Invisible Women

I was walking to work the other day with my friend Mima, and I was telling her a story about being ignored in a local butcher shop. I mentioned, “you know, the invisible middle-aged woman” to which she replied “we are middle-aged?”

The story involved a “chi-chi locally grown, ethically raised meat shop” which typically has stellar service. But this day, I happened to go in midday when there was only one other person in the shop. One male clerk was assisting the other male customer. Another male clerk was in the back and after a minute or two started making his way to the front. I thought to help me, but he started chatting with the other customer. The other customer now had two clerks helping him for what seemed like a long time and I decided I didn’t need the chicken sausages I was planning to buy for dinner. One of the clerks saw me start to leave and he said “I’ll be a minute” and I said “it’s OK, I don’t think he needs both of you helping him so long while I’m waiting, but thanks.”

It may sound as though I am impatient and testy on occasion. This is true. However, I am conscious that as women get older they feel that they become increasingly invisible. In fact, later that day, I was at Metro picking up stuff for dinner. There was a massive lineup to get out because of the after-work crowd. These lines typically move pretty quickly, but I noticed a woman out of the corner of my eye, who had clearly been having a bad day. She was probably 10 years older than me, so I mean, who knows what type of slights she already experienced that day. She had clearly run out of patience that day and upon eyeing the lineup, she loudly exclaimed “this is f*cking ridiculous and dropped her bananas and a couple of other items in a huff and stormed out of the shop. I see and hear you, sister, and I hope your day got better after that.

When walking on a crowded sidewalk, or in the underground path, I often think in my head “do you not see me?” when I am trying to yield slightly to the right, but the other person is oblivious to the need to yield and I need to quickly move out of the way before getting elbowed. One of the reasons I was never a fan of dance clubs, is that I always felt that if someone was going to be knocked repeatedly, as if I was not seen as an obvious human obstruction to go around, it was going to be me. I have never felt comfortable waiting to “work in” at the squat rack at the gym, as I feel I have to make myself seen, if I want a chance to do my reps (and part of the reason I don’t go to a conventional gym). So, there was always a feeling of invisibility inside me.

I do feel as though it is happening more often, but does it happen to everyone, regardless of age, gender, attractiveness? Should I care? Just get over it? I mean mostly, I notice it and move on, but it doesn’t feel very badass (or feminist) of me to care whether I am seen or not.

I’ve heard other women lament that they don’t feel seen in the same way as when they were younger, fresher, “sexier”. That there’s no flirtatious banter or glances with men in public places. I rarely felt like I was the recipient of such (random) flirtations, or if I was, I wasn’t aware of it, even when younger, so what I am feeling these days relates to a broader sense of the world. To being seen. Period. As interesting, having something to say, something to give the world through a vocation.

Speaking of vocations, it is hard not to notice that opportunities geared towards “growing your career” or “learning leadership” skills in the corporate world tend to be geared towards younger adults who are just starting out, or people who are already in leadership roles (and looking for ways to enhance that role). I think that in an age where people are working longer than ever and typically will have more than one career, there is a gap for those of us who are still “looking for opportunities for growth” and are well into middle age. This can be disheartening if we are still looking for ways to make our mark.

Invisible Woman Syndrome, which apparently starts around 50, isn’t just a random nuisance. It is documented that it results in an absence of research, statistics, information about women’s health, particularly as they move beyond child-bearing age, which can be downright frustrating and dangerous.

One thing I know, in the scenario I described earlier in the butcher shop, I don’t feel as bad for leaving, showing my discomfort, as I might have before. I don’t beat myself up as much for acknowledging that I don’t like how I’m being treated at any given moment and stating it. I don’t think hours later, maybe I overreacted, should have stayed, shouldn’t have said what I did. As long as I wasn’t rude (I said it in a calm voice) I let it go (although what does that say about my acceptance of my own feelings of anger?). I am pleased with this evolution within myself. I’ll acknowledge any benefit of my current age/state of mind that I can.

Most of the time, I think I am at a great age/time. I love where I live. I am newly in love. I still feel as though I have time (and fortunately, good health*) to consider ways I can have purpose and be of service, whether through my career or otherwise. I am also more likely these days to seek out different opportunities, even if they are small. To say yes to things like writing for this blog.

Have you had an experience of feeling invisible that you attribute to being a middle-aged, or older woman? Does it bother you?

