Invisible (Wo)Man

Midlife is a transition point, the antechamber between youth and old age, where it feels more upsetting to close the doors of our past than exciting to open the ones ahead. Let's shed those fears.

I remained friends for a time with a man who broke up with me after confessing his Amy Adams obsession and desire for a petite ingenue. I was ultimately relieved, as I’m built like a discus thrower and he like an Elf on the Shelf. Being naked with him felt a bit creepy, as though he hadn’t quite reached the age of consent.

When he eventually found his beautiful waif, she turned out to have a hair-trigger temper and frequently screamed at him for the smallest perceived sleight. He brought his laments to me and I shook my head, speculating that “Hot” on the X-axis often corresponds with “Crazy” on the Y. He kept trying to placate her and I kept reminding him that he needed to accept her crazy if he wanted to enjoy her hot.

Then over lunch one day he said, “I’ve figured it out. I know why I can’t give her up.”

“What’s that?” I said, licking the chocolate mousse from my decidedly not petite fingers.

“When we walk down the street together, people look at her because she’s gorgeous. But they stare at me. It’s like they’re trying to work out how I’ve managed to have this beautiful woman on my arm. And when she’s not by my side, well, I’m invisible.”

It was true. Like a male Clarissa Dalloway, he was a middle-aged Everyman, pleasant enough to look at but not outstanding. I was a bit shocked by his shallowness but touched by his vulnerable disclosure. His merits, which had endeared me to him, were numerous. He was a man who always arrived with flowers, offered appreciative compliments, cooked like a pro and picked up the bill. He was lovely beyond his looks, and all manner of women were attracted to him, even the hot and crazy ones.

“I thought it was just older women who felt invisible,” I said, having noticed midlife invisibility becoming an ear splitting online talking point.

“No way,” he said, then showed me a photo of himself in his 20’s, looking like an Australian surfer dude. I nodded, then realized I was genuinely thankful I had never possessed the kind of external beauty that could be lamented for its loss.

But he had defined himself in that moment and it’s when he lost his appeal. To complain about feeling invisible seemed like the ultimate confession of shallowness. None of my midlife girlfriends were bemoaning their waning looks. We weren’t the beautiful ones. We were just trying to keep up with our young kids. My relationship with this man ended a short time later when his hot and crazy girlfriend called me up to ask if I was aware he was married and if I knew any of the six other women he sent daily flirty texts to. I told her no, I only knew about her and that was already trying my patience. I advised her to put him in a tiny metaphorical box and bury him in a pile of shit, at which point he got on the phone and told me to fuck off.

With so many of us pondering our sense of value and purpose as we emerge from a devastating pandemic, I’ve been thinking again about midlife invisibility, both its comforts and discontents. I’ve lived life mostly as an observer, not the observed. My career revolved around conversations between a patient and provider and it was my job to see the person in front of me, not the other way around. I have only ever once been cat called and that was by my then-husband in a parking garage. I’ve been generally invisible to the world at large since the day I took my first breath. I’m absolutely fine with that.

I don’t have the perspective of a woman in a competitive field who might have become accustomed to using her looks to her professional advantage (or being denied due to their lack). If I had a hundred wishes number ninety-nine might be, “Be reborn a hottie with the charisma of Barack Obama.” Yet this perception of invisibility strikes me as nothing more than nostalgia for the past. Midlife, though liberating in very many respects, is beset with loss: The loss of a marriage (or two); children who have flown the coop; the death of parents and a few unfortunate friends; the elasticity around one’s knees. Yeah, it can suck. But I suspect this feeling of invisibility is simply a transition point, the antechamber between youth and old age where it feels more upsetting to close the doors of our past than exciting to open the ones ahead of us.

Colette wrote Break of Day in her mid-fifties to celebrate a post-partnered, post-sexual self (her second marriage had just broken up), feeling enriched by her deeper powers of observation and an increased desire for intense friendships. She also wrote the novella to glorify “the supreme elegance of knowing how to wane.” And though I’m gradually waning, I’m certainly not post-sexual. Yet this account of finding power within the realities of aging is one of the best literary gems we have on the benefits of this so-called invisibility.

Are men other than my ex-friend suffering a similar notion of invisibility when they reach a certain age? As I searched online for articles on the topic of midlife invisibility, what struck me as odd was how one-sided it appears; that women are acutely aware of their changing visibility and men don’t seem to be bothered, at least not enough to write about it. This doesn’t mean men aren’t having their own midlife issues.

The proverbial male “midlife crisis” is generally defined as a transition of identity and self-confidence that occurs in middle-age (typically 45 to 64 years old). This distressful psychological shift is attributed to the effects of aging, looming mortality, or a sense that a man hasn’t achieved his life goals – and never will. Changes in behavior associated with this state may include impulsive spending, obsession with looks, increased use of alcohol or drugs, depression and anxiety, or having affairs with much younger women. Not all men will go through this but those who do are likely experiencing a parallel sense of loss, less tied to their appearances than the perceived value of their accomplishments.

