The visibility question
It is a truism that women of a certain age become invisible. You hear it again and again. The phenomenon even spawned a response in the blogosphere where older women posted photographs of What I Wore Today, trying to reclaim the right of the older woman to be interested in clothes and style and what she looks like. Occasionally I would stumble upon one of these posts, rarely perhaps and only because it was written by someone I read for other reasons, such as the thoughtful and erudite posts of Materfamilias. Recently Mater posted about a certain disaffection with the idea of these posts and it got me thinking about why I had never wished to join in. I like clothes. I am interested in the way I look. But I also find clothes deeply boring and am far more interested in what I do than in what I wear. What is going on here in my head? Do I think the older woman is truly invisible and if so do I care?
When I was young I was reasonably pretty. The world was nice to me on the whole. People smiled at me in shops and held doors open for me. I got served quickly and cheerfully in bars and pubs. When I accidentally cut someone up at the lights and made an apologetic face, people (not just men, people) smiled at me forgivingly. I was nice to the world too. I tried to be considerate and appreciative. I smiled at people and stood up on the tube to offer my seat to pregnant women or the elderly. I thought the world was nice to me because the world was a nice place.
It was in the milk stained, exhausted weeks after I had my first baby that it first occurred to me that it was possible that the way I looked influenced the way other people behaved towards me. I know, what an innocent I was. Standing, with unwashed hair, baby vomit on my shoulder and the grey face of the terminally sleep deprived, I eventually got to the front of the queue in the garage to pay for my petrol. The fiftyish man at the till had been smiling and chatty with the two girls and the attractive older woman in front of me as each got the counter and got out her purse. His eyes flicked to me and the smile switched off. I was too shattered to care but I did notice an unusual cursoriness to the transaction. It happened a lot in those exhausted first few months. I was less visible, less interesting, less worth a smile or a chat. I didn't really think about it much as I struggled to work out how to care for my new baby but when sleep slowly returned, the baby settled into a routine and I began to have time to wash my hair and put my mascara on I did notice that my interactions with the outside world had got back to normal.
Looks were a help at work too. I worked in a man's world. To be female in such a world was ok only if you were extremely competent and looked attractive. Looks without competence meant you were not taken seriously, whether you were male or female. Competence without looks was ok in a man but a cause of irritation to the men who dominated that world in a woman. Such a woman might do you a good job but, in a world where looking after clients was as important as professional ability, a plain woman was rather letting the side down and was considerably less useful than her competent and attractive colleague.
I remembered those days of early motherhood in my late forties when looking good began to be something I had to work harder at. Style the hair, apply the slap, put on the smart clothes and I could still elicit the smiling response from the equivalent of the man in the petrol station. But make no effort and I could begin to feel invisible. In a world where looks and youth count I was beginning to lose my currency.
Maybe it was a good thing that at about the same time I was seriously ill and in a glancing, squinting, screwing up my eyes sort of way had a brief, terrified look at my own mortality. When I came out the other side of that hard year I found I didn't really care. I was alive. That, and the people I love, were all that mattered to me. A couple of years later I left the job and began the slow process of working out what to do with the rest of my life. So far the answer seems to be to make soup with courgettes.
And invisibility? I quite like it. It is quite peaceful and private to be able to wander about, apparently under everyone's radar. I find at this stage of my life I can choose how visible I want to be. Wear a lot of bright colour and bounce about and everybody sees you. Wear old scruffy jeans and no make up and it is like the invisible man unwinding the bandages to reveal empty air. I quite enjoy pulling out all the stops every now and then but mostly I am much more interested in what I am doing than in what I am wearing and whether anyone is looking. I look at my beautiful daughters and feel very strongly that it is their time in the spotlight, with all its pleasures and pains. I would be lying if I said that I don't mind getting old because I do mind the loss of energy and physical vitality and I work hard at physical fitness in order to hang on to those for as long as I can. But I caught a few minutes of a dreadful programme on Channel 4 called "How not to get old". It was appalling. You can throw all the money you like at plastic surgery and lazer treatments and £200 face creams but age you will, just with a little less money in your purse, and a look which is not young, simply worked on.
There is much that is difficult about this stage of life, principally the aging and ill health of parents and loved ones, but there is much that I like too. There is a freedom from work which is wonderful and a huge freedom from caring at all about what others think. My children have grown into the kind of adults I would wish to be friends with and I love that. I know what brings me down (crowds, negativity, consumerism) and try to avoid it. I know what makes me happy (yoga, walking, family, wine) and try to include something in every day which makes me smile. The question of the invisibility of the aging woman does not seem very interesting. Perhaps when women are young we are too visible, too judged on what we look like and what we wear. Maybe redresssing that balance with a little invisibility is not a bad thing. So for me a degree of invisibility is part of what happens at this stage of life if I choose to let it, and I sometimes do and fall quietly into it with something like relief. And sometimes I wear orange and turquoise and make a lot of noise. But it is not very important. It is only a tiny part of who I am and perhaps that is why I never wanted to join in.
What about you? Do clothes matter to you? Do you find yourself more or less visible as you get older, and more importantly, what do you think and feel about it and other aspects of ageing? I would love to know.