Last week I reconnected with a friend and when our conversation turned to aging, she mentioned a different friend who was convinced she’d become invisible. She stopped caring for herself as she always had—hair and makeup were an afterthought, and so was a bra. These weren’t choices made for comfort, but from the conviction that none of it really mattered now that she was 60.
In our survey for midlife women, ages 42 to 60+, one out of three women report feelings of invisibility in midlife. This is not surprising. Midlife women are rarely featured in media or advertising, a missed opportunity since the same number also report greater financial freedom.
We know that American culture prizes youth and it’s nearly impossible not to identify with and feel affirmed by that when we’re young. But it doesn’t end there: women of every age seek the same youthful standards of beauty, fitness, and unlined skin. It’s nearly counter-cultural to age naturally.
In the same way we rarely ask when we’re young: “Whose standards am I meeting? And why do they matter?” When we’re middle-aged, we do not ask: “Who am I invisible to?”
Please stop everything and answer this question: Who are you invisible to?
The male gaze? The female gaze? Or perhaps an undefined audience that opines on everything you do?
This is a time of reckoning on many levels. If we overly identify with youth-oriented culture—difficult not to since it’s the air we breathe from birth—at a certain age, we question our relevance. But let me ask this: why would our human species live so long if the first 40 years, give or take, were the only years that mattered?
Discomfort leads to freedom.
Midlife is a time of discomfort. What once felt comfortable now feels uncomfortable—hot flashes, anyone? Perhaps for a good reason. We’re being nudged to examine our place on the inside and out. Will you place your value with culture or something more substantial and timeless? Value is not skin-deep. We know this. Our value rests in the soul, which is absent from (and quieter than) culture.
The middle years are not the only time our value as women rests in something larger. Our 25-year-old selves had more to offer than firm bodies and skin. But perhaps this truth is louder in midlife when the inkling of “invisibility” draws near.
Midlife challenges our habitual way of relating to the world. If we’re aware and open to choosing a different way, we can birth a new, more authentic self. We’re often free from the responsibilities tied to the first half of life. We can learn to trust ourselves instead of seeking affirmation from people—real and perceived—outside us.
I still want to feel beautiful at this age and to take care of myself, but now I do it for me. Dr. Hillary McBride, therapist and author of The Wisdom of Your Body, says that separating from cultural expectations is a “radical act to undo our need to earn our worth, helping us to wake up to the fact that there is something sacred right here, in this moment, always present and always available.”
Are you interested in exploring midlife in more depth, in the company of other women?
If so, you may be interested in a new group forming in the fall: Wisdom Circle for Midlife Women. In this weekly online circle, you’ll move, write, be silent, share, and listen. You’ll hear the stories of other women and touch into wisdom that arises only from community. If interested, please raise your hand and I’ll keep you in the loop as the group comes together.