The Cloak of Invisibility

René Magritte, The Beautiful Relations, 1967

René Magritte, The Beautiful Relations, 1967

Many older women complain about feeling invisible—no one turns a head when we walk into a room. As Linda Grant writes in The Thoughtful Dresser, “I have watched the eyes of men sweep a room and find that apart from the girl crossing her legs, over there, it is empty. After a certain age, women are invisible.  Without a sexual stimulus, many men cannot process in the visual/conceptual portion of their brains that a woman is present.”(137) Perhaps the fear of invisibility is why some women adopt eccentric clothes—the outfit calls attention to itself even if the wearer does not.

But if you look at it another way, invisibility might be a good thing. It allows you to be the observer rather than the observed. It lets you look how you want without worrying about how others perceive you. “It’s quite interesting not to be noticed because you can listen very attentively,” said British writer Doris Lessing in a 1999 interview. (Cathleen Rountree, On Women Turning 70, 38).

Think about it—in science fiction and fantasy, isn’t invisibility a super power?

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11 Responses to The Cloak of Invisibility

  1. bellneice says:

    You don’t need to be old to be invisible.
    Perhaps women who have once been both young and attractive notice the difference as they age, because there is change in men’s behavior. If you have never been particularly attractive (usually obesity is considered the biggest beauty sin a woman can commit, but not the only one) there isn’t much change as you get older.
    And it isn’t a bad thing at all not to draw the attention to yourself. I’ve spent a lifetime flying under the radar, and its been an interesting flight.

    • Sewer says:

      Women whose looks aren’t in line with the prevailing, often racist beauty standard often are treated as invisible, or, just as bad, they are fetishized.

      There is a difference between not wanting to be objectified, which means being dehumanized, and not wanting to be noticed. Most people want to be noticed, if the attention is respectful.

  2. I enjoy that invisibility here in the U.S., as I can maneuver unnoticed, then use my “Mom voice” to get men to do what needs to get done. In France, however, I enjoy knowing that a 57-year-old woman like me, if she is stylish and personable, can still get checked out like a woman. Vive la France!

  3. Norah says:

    I too was never much to look at, and even considered ugly by some. When I was younger, occasionally boys or really young men would yell out car windows or on buses “wow, is that ever an ugly woman!” I notice now that I’m older (I’m 57 too) that they don’t do this anymore, so apparently when a woman are is the age of their grandmother, they don’t expect her to look good anymore. I don’t miss getting that kind of attention!

  4. sally says:

    I love this short essay on the powers of invisibility…even more as I approach my 65th birthday as an increasingly “stout”–love this word that cropped up in the previous blog entry– gray-haired geezer. But I will confess that there have been numerous times–especially after I stopped coloring my hair–that I was taken aback by seeming literally to not be noticed and sometimes worried it meant that I barely existed!
    Most females in the early periods of their lives are trained to spend too much time caring about how they’re noticed and appreciated for their looks…and it take a good portion of the rest of their lives to relinquish that overriding concern. But I also think there’s something fundamentally human, starting with infancy, in the need to be noticed, and I’m not sure I want to completely relinquish or deny that impulse. As ever, it’s the balance that’s the real trick to achieve, between the powers of invisibility that permit greater observation and the residual power of –even need for–visibility. Re. the latter, I guess that’s one reason I’ve become an avid reader of this Americanage fashion blog by my friend Lynn (for I have numerous other friends whose blogs I follow far less regularly).

  5. I usually don’t mind being somewhat invisible, but I’ve found to be noticed all it takes is to wear a hat.

  6. Carol in Denver says:

    Years ago there was a review of a book that featured an older woman who worked as a killer for hire and wasn’t caught because of age-bestowed “invisibility”. It would be interesting to stage situations with senior citizens performing crimes, then having witnesses identify the criminal in a line-up.

  7. donna says:

    I’m 57 too and when I am with a younger crowd, I am invisible. I don’t seem to be invisible to other women however and that’s because I take risks with my clothes (hats – I agree Lizzie). Also I love fashion and other women who love fashion tend to notice. It always reminds me of that quote by Diana Vreeland or was it someone else…women dress well to annoy other women!

  8. Robyn says:

    I’ve never understood why being invisible is considered a sad thing, but I have a real aversion to being under observation. I suppose for most it signifies a loss of power, so I really like your characterization of invisibility as a super power.

  9. Sewer says:

    You shouldn’t have to have your individuality and sexuality obliterated to feel treated with respect or regarded as powerful. If invisibility is a super-power, it’s a very weak one. So is overly relying on one’s sexual appeal if you are considered attractive. The goal should be for an attractive woman to be regarded as is an attractive man: good looks are a plus, but are not defining.

    “Without a sexual stimulus, many men cannot process in the visual/conceptual portion of their brains that a woman is present.” I think this is B.S. Pray for the day when there are more women evolutionary biologists to refute nonsense like this by discussing the impact of socialization.

  10. Mathilda says:

    Why is our worth as women based on our sexual attractiveness to men? I understand this concept as a young woman; needing to procreate, etc., but we are much more than our vaginas, asses and breasts. Honestly, at 58, I am grateful to no longer be ogled by men as a piece of meat. What an insult! And who gave these beings permission to look at and think of me in that way? Just today I saw a woman my age, if not older walking and someone honked at her. It was obvious she didn’t know the person. Then I noticed she was wearing a tight blouse, loud tights, ill fitting high heels and all that came to mind was “no class at all”… I LOVE my so called “invisibility”!

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