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Being invisible: that vague and elusive state of not being noticed even when you are present.
     A working definition

Are you visible or invisible? There are moments when I have felt invisible- not all or most of the time, but there certainly have been times. Such encounters leave me mystified (what just happened?) and irritated (did that just really happen?). For example, it has occurred when feeling out of place in a venue or store frequented by a younger crowd; or my contribution in a meeting is somehow missed or discounted; or someone makes an assumption about me without checking it out (not meaning to be pejorative but is). If you ask women, many can recount an experience of feeling invisible. So what is this phenomenon?

Of all the categories of people in the world, perhaps the one least understood is the one that relegates people to the category of Invisible. The visible of course, stand out by virtue of power/position, prestige, and money. In contrast, the invisible (e.g. children; the poor; elderly), tend to be obscured, overlooked, and overshadowed with any distinctions blurred within the fabric of society. It is possible to become more visible; but it is also possible to become increasingly invisible and herein lies the story of the disappearing woman.

The disappearing woman is one who realizes that as she ages, her presence within society matters less than it used to. There is no rite of passage or bolt of lightning to mark the transition. Invisibility creeps into everyday life without anyone  noticing.

And so one’s accomplishments, knowledge and skills, and uniqueness gradually figure less prominently against the landscape of a fast paced, youth oriented, deliverables driven world, making it difficult to find a place, and be seen or heard. Moreover, invisibility is experienced unevenly and differently among women, as those who bear a disproportionate burden of disadvantage know too well.

The experience of growing invisible was raised at a gathering of women of which I was a part, but I have also heard it expressed by individuals trying to articulate a shift they observe in how they are seen by others. Some women describe it as a disconcerting feeling that they can identify but hesitate to express. After all, who wants to join one of the most invisible cohorts of the population- older women? And yet the barely perceivable and troubling sensation of growing invisibility that hovers just below the radar and emerges from time to time must be named, for invisibility speaks to a dimension of women’s experiences.

Hold on! -you say. I contribute to society.  I have family and friends in my life. I am gainfully employed (or was until recently) and interests and a brain in my head and opinions about important matters. I am not invisible! 

True enough. Regardless, we still live in a youth oriented culture. And most of us grew up within a culture of paternalism that places rich and powerful white men at the top of the food chain.  Realization of the shift in perspective seeps through our consciousness when we start to notice things that we didn’t before:

  • The people on TV who report on the news look like they’re 19 and speak in text sound bites.
  • Clothing styles are designed for millennials- especially size 6 or less.
  • The sales person is mildly patronizing.
  • Someone expresses surprise that you want to take on a long term project (at your age?)
  • Places of work let older workers go.
  • You have a sense in a conversation with another that your viewpoint isn’t being taken seriously.

The fact remains that many women feel they are increasingly on the margins, not only because of what happens but because of what doesn’t happen. Not to be heard. Not to be taken seriously. Not to be given the chance to live your hopes and dreams.  It is profoundly unsettling to be ignored.

What to do? It’s hard to change societal norms overnight. You can’t fire the news commentators or the sales staff. Scolding the person at a social gathering who is not listening won’t achieve much. We could hide and live in a bubble somewhere, hanging out with people just like us where we all do the same things and think the same way. What fun is that? Really?

How to tackle the case of the disappearing woman? See Part 2!

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