Let’s be honest – you’ve been the one keeping things running smoothly in the lives of your family for years. You’ve been partner, parent, taxi, cook, housekeeper, the only one who can keep the calendar, and likely in charge of food procurement. And that just scratches the surface.
Many of you have done this while managing a career or alone.
So, why, given the many roles a woman plays in life and the lives of others, do so many women end up feeling invisible as they age?
There was probably a time in life when you felt noticed. And appreciated. And desired. And interesting. You were like a neon sign, grabbing the attention of those around you.
But now it feels like you’ve faded into one of the many shades of neutral that walls are painted so they go unnoticed and don’t clash with the exciting interior design choices.
Feeling invisible is a well-documented circumstance for women, and it becomes more and more common with age.
Although it can happen at any point, women in their 50s and 60s seem to be most affected, often reporting they feel:
The invisible woman phenomenon has even been referred to in the media, one of the most recognizable instances being Saturday Night Live’s Christmas skit, “Mom Got a Robe.”
A more recent example is demonstrated by Kathy Bate’s character in the upcoming Matlock reboot, saying, “There’s this funny thing that happens when women age – we become damn near invisible.”
But why? There are several reasons this can happen.
At the heart of the invisible woman phenomenon lie deeply entrenched societal norms and gender stereotypes that just won’t let go.
Throughout history, women have found themselves in roles primarily focused on caregiving, homemaking, and supporting others. As these traditional roles often happen behind the scenes, women can find themselves feeling sidelined and unappreciated for their contributions to both personal and professional realms.
Even though efforts to bury these stereotypes have made progress, they seem to have found a comfortable home in the world of seasoned women of a certain age. Too often, the women considered neon, i.e., vibrant, assertive, fun, and attractive, hit 50-60 and fade to neutral.
The media plays a pivotal role in shaping societal perceptions and standards. Although progress has been made, many media portrayals of aging women emphasize narrow definitions of beauty, success, and behavior.
Are you a ball-busting corporate exec or an overly sexualized cougar addicted to cosmetic surgery? If not, then who are you in your 50s-60s?
These limited portrayals are detrimental and exclude the truth of feminine experiences. The lack of relatable representation undermines women’s value and contribution and leaves many feeling irrelevant.
Subtle sexism and gaslighting can also erode a woman’s sense of visibility over time. Whether it’s being taken for granted and lack of appreciation, their opinions being dismissed, achievements downplayed, or ideas attributed to others, these microaggressions chip away at a woman’s self-esteem and make her feel unseen.
Compounding things turns into gaslighting, and results in a woman not being taken seriously when she expresses her feelings or stands up for herself.
These instances tend to intensify with age and accumulate, creating the sensation of invisibility.
Ageism is, unfortunately, real. And it can lead to a distressing experience for women as they age. Societal norms prioritize younger women, leaving those rising in wisdom feeling marginalized and neutral.
Let’s be clear – although common, the feeling of invisibility doesn’t happen to all women. When it does, however, it can cause significant unhappiness, distress and potentially lead to depression.
I worked with a woman recently who’s been dealing with feelings of invisibility. She described it this way:
“I’m like the motor in the car. I make everything work, but no one notices me unless I’m on the fritz. No one says, ‘Whoa – I love your motor,’ or ‘What can we do to improve the motor’s life?’ And if the motor needs maintenance, no one says, ‘Aw, poor motor. Let’s give you some attention.’ Instead, they complain, saying, ‘GD motor!! You’re ruining my day; why can’t you work the way you’re supposed to?’ And God forbid anyone make the motor feel pretty!”
Can you relate? I found it to be an apt description.
Other feelings that arise from feeling invisible include
All these feelings can be detrimental to not only mental health but physical health as well.
Although the invisible woman phenomenon is recognized as an issue, suggested solutions are high-level and superficial, creating more of an “industry” of self-care and girls-night-out ideas rather than real solutions. It’s the modern version of the make-her-life-easier-by-giving-her-a-new-vacuum.
Bath salts, lotions, and chardonnay don’t make women feel seen. And no woman has ever felt valued because someone gave her a new vacuum.
But there are some ways that both a woman and the people who love her can help bring back the neon and make her feel more visible.
To twist an old phrase, visible is as visible does. If you’re feeling like that motor no one sees, find ways to make them notice you. Express yourself through your appearance, style, and communication. Stay true to who you are while being open to updating your style to reflect your personality.
Continuing to learn new things will open up many doors. New interests mean meeting new people, having new conversations, and maintaining brain health and plasticity. So, take courses, attend workshops, or pursue certifications in areas that interest you.
Technology is a big part of modern life and not only makes life easier in many cases but can also be a creative and social outlet. Familiarize yourself with digital tools, social media platforms, and communication apps.
Some of you are saying, “Do you mean making friends?” Yes, but it’s more than that. Even if you’re retired, building and maintaining a solid network of contacts of all kinds is essential.
Attend professional and social events, join clubs or organizations, and connect with people in your field or areas of interest. Networking can lead to new opportunities and keep you connected with relevant trends.
Taking care of your physical and mental health is crucial. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep improve overall well-being. And these efforts can become a source of social engagement as well.
Getting involved in your community through volunteering or charitable work can help you feel more connected and relevant. It also allows you to make a positive impact on the lives of others and maintain a social network.
Change is the only constant in life, so don’t be afraid of it. Adaptability is a skill that keeps you feeling visible and relevant. Rather than working against change, embrace it and move with it.
“Growth mindset” may be the buzzword de jour, but it’s also important. Believe in your ability to learn and improve. A growth mindset encourages you to see challenges as opportunities for growth rather than obstacles.
With age comes experience. Consider mentoring or coaching younger individuals. There’s an incredible shortage of those who can mentor, coach, and teach in various areas.
Pursue hobbies and interests that you’re passionate about. Engaging in activities you love energizes you and connects you with like-minded individuals.
Being dismissed or taken too lightly can lead to someone feeling invisible.
Show genuine interest in her thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Engage in activities you both enjoy, whether it’s going for a walk, cooking a meal, or watching a movie. This dedicated time helps build a stronger connection.
Let her know you appreciate her contributions and their individual strengths.
Physical touch can convey love and affection.
Recognize her effort, whether it’s work, parenting, household responsibilities, or personal hobbies.
Engage in conversations about her interests, hobbies, and passions. Show genuine curiosity and ask questions. People change over time – you may be surprised by what you learn.
Surprise her with random acts of kindness that show you care.
If you’ve felt like the invisible woman, the unrecognized motor, or like your neon has gone neutral, remember that your feelings are valid. You deserve to be seen, heard, and valued.
Although it may take time, you can and should make changes that bring you out of the shadows. But for changes to occur, you’ll need to take proactive steps toward addressing your feelings.
And no matter what anyone says, who you are and what you think has intrinsic worth. Just ask Kathy Bates. After remarking on the invisibility of women of a certain age, she goes on to point out that “It’s useful because nobody sees us coming.”
Do you sometimes feel invisible? Does it feel like your neon has dimmed over the years? What have you done to make yourself feel more relevant and seen?