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When It No Longer Matters How You Look

The Sham of Invisibility

Duncan Cuthbertson / Shutterstock

An old friend (pun intended) spoke of the new freedom she feels through social invisibility as she grows older. She says she feels liberated now that the pressure is off to appear “beautiful, sexy and youthful.” You see, it doesn’t matter how you look. After all, nobody looks at you. What does it matter if your eyes look tired, your jaw sags, your frown lines appear angry, and you have toilet paper trailing from your shoe as you wind your way through the grocery aisles? Who’s watching? 

I am watching, and I have my doubts.

How, for instance, do I achieve invisibility in a mirror? How can I avoid noticing my gradual disintegration: my blotchy skin, sagging neck, my dull, straw-like hair? How do I prevent the compulsion to disguise these things from my partner, friends or my hairdresser? What is the secret to keeping my ego intact as I attempt to hide my lobster-claw hands under extra-long sleeves — or in a pinch, just sit on them.

As a young woman, I followed the rules that existed long before I was born— the rules of visibility. Precedents that dictate how a young woman should speak — softly using her inside voice — rules about walking, sitting, getting in and out of cars, and making her presence and opinions known without coming across as bossy and shrill. So many of a young woman’s daily transactions — at home, school and the workplace — involve the appearance, upkeep, movement and posturing of her body and how closely she performs the always impossible standards for feminine beauty and behaviour of the day. For my part, I gave my level best to fit the bill, and I failed spectacularly.

My friend and I agree that those days were hellishly painful. More often than not, I felt as painfully invisible in my twenties as I do today. That is not to say that women — both young and old — do not now, and have not always, worked to subvert the rules of femininity. Instead, it seems such a burdensome use of our creative energies having to confront or adhere to these outworn standards in the first place.

The critical difference now is that people advise me to celebrate my invisibility, to see it as an opportunity for active rebellion, a kind of freedom from the social ‘monitoring’ I endured in my clear-eyed youth. But I don’t feel the freedom.

sk@rollelflex graphy / Unsplash

Instead, my invisibility feels like an ejection from society. When you’re invisible, people can walk right through you — sometimes they nearly do. Women of a certain age often face a choice of desexualized obscurity or a mammoth, painful, dangerous and expensive struggle to scaffold up the sags, bags and wrinkles to maintain sexual relevance. Either way, it matters how we look.

Last week I stumbled upon an article on Medium by Carole Lennox. In it, she laments the absence of ‘sexy older women‘ in Unsplash images. Inspired, I searched for stock photos of ‘sexy’ older women on four different platforms — in all, I had few reasonable hits. Either the ‘older women’ were scarcely over thirty, or sexy seemed redefined as a smiling woman looking out at the ocean from her yoga mat. More generalized searches for images of older women produced grandmotherly types or silver-haired women smiling as they engage in exhilarating activities — but not sex. Sexuality left the building for these robustly healthy lady-eunuchs.

Duncan Cuthbertson / Shutterstock

While I don’t expect to set the world on fire with my (clears throat) stunning looks. But surely a sweet spot exists for the ‘mature woman’ — somewhere in the balance of a sexy siren and a sack of potatoes. Maybe we need a saturation campaign that normalizes and makes radically visible the (not) unsightly images of our ageing and (im)perfect flesh — a movement that defiantly boasts our wise, wonderful, relevant and supremely sexy and sexual selves. I’m willing to give it a go.

So, who’s with me?

#beautystandards #olderwomen #socialconstructionoffemininity #fadinglooks #Ageing

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