The Invisible Woman

I saw a social media post this week by an author friend who said that since turning fifty, she’s become “invisible.”  In retail situations, she can’t get good service, and when she does manage to get the attention of a store clerk or customer service rep, she’s talked “at,” not listened to. Men interrupt her more, when they even speak to her, and automotive techs talk to her like she’s an idiot.

The comments were interesting. Some women said it was a relief to be invisible, to finally be able to go through life without having to ignore pick up lines (and without hinting they might be offensive), without dressing to impress (but not flirt), without worrying constantly about both rape and robbery.  Another lady’s observation was, “If they can’t see us, they will underestimate us, and that’s when we do our best work.”

There wasn’t a single comment along the lines of, “Don’t be silly. Nobody treats you any differently just because you’ve gone gray and a little wrinkly.” And out of dozens of comments, only one guy contributed to the discussion.

I have to agree that I’ve been treated differently as my appearance has aged, at least by some of the people some of the time. One of my micro-joys is my mouse pad, which has–wait for it–a fluffy kitten on it! When I was in the Apple store to purchase a very expensive Mac, I asked the sales guy, “Where are the mouse pads? I delight in having mouse pads that make me happy.”

He looked at me as if I’d slipped in an arcane French phrase or two. “Nobody uses mouse pads anymore. ” The logic there was simple: No person uses a mouse pad. I use a mouse pad. Therefore, I am not a person. Now, in fairness to this horrendously overworked, under-trained, underpaid, young fellow, he might have offered that same reply to a thirty-something who asked about mouse pads, but probably not. In the thirty-something, needing a mouse pad would have been a quaint quirk. In the fifty-something, it’s an antique and un-charming whine.

What troubles me about this topic is that I don’t think I’m more invisible now than I was as a younger woman. Now, it’s gray hair and spare chins that obscure my personhood, earlier in life it was a pair of 36D’s and the cultural imperative to Be Desirable (but not slutty). In both cases, all factors other than my body are dismissed, either because that body is desirable or because it isn’t.

I like the invisibility I have now much more than the invisibility I put up with as a younger, prettier, less self-assured woman. I have a clearer sense of my own depths and dimensions, I’m not reacting to cultural expectations as readily or as often. I am real and visible to myself in ways I wasn’t earlier in life. So if I must be invisible, this version of obscurity is the one I prefer… but that’s a big if, isn’t it?

What about you? Has the passage of time or have changes in your appearance resulted in people treating you differently? Are any of those changes for the better?

To one commenter, I will send a $50 VISA gift card.



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48 comments on “The Invisible Woman

  1. Hmmm, with the passage of time, I have been more aware of how my view of myself and the world has changed. More so, than how the world views me. I was pretty when I was young, and I liked it when other people recognized it. But I had so many insecurities that it never brought me real happiness or peace of mind. My own sense of self worth grew as I aged, and the world became a much better place for me.


    • I would have to agree. I was never pretty, but I had “a nice figure,” and the world is a better place for me now that I have no figure at all.
      Glad you enjoyed LBTL… that title could use a few reviews, if you’re so inclined. (And no worries if you’re not.)

  2. Yup, I’ve found I get less service in stores, especially in places like Home Depot, where my husband used to dispatch ME to be the one to flag down help because the staff would assist a young attractive female much more quickly than a male shopper.
    But I like (for the most part) being free of worrying about seeming sexy but not inviting a pass. It’s much more liberating to be me now than me then.

    • I’ve wondered about this… People who have transitioned from female to male point out that when they run into co-workers at the coffee station, the co-workers will still ask, “So how was your weekend?” But when a man launches into a five-minute recap of the Great Washing Machine Flood, the co-workers get kinda eyes-glazed-over, whereas the same story told by a woman is listened to.
      Are we all invisible? Your husband because he’s DIY guy in the lighting aisle, me because I have no figure? Does anybody see beyond appearance?

