Do we become invisible, we women past 50? And if so, can we reappear?
A reader emailed me to say she and her her friend had been discussing invisibility, and suggested I write something. OK then. It’s been on my mind for a while.
A couple of years back, I was shopping with my daughter. Out of the corner of my eye, not thinking why, I began to notice how cheerful all the cashiers were towards us. How helpful the salespeople. How smiley the passers-by. We were both in t-shirts and jeans. My 20+ daughter made me visible. The tall redhead for extra points.
I don’t think it’s a mystery, our vanishing act. If we make a few somewhat Darwinian assumptions, that is.
- The species wants to continue.
- Female fertility is a required component for continuation.
- Men have evolved very acute visual scans for fertility.
- Once we look like we’re unable to create children, without compensatory changes, something like 60% of our visual impact disappears automatically. And in the old days, our power. Things are changing. (I specify “look like we’re” unable, because I am not addressing infertility in youth. A different, and heavy set of issues.)
By the way, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy disappearing. But if you prefer to be seen? You have to choose amongst, or even combat, certain images.
Remember, people are hard-wired to make sense of other people by matching them to a known visual pattern. Infants focus on their mother’s face, and then search everywhere to see that pattern again. They’ll decide that any two dark spots plus a line equals a human. I remember my daughter as an infant, fascinated by the markings on the face of a large stuffed goose.
So imagine the extant visual patterns, the imagery, for women between, let’s say, 50-75. That’s the time horizon I can manage at the moment. These are elder, more universal, quasi-Jungian, Style Archetypes. I’ll name a few, you probably know others.
Mormor, as the Swedes call their mother’s mother. She mothered the mother, she mothers us all. Mothering forever, usually in an apron. Mommom may be a grandmother, but many grandmothers are not Mommoms. It’s quite possible she’ll wear her hair short, gray, and permed. She pays little attention to her clothes, but little people don’t care.
A Bastion Of The Establishment (Note: The Grande Dame fits this archetype too, her images we’ve seen here)
La Bastion has power, financial or institutional, or both. Maybe she earned it, maybe her husband or her father. Possibly her mother, but less likely. Mothers weren’t often earning fortunes when Bastions were young. She’s been living and thriving in the world of men for some time – with crossed arms.
The Vavoom Sophia Loren, Who Unfortunately Degrades To Joan Rivers, AKA The Cougar
Those who continue to signal sexuality in the same mode as younger women will likely have a Come To Resident Authority moment in their 50s. How long to carry on? Does full makeup have an Expired By date? Does cleavage ever need to take retirement? And can we, should we, keep wrapping our backsides as tightly as possible? To say nothing of surgery or other subcutaneous interventions.
The Witchy Woman, Alternatively, The Artist
She’s been with us forever, somewhere out there. In the forest, in the studio. What does she know? It’s in her eyes, framed of course by bewitching gray hair.
In factories Rosie the Riveter rises through the ranks. On the farm, Auntie Em scoops up chicks in her apron, and makes her way through the dust. In another country, somewhere, a white-haired woman squats to weave a basket. They say squatting is better for our health than sitting in chairs.
And Then Getty Images Introduces New “Lean-In” Stock Photos
As it happens, Sheryl Sandberg’s organization, Lean In, has collaborated with Getty Images on stock photos, in order to expand our visual dictionary of women. You can take a look at the full Getty collection here.
I think it’s up to us to keep expanding the imaginary section called 50+. We might have to live the new images before we can photograph them.
I come back to the ‘”And” Model Of Identity,’ AKA, Don’t Box Me In. If my style persona has always been Polished Tomboy, I want that to live on with me. When I was just surfacing from deep water mothering, the song When I Was a Boy by Dar Williams used to make me cry, remembering the freedoms of 9-year old boys and girls. I want to return to that in my second half-century. Albeit creakier, and unlikely to ride a bike without my shirt.
If we amalgamate all these archetypes, at least the deconstructed components that matter to me, we come up with The Artisan. By which I mean she’s Sturdy and Artsy and can assert some authority of knowledge. Making color, making bread, making comfort, making love, making money. I’m working on her picture as we speak.
Woman leading workgroup via Getty Lean-In images as seen on Buzzfeed
Mommom cooking with child, via zsoltika on Flickr Creative Commons
Bastion of the Establishment via anicaps on Flickr Creative Commons
Sophia Loren and Joan Rivers via Wikipedia
The Witchy Woman and Artist via Huffington Post
The Laborer via Getty Lean-In images as seen on Buzzfeed
Getty’s Lean-In stock images interface screenshot by me
Note: I can’t address invisibility without also pointing you again to Patti’s “Visible Monday” blog linkups Also, Jo Goddard shows another image here, from the collection, of someone who is surely 50+. We’re getting there.