Becoming the invisible woman

What I am learning about ageing as I am getting older

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.

A weird thing started happening to me a few years ago, I started to become invisible. It wasn’t everywhere or all of the time – in the private sphere of my life I was still very much solid, visible and three dimensional, but I started to notice it happening occasionally on the public stage, like some sort of glitch.  Groups of teens and twenty-somethings would start looking through me as I walked along the street towards them. Or I’d stand waving a tenner at the front of a busy bar for what felt like hours whilst the staff served everyone to either side of me. 

It was disconcerting, but I knew immediately what was happening to me – I was getting old. My social and public stock was plummeting. And I am a woman, and sadly this seems to be something that women experience more keenly. You might think I’m in my sixties or something, but guess what? I’m not – I’m only 45, halfway through my life (as long as I start exercising more soon and cut down on the late nights and wine).

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known in the back of my mind ageing is inevitable, I just didn’t realise it would come around so quickly or that it would feel quite so brutal. But, whether you haven’t reached the invisibility stage yet or you are reading this nodding in wry recognition, there is something you should know – I’m discovering there is plenty of good stuff that comes hand in hand with getting older too. Ageing is a life situation that is neither tragedy nor cause for celebration, but is somehow both at the same time. If shit jokes please you, consider it a grey area. 

I’m beginning to see that all the crap that comes with ageing is external and all the good stuff is internal. By external, I mean not just the gradual onset of hip issues and the urge to splash out on miracle moisturisers, but the gaze and attitudes of those around you. Imagine a set of scales with your internal life on one side and your external side, your corporeal place in the world, on the left. For a long time the weights are equal, you rarely even notice your external and internal existence are actually separate entities at all, then suddenly the scales begin to tip. The side containing your internal life begins to rise exponentially, but, in order for this to happen, the side of the scales holding your external, corporeal side begins to plunge. 

I never turned heads as I walked into a room, even when I was younger, so I already know something of invisibility. I’ve never had a perfect body, I’ve always struggled with my weight. Sadly I was in my ‘physical prime’ during the 90s and 00s, when if you were a woman over a size 12 you were considered too fat to be attractive. But I didn’t realise until it started diminishing the social currency afforded to us by purely being in ownership of a great pair of tits, long smooth legs and unwrinkled skin. And I’m not just talking sexual currency. Just having ownership of the above got me access to spaces and situations with a lot less effort than it takes now. 

And what about sex and relationships? I could write a book about how nightmarish it is to suddenly realise you’re 45 and still floundering around in the dating pool. Finding a relationship when you’re becoming invisible is a laughable pursuit. Even the men of my age don’t really see the forty or fifty-something single women around them. I still have a healthy sex drive and want to fall in love as much as I did twenty-five years ago. No matter how fabulous we are, forty-plus women are considered second choice, lower-grade collateral on the cis/het dating market. I know this because I get so few good matches nowadays that I’ve deleted the dating apps. I also know this because I asked a man I know through a mutual friend out on a date last year. After a couple of months together he announced one evening that he wouldn’t have even considered me, or anyone else of my age, as a romantic prospect before I asked him out. But luckily for me, I’d won him over with my amazing personality and now he could see my true beauty. He is four years older than me. He is also now my ex.

I found something else out when I launched myself into the online dating world after a ten-year break, shortly after my 40th birthday. Although it was hard to find someone of my own age for a long-term relationship I could get spades and spades of sex if I wanted it – from younger men. I was genuinely and naively shocked that loads of twenty-five to thirty-year-olds were messaging me after hookups. I was shocked and appalled that they even thought I was that old. But apparently, older women are better in the sack.