  3. Over the years I have endured a lot of rubbish in my life from men.Both in my personal and professional living.People tell me I don’t look my age they knock off about 10 years (which is very nice).But this old body and face is engrained with fight and determination and I refuse to be invisible when I don’t want to be I’m at that age now I can choose.Many a young man has been given a set down for talking a lot of rot to this old gal!!.But I can easily be invisible if I can’t be bothered.I play it my way.We’ve got to get something out of this woman aging thing.There are men out there who do get it and show women respect and fairness whatever their age.

    • I like this approach–you get the stealth benefits of invisibility when you want them, and you are heard and seen when you need to be. I used to say that PMS was the real me. The other three weeks of the month were me wearing my socially-acceptable hat, making nice-nice and not really thinking much about it. Now, like you, I DECIDE who gets a pass and who gets a teachable moment. That is a nice change!

      • When I met my husband, I was going through PMS and didn’t have a clue. Unfortunately for both of us mine lasted two weeks out of four. After I found some help for it through some dear friends, I asked him how he could possibly have fallen in love with me then. He said the other two weeks with me were worth it. Isn’t that marvelous! He’s been dead more than 10 years now and I still miss him.

  4. I think at one point I was voted “classmate most likely to become a spy.” Totally forgettable. The deadpan face, now known as resting bitch face was the inability to look at someone and talk at the same time.

    I’m with Brenda. I will not be ignored if I choose not to be. Being a little brown bird in the flocks of them only makes the tiara more visible when I put it on.

    • Ooh I’ve got one of those resting bitch faces too. People are so used to seeing me laugh and smile that when I’m distracted and not smiling I am asked what’s wrong. Am I angry about something? Sigh.

  5. Here’s where towering over even men (I’m 6 feet) stands me in good stead. When the twittering twiglets at the makeup counters try to ignore me, I simply LOOM. I’ve been known to step into the path of store clerks trying to brush by. (The idiot who tried to bulldoze past BOUNCED very satisfactorily) And a gimlet eye to the car salesman already befuddled by his inability to boom, “Hey, little lady!” to the Valkyrie towering over him results in instant access to the manager I prefer to deal with anyway.

    I recently took my business to another primary care when a decades younger MD tried to talk down to me as if I were a child. No one speaks to me that way, regardless of age, mine or theirs. Idiot had no clue I sported as many letters after my name only in a different area of expertise.

    One of the pleasures of passing certain birthdays is the confidence to embrace silver in hair that streaked white decades ahead of the norm. I dress to suit me, embrace makeup when I feel like it & play up what is now exotic coloring. In short, I’m channeling my highland forebears & deciding that where I sit sits the head of the table.

    Confidence and a wicked sense of the ridiculous turns out to be the ultimate fashion accessory. Suddenly this aging thing is FUN!

    To that clerk regarding the mouse pads, I would have wagged my head solemnly and announced, “That fad is so last century. I’ll simply buy on line until you catch up.” Such fun to watch the sudden look of unease that I might know something they do not.

    The internet and ability to buy internationally is a great equalizer. If the wet behind the ears store buyer only stocks ugly undies in my size (I’ll see your 36D & raise you a 42E) then I hie me to the internet and stock up on gorgeous French knickers and confections in my size while saving hugely thanks to the current exchange rate. Only offer drag queen stilts in my size 11? Then my fingers do the walking and I’m sporting buttery soft Spanish and Italian leather flats.

    I’m bemused by the power my firm, “That’s unacceptable” seems to garner these days when I step out of the shadows and channel my inner duchess. So I’m taking advantage of this fluke of genetics and enjoying my super power.

