I am what used to be called a woman of a certain age. If you had to slot me into the archetypal milestones of maiden, mother or crone, you’d hesitate between the last two. Shit is getting real in the ageism department and wow! Losing a chunk of social privilege REALLY sucks.
More than one 40-something woman I know has talked to me about the feeling of becoming invisible, of walking down the street and not really being seen. In case you’re young enough to have not experienced this, I assure you it is a real and true phenomenon. Before coronatimes, I noticed it most when being out in public with my preteen daughter; countless people would glance at my daughter, but never look at me.
Indeed, I have felt like a ghost on my daughter’s arm.
Then there was the moment last summer when I stepped into a pizza place to grab a slice. In line ahead of me were two women; behind me were two men. After taking the women’s orders, the staff person looked right past me at the men who were physically in line behind me and asked, “Can I help you?” I looked dramatically to my left and my right, trying to get purchase on reality. What the actual fuck? I thought. Is aging just going to be more of this?
Of course, if you are Black, Indigenous, a person of colour, or have a disability, you may already be familiar with this sensation, regardless of your age.
Being both hypervisible and yet invisible is something people from marginalized communities may experience all their lives. For women of all ethnicities living in a sexist, capitalist society, ageism is a loss of privilege, and it is disorienting to watch it gradually erode. As a white, cisgender, middle class woman, though, I don’t have to reconcile this loss with other facets of my identity. Every woman will face ageism, but how it is brought to bear against her will also be informed by the other areas of privilege and marginalization in her life.
People not seeing you on the street is only just the beginning; the blunter edge of ageism kicks in when you can’t get a job, are disbelieved by your health care provider, or are isolated socially.
One friend tried to reframe things by pointing out that women over 40 are still seen–just not by young people, the demographic that is (generally) most highly valued. She pointed out that we are devaluing ourselves when we don’t value what we see; what we still see is each other. Inspired by this reframing, I thought I’d try my own. I wrote out a new resolution, a new perspective on what was happening to me at this stage of life:
I’ve decided to embrace invisibility as my superpower. I’m slipping free from the bonds of the male gaze, and stepping deeper into my strength. I can go undetected now; all the better to do my stealth work of laying plans to end the patriarchy. I am free to roam the streets in broad daylight without anyone telling me to smile, brushing against my breasts, or noticing my skirt flying up in the summer wind. My powers haven’t been taken away; I’ve just laid my hands on new ones. All the better to slay you with, my dear.
CHECK AND MATE, AGEISM.
Well, sort of.
I do think it’s important to challenge thoughts about aging that don’t serve us, and to question what women are told about our worth as we age. But I can’t kid myself about slipping free from the bonds of the very political forces that create the conditions for our lives. I can’t slip free from elder abuse and the other financial, political and physical vulnerabilities that we face as a part of living in this society.
Women aging in the patriarchy is not unlike becoming a teenage girl in the patriarchy: you don’t know what to expect, your new powers are kind of thrilling, but mostly it sucks.
The thing is, though, I am still choosing to embrace my new powers of invisibility because it seems much more fun than fighting them. And I do really believe that going unseen can work to my advantage. I know the social capital I once spent easily in my youth is no longer available to me, but now I am armed with things I didn’t have back then, like confidence, certainty in my abilities, and far less willingness to put up with nonsense. I can’t get the youth to see me, but I can see myself and my own strengths more clearly than ever. And I’m going to use them as much as I can.