What 50 looks like now: The invisibility of middle aged women

Sarah Long 11 September 2017

"Old age ain't no place for sissies", Bette Davis once said and, especially if you're a woman, some of its inevitabilities can hit you hard. Author Sarah Long offers some reassurance and advice on how to embrace your inner "old bag". 

"Nobody loves a fairy when she’s old", warbles the old music hall song, "they like their bit of magic from a younger bit of stuff". The bloom’s off, she’s seen better days, past it, poor dear, and yet she used to be a real looker.

Fortunately, we’ve moved on from the spectacle of a laughable middle-aged fairy with a bent wand commanding derision from the audience. But still, there's a constant swell of female anger about the curse of invisibility that falls upon women of a certain age.

It’s really not fair, goes the thinking. We eat the right things, we take care of ourselves, we’ve got the personal trainer and look DECADES younger than our mothers did at our age. And yet. We’ve all seen the male gaze pass through us and settle on a younger woman. Older actresses complain there are no roles for them. Female newsreaders over 50 are cast into the wilderness. Being ignored is hard to handle.

"It's outrageous and humiliating for a woman to be ogled at as she walks past a building site"

There is ambivalence, of course. Take the whistling builder, for example. There's only one thing worse than being whistled at, and that's not being whistled at, as Oscar Wilde might have said, had he been a middle-aged woman. It's outrageous and humiliating for a woman to be ogled at as she walks past a building site.

Image via Medium 

Until the moment when it stops, at which point she feels crushed by the unfairness of her advancing years. Hurled into invisibility when she still feels like a girl inside. Feminists are right to scratch their heads and worry about their reaction. After all, you don’t hear these sorts of complaints from men, who seem more inclined to manage their declining sex appeal in dignified silence.

It’s not just in terms of perceived sexual attractiveness that women feel they become invisible. I hear stories from older women claiming they're overlooked in the queue at the deli counter and dispiriting tales about the look of slight disappointment when they take up their airline seat beside a younger person hoping to engage with someone fresher. Not to mention the waiter who they just know is only flirting because he feels sorry for them.

Image via Minq

Unless you die young and stay pretty, there's really no way round the inevitability of growing and looking older. The question is how far you go to disguise it. Few women are prepared to relaunch themselves via the plastic surgeon, but most of us probably make a bit of an effort with careful dressing and hair dye to give the illusion that we're younger than our years.

This isn’t always the case. I am too vain to go grey myself, but am impressed by many of my friends who have taken the decision to let nature take its course, including a very elegant mother of the bride who recently bought her fabulous taupe outfit to match her hair.

The elegant grey hair proponent, Eileen Fisher. Image via Lifehack 

This move to look your age must be the intelligent way to get around the invisibility problem. Instead of going into screaming denial and trying to hog centre stage, just step aside. It's in the natural order of things that a 30-year-old is better looking than a 50-year-old, and only a narcissist would insist otherwise. When we reach middle age, it's no longer our turn. It’s time to hand over the baton to the next generation.

Their looks will fade one day too, poor things, so don’t deny them their moment in the sun. I think we all know someone who has failed to accept her changing status with at least some level of graciousness. She becomes socially self-absorbed and insensitive, still insisting on being the centre of attention. In short, on her way to becoming a really unlikeable old person.

To complain about feeling invisible is the ultimate confession of shallowness. Looks really aren’t everything, even in our selfie-ridden age and when you find women in jobs—unlike actresses and newsreaders—that don’t depend on their appearance, you never find them complaining they're not noticed. Whatever you think of Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel, they're not sitting at home bemoaning their invisibility.

"When you stop worrying about whether your bum looks big in this, you can really start enjoying yourself"

The same cannot be said of the heroines of my novel Invisible Women, which deals with the mid-life crises of three stay-at-home mothers. The tipping point of turning 50 coincides with the end of their chosen career of bringing up children, bringing their invisibility across all spheres sharply into focus. Talk to any woman trying to get back into the workplace in her fifties, and you’ll find it’s no walk in the park. Although, hearteningly, it turns out my heroines are extremely visible to their ardent love interests, even in the autumn of their lives.

But enough moaning about becoming invisible and let’s look at the upside. A falling off of vanity, you hope. When you stop worrying about whether your bum looks big in this, you can really start enjoying yourself, and not just in a fat jolly way. You care less what people think of you. Expectations become more realistic. You can eavesdrop on conversations because nobody takes any notice of you.

Freed from the desire to be admired, you can turn into the old bag you always wanted to be. To come back to the musical hall song—"You stand there shouting What-O… but they all pass past your Grotto…". Well, thank goodness for that.


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