Invisible Woman Syndrome

I think I’ve found one “syndrome/complex” I don’t have! I’m not saying it’s not real; it is just one I have not (yet?) experienced – Invisible Woman Syndrome. I’ve written before about the Bag Lady Syndrome and the Imposter Complex. (Link here) I have experienced both – not that either has any truth to them, but experiential feelings are not always truth.  Recently I’ve heard a number of (older, accomplished, amazing) women mention their “feeling invisible” and felt the need to delve deeper – rabbit hole time!

[This post is really woman focused, but I think men being aware of it can also be helpful to change the culture.]

On diving in to this topic, a number of articles/blog posts quickly popped up. Invisible Woman Syndrome is being ignored or overlooked in public and social settings, which leads to feeling invisible and irrelevant.

Unfortunate, this invisibility factor is real. It is based on the societal view of the role of a woman, which despite advances made by women is still deeply ingrained. If a woman is not seen as being either attractive or a filling the role of a mother (two acceptable roles for adult women), she has no value – she is invisible. So with the maturation of our physical features (loss of youthful beauty) and/or having an empty nest (loss of motherhood status), there is not any “value for a woman”. 

Yes, I know, the Feminist Revolution.  We were raised to believe a woman could be anything she wants; it was all about intelligence, capability, striving and accomplishment.  We (as I was one) took full advantage of our ability to “be just like a man” – climbing the ladder, focusing on achievements, being a productive member of society.

So, how could we be feeling so bad about something so superficial as an aging appearance if you are an enlightened feminist?  

Unfortunately, ours is still a culture which objectifies women. So, when a woman finds her youth faded, childbearing years behind her, maybe not working anymore and being respected as a “masculine contributor”, her social value is diminished and she becomes invisible.

Getting older means being ignored in a culture that continues to equate youth with value; as you age, you simply lose cultural currency.  Our culture is rife with basic ageism – you are discriminated against in the workforce because age is seen as slower, less flexible, outdated with technology, irrelevant to today’s problems. Sales marketing and most entertainment programing still focus on younger people, despite the fact that many older people have discretionary money. The young (and beautiful?) just seem to get the attention from sales/service people! Being invisible is disconcerting, frustrating, even hurtful.

How deeply embedded is this concept of aging/youth and beauty? How many women are fighting their gray hair?  Are trying to fight aging with surgical procedures?  Still not proudly declaring their age?  Or perpetrating aging jokes/memes?  How about being thrilled when told they look younger than they are? Yes, I cringed at these examples, as I am guilty of a number of them myself!

But the articles go on that the best way to fight invisibility is to make yourself feel relevant (not try to regain youthful appearance). When you feel relevant, you have an inner beauty, a positive glow. The steps to make yourself feel relevant might not stop the being ignored, but it might as you’ll have more presence. There was also some advice for both men and women to “see older women”.  Just like with practicing kindness, it is about working to shift the culture one experience at a time. These are small steps we can all take as individuals to make the culture shift – show the world how relevant older women are, see older women in the world around us, and eliminate the Invisible Woman Syndrome!

How to feel more relevant: be actively involved in life, have a positive and interesting lifestyle, be connected to interesting people, be involved in the now, and be confident in your identity (not tied to youthful beauty or motherhood or past career).

It was interesting to me that the recommended elements to feel relevant are similar to the recommended elements to living a satisfying life in retirement!  Maybe that is why I’m not experiencing the Invisible Woman Syndrome myself?  Or is it just coming in my future?

Have you felt invisible?

Picture Credit: Me at a local Cycad & Palm Arboretum this week.

19 thoughts on “Invisible Woman Syndrome

  1. As a young woman, I endured and often detested the cat calls I received from strange men. I sometimes longed to feel invisible or at least unnoticed. And it wasn’t that I was some raving beauty. I just had breasts and two legs…often more than enough for some men to make notice of on any woman they cross paths with. Now days it is the rare, very rare occasion that I see anyone take notice of me (physically). And that’s okay. I was never comfortable with attention. There are days when I still long to be invisible. Usually because my hair is squirrely, I am wearing sweat pants and no make up and feeling chubby. I just want to go through my day like a whisper or a ghost.

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    1. You are not the first person who has said that they like being invisible. It’s fascinating how some like the freedom invisibility provides and others feel it’s a loss of identity. I’ve not felt invisible (yet?), so I’m not really sure where on the spectrum I will fall.

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  2. Interesting post Pat. I have never felt invisible as such but as a female school principal in a cohort which were at least 75% men, I know that the men made sure they were heard. However, we women got the jobs done. As an older woman now I quite like my invisibility and I take the choice about whether to involve myself or not. I have always mixed with groups of people from all ages and tend to enjoy the company of those 10-20 years younger than my peers who are over 70.