I went out on a couple of dates with one gorgeous 28 year old, just because, oh my god, I could. It went well, we got on, then the first time we had sex (only the second time I’d had sex with a new partner after gaining ownership of a post-partum body) it ended up being a huge eyeopener that still makes me feel a bit sick nearly six years later. He was really into it, and really into me, but he wasn’t really. He was into the otherness of my body. He jiggled my stomach folds as he hungrily observed how they moved and told me I still looked good considering. He made no secret of the fact it was my anomalies that turned him on. I had become a kink overnight. Something slightly sordid to be ashamed of admitting to in front of your friends. Under his gaze my ageing body was all too visible, but he couldn’t see me

I see my ageing body all too clearly a lot of the time. I often feel regret when I look in the mirror after applying my daily oestrogen gel to my thighs and see wrinkles and lines, the bloom of broken veins slowly appearing, my stomach and my breasts sagging, my waist thickening and my ass flattening. I feel regret because I hated my body so much when I was younger – it was the enemy. Sometimes I would claw at my curves in disgust, crying big, hot, snotty tears of frustration, wanting to tear my own skin off, all the while failing to see what I should have been seeing – the glow of my skin, the luxury of my dark, thick hair, the natural energy that exudes from the under-forties in spades. I know this is a cliche but I wish I’d appreciated and celebrated it more when I had it.

And lastly, when talking about the negative aspects of ageing – let’s not forget those who think I should now be acting more my age. Dressing in clothes I don’t like which aid my invisibility, turning into someone I don’t want to be, avoiding the spaces that are supposedly designated for only the young but that I still enjoy being in. An expectation to make yourself even less visible in society. Know your place. An older family member said to me recently I looked and acted like I was 45 going on 20 – it was meant as an insult, but it really shouldn’t be. 

But this isn’t meant to be a pity party. Let’s move on to the other side of the scales – the rising side. I’m beginning to get a much better handle on how short life actually is – it is no longer spread out in front of me with no discernible end in sight. I want to squeeze out every last drop of joy and success I can. It’s an urgency that drives me forward more than any youthful ambition ever did. I want to achieve so much, and I now have the confidence to know I can do it. I can see myself more clearly even if I’m becoming invisible to others, and I’ve started to find the confidence to speak loudly and truthfully. I belong here. 

Now that I’m around halfway through my life I’ve got experience of quite a few beautiful, vital, difficult and also downright dull experiences under my belt. I want to fill every corner of my life and brain with the good stuff, because I know, sadly, the ratio is definitely weighted towards the dull and difficult. This is not cynicism, it’s a loss of naivety, and it fills me with a drive to make every aspect of my life I have any control over as exciting and fulfilling a version as it can be. I will not settle for mediocre if I have the choice, as I know there is so much dull mediocrity this society forces on us and will continue to in ever-increasing claims on our time and headspace as we age, whether that is because of increasing responsibilities, illness or incapacity. 

There is also freedom in invisibility – ask the celebrities, the oddities, the ones who are all-too-visible twenty-four-seven who would prefer to not always be seen and judged. As I become less observed in the public sphere I relish the freedom of not having to live up to the high standards of youth anymore. The nagging feeling I should appear to be sexy and alluring all of the time; to make an impression. This freedom, if at first it was disconcerting, is now slowly becoming liberating. I’m beginning to realise it frees me up to move more fluidly throughout my life. 

Oh, and remember that thing about sex with older women? The fuck boys on Tinder in search of a cougar are right about one thing – when I do occasionally manage to have sex, in spite of my increasing invisibility, it’s bloody great. I’m getting better and better at it and more confident and comfortable with my sexuality as every year passes.

I’m in an awkward transition period right now accepting my inevitable ageing, a bit like being a teenager in reverse, getting used to my new skin and my new place in society. But what I am learning to do is not focus on my shrinking visibility, my changing body, the presumptions people make about me based on my age, the people who will miss out on getting to know me, just because of my aesthetic failings in a world which worships youth above all else. I am learning to glance over all of that and firmly fix my gaze on people like me. The other older people who are also the open-minded, the fierce and the interesting. The beautiful and the experienced. The people who see me too. When the intoxication of a youthful body is stripped away you can spot any inner beauty shining through more clearly. We can spot each other a mile away whilst everyone else is busy taking selfies to post on Instagram. We are the ones refusing to grow old gracefully and disappear. 

To all of those who haven’t earned your badge yet, once you get here and get over the shock of your bumpy landing and have stopped trying to fight it, try to embrace the tipping scale. We will welcome you with open arms and offer you excellent conversation, quality cocktails, laughter, great sex and a huge dose of ‘I-don’t-give-a-shit-anymore’. Because what’s the alternative? You fade away.

Originally published in May 2022 in The Everyday Magazine.

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