How older women can combat feeling invisible or unseen in social situations
Q. I recently attended my grandson’s high school graduation party with his classmates and my son-in-law and daughter’s friends. Although I have seen some of these people before, at age 76 I felt completely invisible. Needless to say, this was not a good family feeling. Do you have any comments on this? Many thanks. N.N.
The situation you describe has been referred to as the Invisible Woman Syndrome. A survey by Gransnet found 70 percent of women in their study believe they will become invisible as they get older, feeling “unseen, overlooked, and patronized.” And that starts at age 52. Furthermore, two-thirds report that with age, women tend to be less visible than men drawing attention to society’s value on youth and beauty.
Feeling invisible as an older woman does not only apply to family situations. Akiko Busch writes in the Atlantic that the feeling of being invisible might be the “actor in her 40s who is no longer offered roles, the 50-year-old woman who cannot get a job interview or the older widow who receives fewer, if any, dinner invitations.”
I asked several older women if they ever felt invisible or if they observed such a situation. Several did not have that experience but knew others who did. Here are some of their replies.
A successful entrepreneur and author wrote, “I don’t recall feeling that. Probably because I am an overbearing extrovert.”
“I find that people I don’t know at a gathering don’t reach out to me. Uber and Lyft drivers don’t say a word to me. On the other hand, people let me go ahead of them. That’s the case in the line at a restroom, restaurant and theater. And people who are strangers offer to carry things for me. So, it’s a mixed bag.” That’s from a retired nonprofit leader.
A retired journalist noted, “I have never had that experience, but I know others who have complained about it. I remember one older woman recounting how at a party another guest asked her what she did. When she said she was a retired teacher, he walked away while she was talking and spoke to some younger people.”
“It can be unnerving to be in an institutional social setting where I once had significant recognition and a certain degree of authority,” said a retired dean. That was the case at my university and with my chorus. I realized that the majority of the people around me know that I am completely unknown. But male colleagues relate similar tales.”
A friend in New York writes, “I hopped on a crowded subway car and saw a young guy get up and offer his seat to a young blonde woman. That’s while ten to 12 gray-haired women were standing holding on to grab bars.”
Joyce Cohen, co-founder of My Future Purpose and Life Planning Specialist reports that she has not felt invisible, but observed such situations.
“Where I see it most is in stores where young male cashiers will wait on and converse with the blonde cutie vs. the older woman who is shuffled along quickly or not seen or waited on at all. I see it in restaurants where older (especially women) are hastily waited on especially by young male waiters with little dialogue and connection. It’s in the workplace where older women are passed up for actual jobs, promotions and projects.”
Cohen facilitates a weekly group that repeatedly has addressed this issue. Here are her 13 tips to prevent feeling invisible from becoming one’s reality.
Be interested & interesting
Stay current about world events
Show interest in others; make appropriate conversation
Dress well and age appropriately
Take an interest in people who are younger and older than yourself
Stay curious about life
Respect your life and stay engaged
Engage in conversation with wallflowers
Reciprocate social invitations with small gifts, thank you notes and your own invitations
Always speak kindly of others and avoid gossip
Cultivate self-confidence and social graces
Encourage or coach your friends, colleagues and family members to NOT allow themselves to fall into that trap.
Cohen ends her advice with these words: “Stay upbeat and optimistic. Love yourself most of all and turn inward to your own self as the best company there is. Then others are likely to turn to you for good company.”
Thank you, N.N., for your asking a question that others may feel uncomfortable asking. Hopefully, these tips will be helpful to you and to others having similar experiences. Stay well and know that kindness is everything.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity