Becoming an invisible woman in your 60s and why I don’t really mind - by Rosalie Warren

A few days ago, I joined in a very interesting online discussion started by a friend, about women becoming ‘invisible’ in various ways as they get older – and it got me thinking. This encroaching invisibility seems to be something that bothers a lot of my female contemporaries and I’m interested in the fact that it does not really seem to bother me.

I suppose I have always felt invisible, pretty much – so my main feeling is ‘no change there’. On the rare occasions when I have ‘stood out’, it’s been for all the wrong reasons and I would have much preferred to retreat into my usual fly-on-the-wall-in-a-dark-corner position. I was never particularly good looking, even as a youngster (though looking back at old photos now, I’m not sure what I fretted about so much), so I suppose I never got the male attention that some do – and would not have felt comfortable with it if I had. I do remember a trip to Italy in my thirties where some Italian blokes called out ‘Bella!’ at me (I think it was ‘Bella’ – maybe it was something much worse). I hated it and felt very vulnerable, as I was travelling alone on an academic conference for work.

 When young, I was mostly very glad not to have workmen calling out obscenities at me from their scaffolding. I never had much dress sense either, or the money to service it if I had, which I suppose didn’t help me in the standing-out stakes. 

In my twenties, I taught science and maths in a Nautical College that trained marine engineers, navigators and radio communication chappies. They were all chappies except me – I was the only female member of staff and 99% of the students were male too, and mostly older than me by at least ten years. I stood out by being young and female and I hated that. I really just wanted to be valued for my work and to be seen as an equal. Instead, I was something of a curiosity, until eventually another female lecturer arrived and things became a little easier.

Years later, having been a stay-at-home mum until my children started school and then retraining for a new career, I ended up teaching in a university. Times had changed and I wasn’t such an oddity any more – or I wouldn’t have been, in almost any subject other than Computer Science. True, I had some female peers now, but we were still very much in the minority. The most fun I had was while working in Dundee, where I had a wonderful MSc class with more women students than men, many of them in their thirties, forties and even seventies. It was so nice to be teaching people I felt at home with – people whose lives I understood. I think it was good for them too – they had a lecturer who understood that they had to dash off to pick up their kids and what it was like to work through the night for a week to finish your project because your child had chicken pox. (Of course, the men should have understood that too, but most of them didn’t.)

Returning to invisibility – my academic career was relatively short-lived. I had to retire early, owing to the stress of teaching, doing research, jumping through government-inspired administrative hoops, caring for elderly relatives, a long commute and heaven knows what else… oh yes, they made me a student welfare adviser with no training whatsoever. While it lasted, I think I did OK. I didn’t exactly hit the heights, though. Maybe I achieved a little visibility in my own lecture room, but that was all. So retirement, in my fifties, did not bring any noticeable decline in visibility. Neither has my subsequent writing career brought me much (make that ‘anything at all’) in the way of fame, so I have nothing to lose there, either. 

I have no desire to be ‘seen’. On the whole I hate photographs of me, unless they are far away, blurry and small. Thankfully I have a partner who assures me constantly that I look wonderful (I’d suggest a new pair of glasses but I don’t think I will). I would, however, love my books to be more visible, not for fame and fortune but simply because… I suppose it seems a shame for all that work to be wasted. 

Anyway, I can’t help feeling a little glow of schadenfreude towards all those women of my age who were gorgeous in their youth and are now mourning the loss of their looks. Sorry, if you are one of them. It’s really nothing personal. I’m just pleased that they know, at last, what it feels like not to be beautiful. [Evil cackle!] Sorry, again… 

I like being in my sixties. I love not having to worry about my looks, beyond making sure my face is clean(ish), my hair is occasionally brushed and my clothes cover any remaining rude bits. I enjoy relaxing into the scruffy look I was always meant to inhabit. (Apart from shoes. I do like a nice pair of shoes.) I can finally wear my favourite colour, red, without anyone finding it necessary to tell me it’s not my colour. 

Invisibility – bring it on! Or rather, let it continue. I've finally reached the age where it's socially acceptable* not to be ‘seen’.

I need a picture to finish with, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I put one of my books on display. You’d rather see the cover of Lena’s Nest than me, I assure you.

Happy reading, happy writing, happy living, visible or not,

*Not that I should care about these things. If I had my life again, I hope I wouldn’t.

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Umberto Tosi said…
Ironic takeaway: Being invisible is better being visible for the wrong reasons. Sexism comes in many forms and can't be overlooked. Thank you for a thought-provoking personal post.
JO said…
I couldn't agree more. I love it (most of the time) - once, in a cafe in California, a group of young women were playing one-upwomanship about their jobs and their children, it all getting more and more fantastic. They took no notice of me scribbling in the corner, recording the whole conversation word for word.

It's not all wonderful, though. I've been in meeting where I've come up with an idea and it's ignored, only to have man repeat it a few minutes later and everyone think he's wonderful. So there are times we need to challenge it.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks for sharing those thoughts with us, Ros. There are several parallels in our career paths - although, of course, being a man, there were fewer occasions on which I was made to feel overlooked. But in so many areas, the gap between who one is and how one 'should be' (according to the perceived norms), is very evident. It's true for all of us but you convey very well how much wider and more frustrating that gap is for women.
Jan Needle said…
Ooh, what a lovely post! No help to your visibility, but I've just bought a book on the strength of it. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
I'm interested that your interpretation relates chiefly to being invisible to men, which, being sensible, doesn't bother you. My intelligent, much-travelled, portrait painter 91 year-old mother would disagree with you. In her experience, it's being invisible to everybody - male, female, young, middle-aged - that is so distressing. She is invisible in the street, in shops, even in church where everyone is younger. I see it in people's faces, without their even being aware of it, this assumption that she's too old to relate to properly and they literally do not 'see' her, addressing everything to me instead (much to her fury). I am sure it's the same for men, too, after a certain age. Then we'll all really know what being invisible means.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, everyone, for the interesting comments. Griselda, that's a very pertinent point, which I did not address. There's another blog post there! And of course I did not mean to exclude men from issues of invisibility and social pressure to conform.

Also, many thanks, Jan, for buying 'Lena's Nest' - hope you like it :-)
Yes, I've always thought 'women of a certain age' would make excellent spies...

The thing that worries me most is becoming invisible on my bicycle - it's bad enough already, getting motorists or people walking small dogs on those extendable leads on the shared cycle path to notice me coming. I am going to invest in a massive foghorn, instead of my silly little ping bell that half the retired population seem unable to hear anyway.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee