oh, and by the way, the men will have the spotlight for my next posting.

 

21 thoughts on “Invisible Women

  1. No person of any age becomes “invisible” with out his own cooperation and connivance. I have had experiences similar to Stephanie’s…in poorly managed restaurants, and the one you had in the parking queue. I have heard men and women complain of becoming invisible, but when I look at them….I can usually see why. There’s no fire…there’s no twinkle

    • Great anecdote, J.R.! You know what else? I find in most cases the one social element that makes the HUGEST difference between seeing/noticing and not seeing/noticing is… a smile. Our mind and subconsciousness gravitate toward that which makes us feel good, no matter how subtle the element. A simple smile goes so far. It engages, it acknowledges, and it inspires. Who wants to look at a cold face? Limp handshake, anyone?

  2. Oh, you are so right, Georgia. Visibility / Invisibility is a state of mind. And as the Sphinx in “Mystery Men” might have said, “If YOU are aware of your presence, your presence is aware of you!” Anyway, The Invisible Boy was only invisible if no one was looking…

    • Hi Big Fan: These photos and the written description of the exhibit express the thoughts that motivated me to write this piece. I imagine that many of the women reading this post will see how they look, how they feel and how they think they look to others in these pictures. The men will recognize in these images their friends, family and co-workers.

      Thanks for sharing.

  3. I experienced this feeling of invisibility a few years ago. I took my daughter to Seattle after she graduated from high school. She was 18 and I was just 50. I worked out at the gym regularly and felt good about myself. Yet, as we walked along the waterfront, I noticed the eyes of the men gravitating toward my girl, even men my age, and older. She didn’t seem to notice. I felt a little sad about entering middle-aged and no man in my life. But, I also felt happy for my daughter, to be on the cusp of womanhood. I’m inspired by your post, Georgia. We don’t have to let ourselves be invisible. Thank you!

  4. Hi Georgia,

    Thanks, once again, for presenting us with a story that opens the door to another complex topic. After pondering your question to your male readers, “are the women of a certain age in your life invisible to you and if so why, I started to realize that yes, I am guilty of participating in the perpetration of this phenomenon. Admitting this I started to wonder why? Is my participation the result of my upbringing or the result of the influence of higher social and cultural factors.

    If you look at the money in your wallet, consider the name of the street you live on, think about the great monuments in Washington, D.C., or your favorite Hollywood director, chances are you will be seeing and thinking men.

    Women make up 47% of the non-farm U.S. workforce and 50.7% of the U.S. population. 57% of college graduates are women. Only one of the 45 major monuments in Washington D.C. honors women, and women make up only nine out of the one hundred statues in National Statuary Hall. About 7% of traffic circles in D.C. are named after women, a trend representative of street names nationwide. Only 21% of U.S. postage stamps produced from 2000 to 2009 feature an image of a woman. And all U.S. paper money features men.

    In spite of all the gains women have made in the past half century, they continue to be absent from the symbols, icons, images and voices that fill our world.

    The “Invisible Woman” phenomenon is not just about street names, statues and coins. The phenomenon includes disparities across politics, media and arts. Women hold 16.8% of seats in the U.S. Congress, while less than 20 female world leaders are in power. Women hold only 3% of positions of clout in mainstream media. Less than 10% of TV sports coverage in the United States is devoted to female athletes. And of the 250 top-grossing movies produced last year, 7% were directed by women. And that’s just a small sampling. I believe this is the basis for the “Invisible Woman” phenomenon and it’s pervasive.

    We have inherited a legacy of male-dominated monuments and street names, a by-product of thinking women had less to contribute to society than men. These shadows of the past still permeate our lives. They need to be replaced.

    We tell our children that they can be anything they want to be, but the “Invisible Woman” phenomenon narrows their vision. Our sons need to see women fairly represented in your society if they are to embrace a culture where everyone is valued when they grow up. And if all our daughters see and hear is men, what does this tell them about themselves and their position in the world?

    For this phenomenon to be relegated to the halls of history, we must work with our children and our youth to instill the reality that all of us, regardless of sex, are equal contributors to the fabric of our society.

