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The invisible years

There should be a required class for people approaching 50, one that prepares women for becoming invisible and men for their rage against mortality. The curriculum could include Germaine Greer on "the change," Susan Sontag on the accompanying shame of aging, and endless others with their wise one-liners on fate, beauty, age and change.

But maybe this phenomenon of being a middle-aged woman in a youth-obsessed culture can only be experienced, not learned through the experience of others.

Here's the way it goes. You have passed through decades feeling relatively attractive, enjoying the smiles and glances of men while still wanting to be taken seriously. Men held doors for you, moved to offer you their chairs. You enjoyed a mutual brush of shoulders in a crowded room and the admiring glance that followed.

Then, in the years following age 45, you disappeared. Not to yourself, certainly, as you were going through physical uprisings that reminded you constantly of something phenomenal happening within your body. But when you sat at a restaurant alone, the eyes of men your age no longer met yours. Sometimes you had to remind the waiter that you were there. When you walked down a sidewalk at night, heads did not turn, greetings were not exchanged with strangers. You were distinctly alone and invisible.

Had anyone told me this would happen, I wouldn't have believed it. Then it happened to me and I started watching. Women my age became social and sexual phantoms in the midst of men our age who were straining toward youth, toward women younger than them, toward youthful beauty, away from the certainty of their own aging.

Does it really matter? Probably not, in the larger scheme of things. The gift for women at age 50 is that they finally get to know themselves, some for the first time in their lives. After all the years of caring for children, cleaning up other people's messes, arranging other people's lives, the 50-year-old woman faces herself and asks: Who are you anyway? It can be a moment of despair or enlightenment, or both. But it's a step in the direction of wholeness, a step away from the need to please others.

And needing to please others is not what the shock of this sudden invisibility of middle age is about. It's about the loss of human communion, the absence of a sexual charge, the reality that you are alone.

When I try to imagine the days before I became invisible, I remember traveling with my then teen-age daughter in France and Italy. We walked the streets of Venice and Florence, Paris and Nice, our arms entwined, our eyes searching the sidewalks for new sights. We passed strangers, men who looked at her, looked at me, smiled and nodded, tipped their hats, opened doors for us, admired us with their eyes. We were alive and visible.

"A grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl in order to remain in the land of the living," said Greer in her book The Change. But women my age are urged to do just that constantly, to stem the tide of aging by pretending to be younger.

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine filled me with outrage and sorrow as I read the wonderful essayist Daphne Merkin's piece on aging and plastic surgery. Merkin brilliantly described the phenomenon of becoming invisible at 50, the indignity of it, the insult. She considered cosmetic surgery, rejected the idea and finally settled on Botox injections to plump up her eyelids, raise her eyebrows, lessen the lines in her face. She described the shots, the bruises and dots of dried blood left on her face, then the letdown when her friends didn't perceive anything different about her following the procedure. Still, she defended it, arguing that if getting Botox injections made her feel the slightest bit more attractive and less invisible, then it was justified.

Maybe so. It's no different than the 50-year-old guy who lifts weights, works out obsessively at the gym, gets hair implants and struggles constantly to look attractive to the woman 10 years younger.

As for me, I'm finding things to like about being invisible. I can wander and observe, free of attention, free to hear and see without worrying about how I look, since no one's looking. I'm sure to become even more invisible as the years pass, and that's OK, too. Aging has brought with it great surprises and will, no doubt, surprise again. Until then, I'll walk with curiosity, scanning the sidewalks, certain that, invisible or not, I'm still here.

--kathyrn@csindy.com

  • The invisible years

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