I was talking to a friend one day, and she said one of the biggest surprises she had upon reaching middle age was discovering that she had become virtually invisible to almost everyone who wasn’t also a middle-aged woman. When I responded sympathetically, she exclaimed, “Oh, I don’t mind at all! Actually, I love it! I can do whatever I want, and nobody notices!”
I’d heard middle-aged women complain about being invisible before, but being young at the time, I had assumed that they were simply complaining that the men they encountered no longer saw them as desirable. And I thought, with all the callousness of youth, that they just needed to get over themselves. But there is nothing vain or shallow about my friend, and she was talking about her work situation, not walking into a party and wanting the men in the room to stare at her with deep admiration and longing. She meant that, as a middle-aged woman, most of her superiors didn’t really notice her enough to pay close attention to what she was up to, which gave her the freedom to do her job as she thought best without a lot of unnecessary interference. And since she’s both smart and hard working, she doesn’t need or want to be micro-managed.
But while middle-age invisibility may be an advantage in the workplace (although I’m sure it means my friend is also not recognized for some of her achievements), it can feel a bit uncomfortable when it spills over into the rest of our lives. I once visited a new church three times by myself, slipping in and out of the sanctuary mostly unnoticed. On the fourth visit, my husband joined me, and that time lots of people came up to greet us. Once I was part of a couple, people actually saw us. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find that a bit annoying. And unless I’m shopping in a store that specifically targets middle-aged women, I can usually browse for a very long time without a sales person approaching and asking if I would like any help. Middle-aged invisibility is not just in our imagination.
So, although I agree with my friend that there are distinct advantages to the freedom that comes from living in a culture that doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to middle-aged women, I think there is also a downside to middle-age invisibility. Because all of us, even those with a healthy self-esteem, sometimes need a little validation from other people. We need to be reminded that we still have lots to offer the world, that we still count, and that we are still beautiful, both inside and out. Which might be why, as we live out our middle years, we tend to spend so much time with other middle-aged women. They still see our worth, and we see theirs. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need.