    • What a lovely perspective, and probably half the reason women wear high heels. One of my riding buddies (a guy) is six foot seven, and he came across research that said tall men tend to end up with executive jobs because never in their lives are they shorter than their female peers. Until age fifteen, the average female is taller, faster, and more neurologically developed than her male peers. The guys gain height and speed thereafter, though it will be some time before their brains catch up. They thus go from being out-gunned in every regard, to having at least a physical advantage over females their own age, and they trade on that advantage for the rest of their days.
      The tall man, who has that advantage from infancy onward, has the respect of his male peers simply by virtue of a genetic accident, because the girls can’t put him in his place even in childhood or early adolescence.
      The things you never think about…

  6. I don’t care if I am treated as if I am invisible BUT I do expect to be treated well if I am spending money. I have walked out of stores and LOUDLY say I am walking out if I am not served in a timely fashion or OVERLOOKED. Money talks, even if you as a *woman of a certain age*. You’d be surprised how often a manager will stop me and ask what the problem is–usually it’s a young woman who can’t be bothered with me.

    I dress to please ME and it is often quirky; I began to do so in my 30s. That usually causes me to NOT be overlooked but I do it because I like to dress with flare, as a reflection of my personality. Funny or lacy or flowery socks, striking sweaters and classic jewelry–I get compliments all the time about my wardrobe. Too often, I think many of my peers dress for comfort or to BECOME invisible, not to please themselves.

    If there is anything I’ve learned with getting older is to please myself and its Okay to do so.

    • Interesting comment.I DO dress for comfort and the result has been nondescript attire. I will think about that. Was it the case that the nine-to-five wardrobe was uncomfortable (yes, until I started shopping at Chico’s, J.Jill, and so forth). Or was the case that I didn’t like the attention I got in my Fortune 500 suits?

  7. Grace, I hope that you will write a romance for an older couple! It would be a treat to see one of us “invisible women” with experience and smarts find a second HEA — or a first, depending on her past — later in life, despite all her travails.

    • Mary Balogh has a heroine coming out in her Westcott series who is FIFTY. I think her previous older couple (forties) was so well received that Mary’s going for silver. If anybody can do it, she can.
      I have written a novella with an older couple. He’s fifty, she’s late forties, and he needs to remarry because he has no heir. Or so he thinks.

  8. Being old and grey doesn’t mean we have faced away! I have lots of fun ahead and so much joy to share with my beloved grandkids.

    • “Come along, grow old with me,
      The best is yet to be!”
      I really believe that. Every decade in my life has been an improvement over the previous ones, and that’s a trend I intend to continue.

  9. Oh, yes. I am 72, worked full time until last October when I realized it was no longer satisfying to be away from home for the 12 hours for work and commute. I also stopped coloring my hair. It’s really a very pretty grey, or will be when the auburn has completely grown out. I often feel like I have my Invisibility Cloak on and I’m slipping through the area alone – last to be seated in a restaurant, last to be served in the store (unless my very grey, handsome husband is with me – sexism in full sway.) But my friends tell me my hair looks great and I appear more relaxed than they’ve ever seen me, so being invisible to strangers doesn’t really matter. I just smile and keep on keeping on.

    • Glad to hear the transition to post-working has gone well for you. I hope to work at least into my seventies (my dad was still part-time at 85), but I’m so fortunate I can work at home. I’m just loving that, and wish I could have begun this phase years ago.

  10. Hi Grace.
    Interesting topic. I’m sad that anyone should feel invisible because they are older. I like the freedom that comes from being older and frankly not giving a d*** if some kid tries to be patronizing. I just push back. I think these extra years have given me the confidence to assert myself – and to think and act and dress however I like.
    (Btw, I also use a mousepad)

    • I think mousing with a pad is more comfortable. When I find myself without one, the feel is different, less responsive. But I also have a grudge again Apple. They claim their equipment is ‘so fast,’ when it’s not any faster than a PC for most applications. Their other claim to fame is that the Mac is light.
      Well, dude, I don’t wrangle hay bales and horses because a difference of half a pound means ANYTHING to me. It’s not worth paying twice as much for the computer because the blasted thing is half a pound lighter, and whoever thinks it is…
      But Apple reached the billion dollar mark before Amazon did, so what do I know?

