A great blog from Around my Kitchen Table about invisibility in older women and the sacking of Arlene Phillips has got me thinking. Get over to her blog for some fascinating thoughts on both of these subjects and apologies to her for nicking the idea as a topic for a blog. It just struck such a chord with me and is something I found myself thinking about quite a few times as I have grown older.
When you are a teenager the last thing you want is invisibility, unless your parents are being excrutiatingly embarrassing. My best friend and I used to walk our family dogs after school every evening and when we were about fourteen we used to wear our shortest shorts (this was New Zealand so it was warm!) or tiniest skirts and the aim was to see how many wolf whistles or beeps of car horns we could get on our circuit. Looking back there seems an innocence about it. Look at me, look at me! our behaviour said but we hated it if anyone actually stopped or tried to talk to us. That was not the game. We were practising, playing, trying out our new female power in a way that now seems somewhat reckless but then was more funny than anything else. It was a game.
In your twenties you might sometimes love a bit of invisibility. A good looking girl is public property in all sorts of ways. Builders shout and whistle. Complete strangers tell you to "Cheer up, love. It may never happen." Older men press up to you on crowded tubes and won't meet your eye even when you have the space to stamp hard but discreetly on their foot. Sometimes it is great. You are dressed up and made up and know you look good and the glances as you walk by affirm your general gorgeousness. Sometimes you just wish you could go for a run without men calling out as you pass. This double edged sword is with you through much of your thirties and then, sometime in your late thirties or early forties, you begin to feel the first early signs of the dwindling of your visibility. If you are happy and busy, maybe with children, maybe not, this doesn't seem to matter too much. You can still turn it on if you want to and you are too busy living your life to notice very often that you are being ignored or to mind very much when you do.
And then in your late forties and early fifties comes the next stage: actual invisibility. You can go into shops and buy petrol and find that people don't seem to look at you, don't notice you at all. You thought when you were younger that the kindness and jollity of the older man in the bike shop was just a reflection of the fact that the world was a nice place. Now you realise that people like talking to young and pretty girls (and why not?) and what you understood as a general benevolence, if you were cheery and naive like me, was actually something else. Not necessarily something bad, just something else.
At work I found the combination of the sharp suit, the high heels and seniority meant it was easy to be listened to and hence to be visible. Outside work, in the jeans and the t shirt and the trainers and the ubiquitous fleece, I just blend into the background these days. And astonishingly, I really like it. There is a freedom in invisibility, in not being looked at, in not being noticed, that is wonderfully releasing. As a woman in her fifties you can, if you like, wander about like the Invisible Man without his bandages. You can look at things in shops without being asked every five minutes whether you need any help. You can read half a book in Waterstones without anyone noticing you are doing it. You can smile at small children in the street without their parents glaring at you for being a stranger.
And then if you like you can take the invisibility cloak off. You can adopt your ringing complaining voice and people's heads turn. (You might not get good service but that won't be any different from anyone else!) You can put your lipstick on and have a blow dry and pretend to be someone who might spend some money and miraculously appear in shops again. You can wear your eccentric clothes and have people glance at your green shoes or your green feet. I never realised how much I would like having both options!