Having uncovered only one piece on male invisibility (A Gay Man at Midlife Ponders Being Lonely and ‘Invisible’) I decided to ask a handful of my male readers if they’ve had a middle-aged sense of invisibility. I wrote: “When I Google the words “midlife invisibility” there are essentially no male voices writing about it. Is invisibility something that only females who have been gazed upon for most of their early lives experience? How do you feel about it?”

The men I surveyed didn’t feel particularly invisible, though say they’ve heard it happens. They seem to agree that invisibility is a product of being overly concerned with one’s outward appearance. “I did not feel particularly visible in my younger years. I am 67, almost 68, and I feel more visible [now] than ever. I think it has a fair amount to do with how I feel about myself.”

The answer that struck me most addressed the experience of age in general: “I believe that one thing that makes both women and men somewhat invisible is the feeling they give off of not being so alive, not so vibrant, not so passionate, as if they have given up on life and change and are trudging forward in a rut of familiar actions.” His point is well worth considering; perhaps it’s not other people’s inability to see us, but our own withdrawal from being seen. We don’t need to dress flamboyantly, become loud mouths or vie for attention in a crowd. But I have no doubt an exuberance for life and engagement with those around us is reflected in every gesture, even in the simple act of ordering a coffee.

Several readers used the word “clueless” to describe men when it came to a sense of their own desirability. And were it not for the persistence of women they would probably drift aimlessly, and partner-less, into old age. Most of us are aware that the suicide rate is highest among middle-aged white men, accounting for an astonishing 70% of self-inflicted deaths in the U.S. in 2019. In Why are middle aged white men more likely to die by suicide? Dr. Lisa Baker cites “serious life stressors like intimate partner problems, legal issues, finances and health concerns” as the primary reasons for male suicide. Men have a harder time turning to friends for support or seeking out therapy. Say what you will about white male privilege, many of them are not experiencing good mental health and the contentments of age, regardless of visibility.

When my respondents commented on why some women remain visible well into their later years, this sums it up: “Older women who have had good lives and who have good souls–you can see it in their faces. I think part of it has to do with the way the lines go on their faces, and partly, if they’re deeply happy, they shine.” We’ve all felt this kind of person, the way they light up the room and shower their unconditional positive regard upon us rather than suck the life out of others with their wounded suspicions.

At its most fortunate, old age is an opportunity. Francine du Plessix Gray in her essay “The Third Age” suggests one might choose to “acquire… a deepened inward gaze, or intensify our observation of others, or evolve alternative means of attention-getting which transcend sexuality and depend, as the mentors of my youth taught me, upon presence, authority, and voice.”

The irony of this is, of course, that we have intensified our observation of others over social media, becoming consumers of visual stimuli from our screens rather than interacting with those we might have genuine relationships with. There are benefits to online connections, but should this be where we focus our interactions? Is our visibility now measured by the number of “likes” we receive? We are already largely disconnected from the natural world and even more so from each other every time we check notifications. When my father suggested he might want an Apple Watch for his 80th birthday I snapped that he already spends too much time, while in my company, with his phone in front of his face.

Confidence eroding social and mainstream media images are our daily multi-headed hydra. The beast is subdued by walking away from the battle. I spend more time now listening to radio and podcasts, reading books, volunteering and working in my garden. I spend about thirty seconds a day on Instagram to see what a few friends are up to. But social media is so clogged with images that make me feel my life is in need of constant improvement rather than enjoyed. And why, I scream at my app, do I keep seeing 25 year-old lingerie models in my feed when I follow so many unsung writers and social justice accounts?! Fuck you, Facebook!

What’s infinitely more important to me than youth or beauty is feeling visible to the people I love. I can’t think of anything more important than feeling seen, really seen, by a partner, family member or friend. I don’t expect them to read my mind, but I do feel gloriously affirmed when someone I care about can read my face and acknowledge my state. This is at the core of Emotional Intelligence (EI), the ability to not only understand your own emotions and regulate them with respect to the social environment, but to do the same for others. If we can recognize distress, anger or fear in a loved one’s face, it’s our emotional intelligence that drives us to respond to their needs. In my perfect world there exists a dating app that requires a minimal passing score on an emotional intelligence test before becoming a user.

I guess, in a sense, I still want the male gaze, just not from a stranger. I want a lover to look me in the eyes and convey the many emotions of a deep connection; for us both to respond to each other with empathy and support, desire and joy. I want a less intimate but similar response from my family and friends. I will do my best to illustrate this myself, put down my device in the presence of others and make it clear: You are visible to me. And that’s what matters most, regardless of age or status.

Love, Karin

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