  11. At the age of really close to 75 I have morphed into a blue (or lavender depending on how long I leave the almost black shampoo in) haired woman who follows foreign cats and sloths on instagram. And I feel that I have the option to be visible or not..if I want to speak up that’s fine .! The world needs more of my wisdom. And some days it’s nice to have the young conductors help me off the train.

    • Instagram has an odd appeal, doesn’t it? At least where I hang out on Insta, it’s free of the flame wars and trolling I see on FB and Twitter. I will have to check out “foreign cats!”

  12. Actually, I think I get paid attention to more in recent years, but that may be that I used to shy more away from attention, now I expect & even demand it when necessary.

    • I found this in my forties. I finally had that combination of education AND experience that I was much better about when to speak up, what to say, and when to just be about my business. I became more worth listening too, and I knew when to keep my powder dry.
      In the past year, though, my four academic degrees, my years in the courtroom, have all become invisible with me, and my profession is writing romance novels. That’s not a paragraph on the resume that’s going to earn immediate respect from some quarters, but those are the same people who think, “Lawyer–OK, I’ll listen…”
      Very odd juxtaposition of perspectives.

  13. Interestingly, I had my first big taste of invisibility when I was in my late 20s. I went into a jewelry store to buy myself some birthday earrings but could not get waited on. I’m pretty sure it was because I was wearing blue jeans and perhaps the clerks thought I was too poor to shop there, though I wasn’t. I simply walked out and went to another store to make a purchase. I would do the same thing today.

    I did start to go gray in my 20s (first gray hair at 24!) but have never colored it (well, except for my first year of college when I used “Summer Blonde” to lighten it–anybody else old enough to remember that?). While I never lied about my age, and still don’t, I had a few episodes where wait staff saw my hair and assumed I was old enough for the Senior Discount. If they asked, I was honest but if it just appeared on the bill, I took it for good luck.

    I’m only as invisible these days as I want but don’t mind too much in the normal course of things because I don’t like people to bother me. But I have sometimes noticed that younger people treat me as sort of slow mentally as I’ve aged. I just chalk it up to their inexperience and ignorance and correct them if it’s something worth correcting them for or ignore them otherwise. But I did once remind a group of young girls that they weren’t going to be 20 forever either.

    • Karen I had to laugh at your ‘summer blonde’ comment. I work with 5 other females and I’m the only one who doesn’t dye her hair even though I used to be asked what color I used on it. (To be fair – 2 of the young ladies dye their hair bright colors like purple, pink, teal, and midnight blue instead of trying to cover grey or just change their natural colors.)

    • I have reached the stage in life where I pay cash for my cars, but I only buy used. The sales clerks on the car lots have no idea what to make of me. The last time I bought a car, the salesman of course showed me two of the most expensive used cars he had, and when I said, “According to your website you have at least a dozen cars priced below these two.”
      He gave me a spiel about the inventory changing EVERY DAY, and if I was browsing last week those cars are all gone, and how about we just test drive the not-as-over-priced model right now?
      “I had my daughter scroll the site on the way over here on that quaint little device called a smartphone. You going to show me what I want to see, or do I walk?”
      So tedious.

  14. I’ve worked retail for the last 9 years. When I look in the mirror, I see every day of my 52 years – but I’m told I look younger than that. (But that is another story of how each of us see ourselves and what we focus on vs how others see us). My company consists of several small stores across the greater city area and most of the employees are younger females. I see they way ‘the girls’ are treated and how customers change their attitude when I come into the conversations. The fact that I am older and a manager makes many of them more willing to listen to what my ‘girls’ have been telling them – or offering to do for them to solve a problem. So at work my age helps for the most part – so far.

    I am still able to get help faster at hardware stores by virtue of being female and willing to ask for help – maybe this is in part because I’m in the heart of Texas and chivalry is still alive here at times. But I too have found other doctors who will listen to me and been happy to write reviews online and after telling the offending doctors why I no longer offer them my money to be ignored and talked over.