* kein ayin hora* – just throwing in some Yiddish there for good measure – “may the evil eye stay away”

Invisible Woman with umbrella

Nicole Plotkin is a law clerk who loves to: exercise, think about what to eat next, snuggle with her dogs, and enjoy life with her wonderful husband.

8 thoughts on “Invisible Women

  1. Absolutely. I often joke that, if you want to feel invisible, be a woman of my age on a college campus – where it often feels like “everyone” is 18. I mostly don’t care, but I watched my that-much-older mother try to get attention from a clerk at a very busy airport. It occurred to me, in that moment, that she didn’t know how to stand in a line in such a way that it made it clear that she was there. It almost looked like she was waiting for someone else who actually was in the line, and that people should go around her. Clearly, the polite thing to do is ask her if she’s in line, but…. urban airport, travel – no one’s at their best in that moment. And I didn’t know how to help her, except to stand in the line with her and have both of us take up space. THAT made me angry -as though I was the one taking away her agency. Who mows down (not literally) a little old lady, for crying out loud???

  2. I’m definitely noticing invisible woman syndrome and playing with my own responses. Trying to speak up in stores and/or walk out. And I know for certain that I’m not imagining it because my dogs, despite being physically below traditional eye height, are fantastically visible. Never have I had to worry about sidewalk clearance while dog walking. Even the most traditionally oblivious types make way.

  3. In stores, it may be useful just to calmly ask, I’ve been here for 5 min. and would like service or I was here before you, if another customer jumps ahead of you.

    Getting angry and yelling, doesn’t help for service staff. Seriously. I was a cashier for 5 years..even during my university years.

    I’m fascinated by the so-called flirtious behaviour or whatever for service or attention outside of dating. I never did it. Seriously.

    Am I invisible? Well, be non-whjte…and sometimes it’s a relief to blend in with everyone else.

    I think there are some changes… some of the big cities, as a female cyclist in bike stores or in camera shops if I have done my research and speak in their language, ask good pointed questions, I do get good service.

  4. I had this same discussion with two other middle-aged women yesterday and the only positive thing about the conversation was realizing that I wasn’t alone. I was ignored completely when I attempted to buy running shoes this week. I left. The week before I endured a flirtatious encounter at the local butcher counter. The much younger woman had moved on and the butcher carried on the conversation while I–the only other customer–waited patiently for him to finish chatting her up. It wasn’t the woman’s fault as she was clearly sending out signals that she was done talking. The struggle is real.
    I agree with being polite; however, if you’re not noticed until you begin to leave that’s a bit late for the service staff to make amends.

  5. Thanks much for this, Nicole — it’s a complicated thing, isn’t it, because on one hand, there is usually an “explanation” for why you might be overlooked (I’m super short, and often literally cannot be seen over a tall butcher or ice cream counter), but on the other hand, there is a discounting of some kind I’ve noted in the way you describe that does add up to a pattern. Most memorably and almost humorously — I was eating alone at the bar in a restaurant when I was on a solo trip to Iceland a few years ago; a young guy sat down next to me and I said hi, as one does, and he literally ignored me and struck up a conversation with the (young, blonde, hot) bartender. Like, I literally did not exist, lol. And, as Jean notes about being non-white, I also have had the invisibility thing in other ways as a queer person, where, when I was younger, my relationship was mostly invisible or deliberate discounted. (E.g., being on a hiking trail in new zealand where the B&B owner gave the two bedrooms to “the two couples” (M/F) and put me and my then partner in the dorm room; my partner of 10 years and I being the only couple not seated at the same table at my grandfather’s second wedding, just to name two particularly memorable examples). I have floated in and out of visibility in my life for various reasons (like, when I was 30, I suddenly got way more “visible” to men in my sphere when I went from a size 16 to a size 6 — like, super visible) — but it’s disconcerting in different ways.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I think what I didn’t get across well in my post is that the things I notice bother me most because they highlight a sort of invisibility I have felt as a thread throughout my adult life. I have had trouble finding my purpose in my career, and I yearn for that type of purpose. And yet if it’s invisible to myself how can I expect others to see my purpose. Be interested in what I have to say about things that are important to me. It’s complicated.

    2. I’ve also had experienced such as you describe where I say hi to people and they don’t respond/see me. Even at our gym 🙂

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