By my early 40s I often considered and referred to myself as an elder sage. My kids and friends would scoff, “Stop talking like you’re older than you are.” I persisted with the notion, however, in part to prepare for the day when the lever would switch and I’d suddenly become “old.” (Yep, I thought it worked that way.) I think I also did this because I’m naturally cantankerous and could tell that the concept of being old freaks some people out. I felt fearless in speaking about my aging head-on.
As I’ve aged, this time for real and feeling ever more sage-like (or, some days, just “old”), I’ve discovered that aging doesn’t happen all at once but is a gradual process—both physically and mentally. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it was news to me. Not to be overly dramatic, but now the phrase “death of a thousand cuts” seems to apply. Each day that we complete (with the fortune to wake up to another), we have become older. We are in a day-after-day exodus from our youth. Then, with that acquisition of years on our personal timeline, we gradually reach some arbitrary age and notice that time has passed along, and we wonder, “How did that happen?”
So, I’ve learned that this becoming old does not happen in one fell swoop and needn’t be negative emotionally either. It is all relative and a matter of spin because even though I’m aging, I’m also younger today than I will be tomorrow.
In popular culture, however, the messaging has some resonating negativity, and there does seem to be a paradigm shift of attitude toward older people. We could argue this is even truer for women. I don’t mean for it to sound like a tug-of-war between youth and age, but there are societal attitudes that prevail about aging that render many of us over 50 “uninteresting,” “irrelevant” or even “invisible.”
And yet, these days, there are so many more of us over 50 that maybe, hopefully, with a little mindfulness this invisibility spell is lifting. Whatever the social recognition, the ground does shift beneath us with other preoccupations that come along with getting older. Our bodies have changed, obviously—the skin isn’t as elastic, our hair is graying or completely gray, and many of us carry a collection of readers wholly necessary to function. The big, fat arrow of “old” is pointed toward us, and we get it.
But the space between 50 and 70 also presents another unexpected quandary: the disappearing act of real retirement. We are still working, often still raising our kids, and remain active throughout this transition. We may be walking timebombs of aging, but feeling more like tweens of the older set. It’s like the character Evelyn (played by Kathy Bates) says in Fried Green Tomatoes to her older friend Ninny (played by Jessica Tandy), “I’m too young to be old and too old to be young.”
THE INVISIBILITY OF THE WOMAN OVER 50
For women over 50, there is less ambiguity in society about the fact that we’ve aged. In our culture, the message is loud and clear—and fairly swift on many fronts. We become invisible and less valued when we speak. There are many subtle ways we sense it from our daily interactions, within our professional roles, and most decidedly in the way we are viewed as sexual beings in the world.
I’ll cite the last point by way of a personal example (any woman over 50 will have several). When a young woman walks down the street there is, unfortunately, a certain amount of honking and yelling that takes place. Young women out strolling in public elicit honestly weird behavior from a subset of men who consider young women an “easy target.” This phenomenon has NOTHING to do with a young woman’s beauty and has everything to do with the vulnerability these particular males perceive.
Then, at some point, as a woman ages, the honks and yells stop. I remember when I realized it and was so thrilled. All the sudden I could go anywhere and look just as I pleased because I was literally invisible to that annoying yelling group of men. Free, at last, to be left alone.
And in recent years, as a woman over 50, I’ve felt that sensation of invisibility creep in elsewhere. It happens by degrees until the metamorphosis is complete and unmistakable. For me, there came a point when I realized that my words and thoughts just didn’t weigh as much in social situations. And when I didn’t feel like being visible, anyway, it was easy to just melt back into the scenery. Sharon Greenthal wrote a wonderful piece over at Empty House Full Mind titled, “Invisible but Not Unseen at Midlife” about the benefits of this time in life and the advantages that come with this invisible status.
To be clear, there are perks, but there are disadvantages, too. When a woman over 50 speaks forcefully and with passion, there will be those who find her to be shrill. And, in fact, they may express that she is irrelevant and should be silent.
Not to get all political (because I know people had reasons they didn’t like Hillary Clinton), but I’d bet real money that some of her detractors were all about shutting her up because of her gender and age. Those two factors, together, specifically. Our society doesn’t favor the older gal who speaks out and demands to be seen. We just haven’t gotten there yet.
THE SUPERHEROES OF THE OVER-50
It can be difficult for some of us to make the transition, but I offer up the idea that, as we age, and in particular as women age, we have the opportunity to exhibit our superhuman strengths in this world nonetheless.
It’s a time in life when we have more clarity as to who we are and are less apologetic about the space we take up. We have wisdom and hence more humility to look in and out and realize our role to help heal and change outcomes.
And that level of invisibility even provides us an element of surprise should we decide to step out from behind our cloak to speak up. We have the advantage of stealth and can use our superhero skills wisely.
WEAR YOUR SUPERPOWER ON YOUR CHEST
I talked about all of this with my daughter Alexandra, and we brainstormed on ideas for creating a t-shirt mantra to empower over-50 women and the people who love them. Alexandra ran with the idea and came up with our latest design over at Storied Gifts Shop.
Note that she turned the “not invisible” on its ear and prominently placed invincible right where it should be, front and center.
I plan to wear this shirt just about everywhere I can to attest to the fact that I’m proud of having made it this far and particularly glad to be in my older lady comfortable shoes. Join me in the celebration, and remind yourself and the world you’re invincible!
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