    All that said, I am fine with being older and not having to deal with the constant sexism my daughter an other younger women have to endure in daily life. I’ve always prefered to be invisible rather than center stage so to speak.

    • Which again raises the question: Are we ALL just invisible in different ways?
      You are respected by virtue of age simply for stating the same logic your underlings have already conveyed.
      Overweight people have a kind of invisibility.
      People of color have ALL kinds of invisibility and hyper-visibility.
      Has it always been the case that we don’t see each other as people, or has mass media made an ideal image of “worthwhile person” something more internalized?
      Oh, the research I’d do, if only Powerball would smile upon me.

  15. I’m used to breaking invisibility spells. I’ve been dealing with the Fat Gal blinders for years. So the treatment really hasn’t changed all that much.

    By the way, folks, rape is a crime that is no respecter of age. Babies have been victims and I personally know a family who lost their 80-year old matriarch to the shock and trauma of sexual assault during a break-in. The man convicted had a history of using sex and/or violence to give himself an illusion of power and control. He’s currently on death row.

    • Virginia, what you said is all too true. ANYBODY, regardless of age, gender, mental capacity, socio-economic status… can be the victim of sexual violence. Good point. HOWEVER, only three percent of sexual assault victims are over age 65 (that we know of), so that danger at least has slipped a few notches on my anxiety radar.
      Slipped, but as you say, not disappeared.

  16. I have a girlfriend who is stunningly beautiful, we will be out somewhere having lunch, and guys will step in front of me to talk to her. She will be polite to the guy and then apologizes to me. She is the only friend my husband remembers her name and always asks how she is doing. I would not want to be beautiful because I don’t want that level of attention. Most of the time I get good service, I think it is about looking people in the eye and being present. If I am in a bad mood others will react accordingly. I recently was sick and was rude to the receptionist at the doctor’s office, I didn’t realize it until after I had left. I try now to be more aware of my behavior no matter how I feel.

    • What an interesting perspective. First, does your friend’s beauty make you less visible (and her visible in only a limited say)? Second, why is she polite to male strangers who’ve just blatantly slighted her friend (you)? Third, what would the consequences be if she called BS on those guys? Fourth, what is the drop-dead gorgeous male equivalent of this experience, because there probably is one?
      And as for being rude… you can apologize. Nobody is at her best when she’s feeling crummy.

  17. OMG I don’t think I’ve enjoyed so many comments on one entry! I love these women … I wish we could all get together. What a party that would be.
    I am quite happy being a senior citizen. Of course in Florida that makes me the majority! Ha Ha I’ve always looked younger than I am and this made it difficult, when I was working, to get any respect. Now the gray hair and double chin give me that age when I don’t really need it. (Although I don’t have to ask for the senior citizen discount, and I love that.) I haven’t felt overlooked in stores but I do think we benefit from a certain anonymity because of our classification – we’re not profiled as dangerous.
    I will add that my mother taught me that I should dress carefully when I went shopping because the sales clerks judge who to serve based on appearances. Still true, I think.

    • I chose this topic this week because my author buddy’s post also generated a lot of really interesting comments. Are we invisible? Is everybody? Have we always been but just in different ways? Does it matter?

      But it’s worth thinking about, because whatever the trend, it’s probably not going to improve as I age.

  18. Invisible… Back when I was 20 or so (maybe 1981?), I did costume design work for a college theatre department for the last year of one summer program (held in another town), then the next year, the new summer program (local).

    Someone from the college paper came to interview folks for the new program. Oddly enough, while I was the only person present with experience in both programs, the interviewer chose to talk to the actress with experience in only the new program.

    My take-away? Less pretty? More invisible. We were both from town, roughly the same age, no one else in the room with the interviewer… Hard to take it otherwise.

    That was a long time ago, and far away. I find I don’t get ignored often NOW–but I’m much more self-assured about requesting attention, too.