    It’s been great to have you share your post this week for #lifethisweek on Denyse Whelan Blogs. Thank you. I hope you will be back next week, where the optional prompt is “young” but my guest poster, Mr Whelan, is sharing his thoughts for the final time on the blog in 2021 on a different topic. See you there, Denyse.

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    1. I chuckled about your “liking the invisibility”. Others have mentioned that as well. With invisibility comes no expectations, no responsibilities, lots of time to do whatever you want. There is a positiveness to it.

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  3. I read a post recently in LitHub about the invisibility of middle aged women. I felt like I couldn’t relate but then I pondered the difficulty I’ve had finding a job over the last few years. Those who have given me a chance have been other ‘older’ people so it did make me wonder if my skills and experience were (because of my age) perhaps less ‘valued’ than someone younger who it’s believed to have more current skillsets. (Which isn’t necessarily the case.)

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    1. Ageism is real, too. And I fully agree that the perception that older people won’t have current skillsets is such a fallacy. In fact, I believe research has shown that older “new-hires” learn the ropes faster (experience pays off), are more reliable workers, and bring less drama to the workplace. I wish I had saved that article!

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  4. A lot is written about women becoming invisible but I have not experienced at all. In my last years at work, I worked in a team of mostly younger people and I admired their talents and their admired my experience and it worked really well. Now I’m carving out new roles for myself. Yes, my face and body are showing the marks of age but I’m active, loved and appreciated and feel very seen. This is something I might have to explore further. Hmmmmm.

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    1. I have not experienced it myself either. But the women who have talked to me about it say it is real and I believe them. The situations were not work-related; all those I talked to were retired. Since they are smart, experienced, “interesting and interested” women, I simply wonder when it’ll happen to me!

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  5. Years ago I was in a job training session with someone older than I was and we did a small group thing – she said to me “how can I compete when youth is so valued?” and I said to her “How can I compete with your experience and knowledge?” with our facilitator, it was a great conversation and we worked with each other on strengths and weaknesses.

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  6. I think we as humans are wired to be attracted to younger faces. I no longer have one of those 🙂 so I don’t get the attention I used to. Oh well. I see plenty of older women get lots of attention because they are friendly, interesting, engaged, creative, etc., etc. Those things are so much more important than just having a pretty face, which is just a matter of luck and good genes.

    I have a high school friend who was one of the pretty girls. Even though she has aged like the rest of us, she is constantly posting pictures on Facebook of herself back in her heyday. It seems so incredibly sad that she hasn’t learned to appreciate herself as she is now.

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    1. Janis, I’ve spent the last few years really trying to appreciate and accept myself, who I am and not who I am expected to be. It’s not the easiest of paths. I can’t image how disheartening it must feel to be constantly wishing for your younger (perceived prettier) self. Older faces can be so appealing, when they are (as you say) friendly, engaged, and interested!

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  7. Feeling invisible was and I suppose still is something that I struggle with. And I totally agree it has to do with both not being notice for my looks nor my business prowess. And I would swear it is a real thing. I am ignored. No one finds me important anymore. No one asks my opinion. No one notices me anywhere, to the point actually running into me. When I try to get services done no one finds it important to do anything for me. I am cellophane, people look right through me.
    In general and most of the time, I have learned to live with it and have somewhat even decided it’s not such a bad thing. Nothing is expected of me. People leave me alone. But, it was one of the hardest things I had to figure out with retirement and age.

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    1. I do think this time in life is a huge shift from the take-charge-make-things-happen-I know-best to something a little softer. I’m doing a lot of reading about this area… not sure how much will make it into the blog, but we can definitely chat about it – we need a chat time soon!

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  8. Dear Pat, this invisibility thing may be men’s revenge against us women for our naggy demands (going back 6,000 years) for equality, while expecting special work hours (child care issues) and the bus to not stop where the sidewalk is uneven.

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  9. Hi Pat – I’ve written about this early on in my blogging – it was something I was concerned would happen to me in my 50’s. What I realized is that invisibility only happens to those who don’t engage on a genuine level with other people. If you make eye contact, smile, compliment others, take an interest in the people around you, and really want to be a part of your community….then you’re never invisible. Midlife women can be vibrant and engaging without sacrificing themselves on the altar of trying to be 30 for the rest of their lives – it just takes an adjustment to their mindset for some.

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    1. Leanne, I’m still concerned a bit as it has happened to a number of women i know. Women who do exactly what you recommend – engage with others, make eye contact, smile, are interesting and interested. I agree that there is a mindset shift at this stage of life – more acceptance of what is, not fighting to stay young & competitive. But when these women told me they experienced being invisible, I realized it’s more than just them. There is a cultural phenomenon also that needs to shift!

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