    We cannot allow this phenomenon to continue to permeate our lives. My hope is that my two daughters experience with the “Invisible Women” phenomenon will be in a history class and not a restaurant.

    Thanks Georgia for opening this door.

    John

    • Hi John: Your comment has me off on a new track here, but one that I’ve given a lot of thought to lately, and probably bored my friends with. An article from The November issue of The Atlantic Monthly is what set me off on this track: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/. You don’t mention your daughters’ ages, but this topic could have great significance in their lives.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      • They are three and five years of age and, after reading the Atlantic Monthly article, I am now, not sure what kind of world I have brought them into. I will take the afternoon off and reflect. Sharing the article is more than appreciated.

        John

  5. Hi Georgia,

    First let me say I really enjoy your diary. The way you tell a tale is captivating and inspiring. I always look forward to your new postings.

    Now to answer your question, do I feel invisible? In our society which sees and values younger women (under 50) for their beauty and energy and older women (over 65) for their wisdom and character, women in that twilight zone of 50-65 have ample opportunity to become invisible.
    In the eyes of a youth-fixated culture, a woman who is no longer young is afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older for fear of becoming unimportant and unnoticed. All of this comes at a time when there are not only physical changes but also hormonal and emotional ones. It’s no wonder we struggle to redefine ourselves during this time of transition.
    We are only invisible if we choose to be. We can allow society to perceive us as one dimensional women: middle-aged, middle-class and middle-of-the-road. Or, we can claim our power, our spirit, sass and style and become a heroine by refusing to let a myth limit our perception of ourselves.
    We can’t control what society believes about us. We can control what we believe about ourselves. Ultimately that will change what society believes.
    We are all extra-ordinary, ordinary women with the power to define our destiny and create an age of new beginnings where the fruits of our longevity are valued and we become more comfortable with whom we are. This is the path I have chosen and as a result, I am not invisible. I am visible and I have become my own heroine.

    Thanks again Georgia for being a true Visible Lady.

    Cindy

    • Hi Cindy: I like what you say about claiming our power, our spirit, sass and style. Sounds to me like we are on a similar journey.

  6. I feel less invisible now, a week away from 50, than I did 5 years ago. I think the difference is that I am completely comfortable with who I am, much more so than I was at 45. I don’t CARE about the younger girls, and I will assert myself and be myself no matter what. Yes, some are dismissive of middle aged women, but some are also intrigued. You have to own it!

  7. Recently I was at a parade and out of the crowd of thousands I spotted her – someone that I knew from a long time ago and from another place. This was the second time that I spotted her in a crowd of people, in the years that followed after both of us left that place where we knew each other.

    I walked over and said hello — we sat and chatted about life and the time we knew each other. While we chatted, I looked at her and saw the same beautiful woman that I first met 24 years ago. This woman is not invisible, she caught my eye in a split second and I knew it was her.

    • Hi Louis: How lovely of you to share this. I imagine this woman would be touched to know your reaction seeing her.

  8. I was just thinking about this today. I believe that we become invisible to the outside world when we ourselves do not see who we are. And are too afraid to show our True Self to the world.
    I grew up in a time when my mother told me “children should be seen and not heard.” I felt unseen and unheard throughout most of my life. When actually, I had tons of male attention, constant compliments and positive feedback….but it came from the programming of my inner computer.
    Now, at 59, I am consciously seeing myself differently and feel like I am finally in a world where I am being seen for my true colors….because I am daring to share them.
    The older I get, the more I see that our inner worlds define our experiences in the outside world.
    While it’s true, men aren’t stopping dead in their tracks over me like in my younger years. But I am connecting with everyone–men and women, young and old, at a deeper, more satisfying level….which means more to me anyway.
    Thank you for expressing this subject in such an articulate and stimulating way. I see you and hear you.
    -Wendi Knox

    • Hi Wendy: Thanks for your insight on aging gracefully and not being invisible. This is the delight of writing a blog – I enjoy the comments I receive as much as, if not more than, the posts I write myself.

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