    • That is a good point. Over time, we probably become much more proficient at signaling what kind of attention we want (if any), and how badly we want it. In a store, I do sometimes need the attention of a clerk, but I’m generally in much less of a hurry than I was a few years ago, and if I have to walk out, that’s not a big deal either. As Beth says, there’s very little you can’t buy on line. The result is probably that I don’t “wave” as convincingly as I did back then.

  19. Through your twenties ( or beyond) you worry about others opinions, thinking everyone is watching and judging you. Then you realize most people are caught up in their own lives and only peripherally aware of you. You are free to be the person you wish to be—not the person you think your parents or friends or co-workers or significant other might envision.

  20. I definitely feel less visible to men. Luckily, 1.) I don’t care and greatly prefer it to unwanted attention and 2.) I have a job where I have female co-workers and deal with about 80% women or children in doing my job. I suppose I may be invisible to some young women but by and large I don’t notice a huge difference. If I were single and looking for a male romantic partner I may feel very different, but with my life as it is I am happier dealing with less harassment and enjoying my female friends.

  21. While I am younger than you I have started getting gray hair. When it first happened I panicked, but only a little. I thought “wow, this is a real sign.” But a sign of what? I suppose it’s a sign that my hair is graying…nothing else. I’ve also started to have age spots on my hands, lines next to my eyes and other physical signs that I’m getting older. I’m trying to embrace the changes but I know that would be easier if I was more inwardly self assured.

  22. I havn’t noticed a difference (I’m 51), but I’ve been pretty oblivious to others opiniions of me. And come to think of it, my enviroment as a whole. My friends say we got cat calls as we walked around Boston, but I only noticed it once, and the friends say they were driving by for the 3rd time when I picked up on it. But when walking around, I’m either focused on a book or the conversation with my friends> (I’ve walked into concrete posts at T stations and almost under a bus once. In my defence, I was in an arguement AND the bus was allowed to go the wrong way on a one way street.) And I’m inpatient, so I never wait to be noticed by a clerk, but just get their attention and ask for what I want.

  23. I am now 71 and divorced; so I am used to the effect of being ignored. We women are stronger than most of the men my age. While I think it might be fun to find a new love, the care and feeding of a man is not as appealing as it was when I was younger. I have a few good friends both men and women and we try to support each other. I started off at a girls school, Roland Park Country School in Baltimore and find now my strongest ties are with women and my Granddaughters.

  24. I’m approaching fifty-eight years of age, and yes, I can clearly see the difference in how I am viewed by some people. Even in my own family, I see that I’m not in many photos, not included in as many plans. It’s subtle, it was gradual, but it’s there. And I have to say that it doesn’t bother me – I’ve become less inhibited and more vocal because I care less about popularity, and when I see injustice or intolerance or just plain foolishness, I don’t apologize for my opinion or keep quiet. Quite liberating!

  25. I’ve been thinking about this as well. At 59, I’m more comfortable in my own skin, but my skin is definitely worse for wear. Does the world only value, respond to the external version of myself and ignore the internal, what’s under the skin version? My observation and experience has been it depends on the person. There are people who will only see the external and on the other side of that coin. There are people who will never unmask and allow a deeper knowing. I find with my older features, I get to what people value much quicker! The beauty of generosity and kindness over my eggs still being viable. Not that I’m always kind or generous…

  26. Your remark about the 36Ds reminded me of something that has nothing to do with what you’re asking. My niece, who is in her early 30s, just had surgery to reduce her 36Ds. They were not necessary to her, and they are a pain in the ass, making clothes fit oddly and men never look you in the eye…
    And I thought she was brave. It never occurred to me to do this. I complained about them; but I was sort of proud of them. Now, as I look at the grooves in my shoulders from the gigantic job they and my bras have done over the years, I wonder what sort of person I might have been if I had been, say, a B or C. Not an A, just a normal set-nothing that might remind you of, say, udders…would I have had the same relationships I had? Would I be in better shape? (Running hurts.) It brings into question all the times I looked down on my mother for judging herself by her success with men. Am I any better?