You are here

Invisible woman syndrome can make aging hard

By Julie Hunter
Women's Services Inc.

A not so funny thing happened to me this summer.  I turned fifty.  And unlike some of those Instagram #fitfab50 women you see, I was not feeling fit or fabulous. In fact, I was feeling pretty crappy about myself and I went into a funk, big time. 

For someone who was raised by an intelligent, strong and empowered woman who treated compliments on her daughter’s physical appearance with disdain and who instilled in me the importance and value of my brainpower, how could I be feeling so bad about something so superficial as my aging visage?  Who was this woman and what had she done to the smart, confident daughter my mother raised?  And the fact that I consider myself a feminist just added to the insult of my perceived injury. It felt wrong on so many levels and I couldn’t make sense of it or pull myself out of the funk so I went all in and just wallowed in it.  It wasn’t pretty, pun intended.

Then this happened.  A man I had never met told me I was beautiful and congratulated my husband on marrying so well.  And for a moment that compliment made me feel good about myself again, which then made me mad. Then this happened.  I decided to stop coloring my gray hairs and aside from the horror of the women at the hair salon, the response that annoyed me the most was “what does your husband think about that?”  Say what?  I assure you no one has ever asked me what I thought about my husband going bald.  And just like that I was out of my funk.

Aging isn’t easy on anyone, but there is a well-known social phenomenon called Invisible Woman Syndrome that can make it particularly hard on women. The feeling of not being seen is often acutely felt by middle-age women.  At the half century mark, men are typically viewed as being at the zenith of their professional and personal lives, often leading organizations and companies and are viewed as accomplished and experienced.  This is in contrast to women whose main stock in trade is assumed to be their physical appearance, which we’re sold and told should be youthful and appealing to the male gaze.  

A survey that studied 2,000 women revealed that by the time they reach the age of 51, many women believed they had become invisible to men. Only 15% of the women felt that they had high or very high confidence in ANY area of their lives and 46% thought no one understood or addressed what aging and older women go through.

Be it the maturation of our physical features, an empty nest, or being ignored or overlooked in public and social settings, there is an overwhelming feeling of being invisible and irrelevant for many women over 50.  But here’s the kicker, the invisibility and irrelevance that these women feel, is actually backed up by numbers, actually one number, 49. 

It turns out that lots of data, including metrics on health, employment, assets, domestic violence, and sexual abuse stop at age 49.  The explanation for this limited age framework is that it stems from a focus on women of reproductive age.  

At this intersection of middle age, sexism and ageism are parallel roads that many suggest disproportionately impact women. Studies reveal that women today strive to achieve aesthetic ideals because they recognize the correlation between beauty and social standing. According to Dr. Vivian Diller's book Face It: What Women Really Feel as their Looks Change and What to Do About It, "most women agree, reporting that good looks continue to be associated with respect, legitimacy, and power in their relationships."  In the business world, hiring, evaluations and promotions based on physical appearance push women to place the importance of beauty above that of their work and skills.

In a recent study entitled Is it Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? researchers from The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that “physical appearance matters more for women” since “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.” But does our physical appearance really matter more?

As I sat and watched the Emmy awards last month, I did what I invariably do when I watch things like this. I look at the women in attendance that are my age and compare my aging process to theirs.  How well did I stack up?  Now it hardly seems fair that this happens to be Nicole Kidman and Cindy Crawford, but as I sat there, I was reminded of a quote by Iyanla Vanzant. “Comparison is an act of violence against the self.”  As an anti-violence advocate the irony is not lost on me. The work I do needs to start with me. And so it will.