As a teenager, it was always hard for me to decide which superpower I’d most like to have. Of course, flying would be awesome. And I’d always wanted the power of telekinesis like my mom-crush Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched. But in the end I agreed with the boys in my class and decided that maybe invisibility was best: not because I wanted to spy on the opposite sex in locker rooms like they did, but because I had started to read Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger, and I was preoccupied by the chasm between what people said and who they truly were when they thought no one was looking. (Plus, how cool would it be to invisibly fill my Slurpee cup with free refills at 7-Eleven?)
Fast forward a few decades later, and I just may get my wish. All around me, I read and hear middle-aged women say the words, “I feel invisible.” Some of them say this bemoaning their fate, while others revel in their newfound invisibility. For women who have been catcalled, harassed, and even assaulted beginning at a young age, becoming invisible to men is a long-awaited sigh of relief. These women enjoy not being seen as sexual objects anymore; they like being able to walk into a subway car or a restaurant without feeling any unwanted attention.
But for other women, the adjustment from “object of attention” to “invisible woman” is fraught with much more anxiety. Some women have felt a surge of delight all of their lives when they’ve entered a room and have felt (both male and female) heads turn. They’ve enjoyed the rush of power their youthful beauty has given them. And even women who have not felt they were traditionally beautiful, who have never felt they were the center of attention, complain that they’ve gone from feeling like a human in the world to feeling truly invisible.
“I was never a head-turner,” Nancy, 62, from Santa Monica, California tells me. “I was never a beauty. But men used to open doors for me, you know, just to be polite. The first time I had a door slammed in my face, I thought it was just one rude man. Then it happened again, and again. Once I was standing in a line by myself at a restaurant, and the hostess sat the couple behind me, as if I wasn’t even there. You start to examine your hands, your arms. Am I here? Do I really exist? Can anyone else see me?”
Experiences like these can be disconcerting — if not downright depressing. Surely there is a happy medium between being the recipient of unwanted attention and the need to confirm one’s existence on the earth.
If women want to be seen, to be visible, after a certain age, there are things we can do. We may not be able to immediately change the culture that both harasses and embraces young females, but we can make ourselves visible, vibrant, and confident. Many middle-aged women have done so, and they are willing to share their best tips and strategies with us.
1. Change your mindset.
“In my mind, age does not equal decline. It offers opportunity,” writes blogger Honey Good. “Throw out the word invisible and replace it with the word visible. I just finished a two-day seminar on learning the skills of how to become a good negotiator. I could have been everyone’s grandmother. I felt 100 percent visible. Why? Because I am!”
2. Embrace your relevance.
“At this stage of life, the question is not visible and vibrant, but rather relevant,” Carol Bodensteiner, 69, a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, says. “Regardless of age, we want our lives to have meaning. Post traditional careers and children-raising, I’ve turned to meaningful volunteer work, served on boards, reading to children, enjoying my prairie, grandchildren, and writing. While I built my career, I gave money; now I give time to those whom I can benefit most.
3. Compliment others.
Research shows that complimenting someone doesn’t just make that person feel good — it also boosts the confidence and self-esteem of the person doing the complimenting. The Boomerly writer Barbara Manning, writing for happify.com, suggests that we give meaningful compliments that are followed by questions, so that we don’t embarrass the other person. For example, we might say, “It was very brave of you to speak your mind on that topic. Were you nervous?” Or, “That scarf really brings out your beautiful eyes. Where did you get it?” Complimenting others makes us feel good, which is a way to boost our own confidence. (And she reminds us to give ourselves compliments, as well!)
4. Try something new.
My friend Anna from Long Beach, California, went back to work at 52 after not having worked full-time for more than ten years. She doubted her own value and was afraid that that she had become irrelevant. “What I found,” she writes, “was that I was completely wrong. I knew much more than I thought, and what I didn’t know, I found I could still learn. I also had a different perspective coming from a background with more — and more varied — experiences. I was able to bring back ideas that once worked, but had maybe been dropped over time, or I updated methodologies we’d once used. Consequently, I have gained the respect of my colleagues, who often come to me for advice. I no longer feel ‘invisible.’ The bottom line? Confidence in your ability makes you ‘visible.’”
5. Fake it 'til you make it.
I asked over a dozen middle-aged men and women what made middle-aged woman “visible” in a room full of strangers. Their answers included: confidence; vivaciousness; great style; ownership of self; a sense that they’re comfortable in their own skin; a genuine smile; a power walk. But what if you don’t have confidence? What if you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin? What if a “power walk” doesn’t come naturally to you? If you want to aim for these things, then psychology suggests that we pretend we have confidence, that we act vivacious, that we walk powerfully — and then the reality will follow. “If you put off taking action until you have confidence,” therapist Maud Purcell writes, “you’ll never do it. In the field of psychology we have come to understand that by changing our behavior, we can change our feelings. So if you take action, and do so with a semblance of outward confidence, the inward, true feeling of confidence, will follow.”
6. Dress for confidence.
Michael Jordan used to wear a new pair of custom basketball shoes for every game he played because he liked the excited new-shoes feeling it gave him. I think about MJ’s words when I think about the psychology of clothing. Wearing an outfit that makes us feel good really does give us a “lift.” Ceri Wheeldon, 58, founder of the website fabafterfifty.co.uk, says that her attitude toward middle age was inspired by a scene in the Sex and the City movie where Kim Cattrall’s character, Samantha, strides across the room wearing a red dress. “It strengthened my resolve that I am not going to be invisible. We can be ageless and sexy. Fifty is no longer old. We could have another 50 years ahead of us, so why should we fade into the background?” Maybe not all of us are comfortable wearing red bodycon dresses (then again, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it!), but we should try to dress in a way that makes us feel great about ourselves.
A recent survey of Women’s Health readers confirms what we all know: we feel at our best and most confident when we feel fit. I don’t think it matters what our weight is, what our dress size is, or even what our BMI is — when we build a regular exercise routine into our lives, we feel strong, sexy, confident, and vibrant. We feel good about ourselves because we feel healthy and strong.
8. Surround yourself with positive, visible friends.
If you’re over 40 or 50, you don’t have time for negative people in your life anymore. Surround yourself with people who build you up. That might mean strengthening friendships with positive people, making new friends by joining a MeetUp near you, or becoming friends with people older than you — or younger. A few years ago, Christie Brinkley said that she felt invisible to men her age — (um, what hope do the rest of us have if Christie Brinkley feels this way?) — but that she had success with men in their late 30s and early 40s because they had “nothing to prove.” We should do whatever we can to surround ourselves by men and women who make us feel seen — and heard.
9. Last but not least, FLIRT!
Pamela Madsen, author of Shameless and founder of the American Fertility Association, in writing for Psychology Today, says that the best way for women over 40 to feel visible is to be “generous with their eyes” and to (not necessarily sexually) “flirt a little.” “Do you want people to see you?” she writes. “Then see the people around you! Compliment the kid beyond the Starbucks counter, smile into the eyes of the bus driver, say good morning to the doorman. None of these people will bite you — in fact, they will love being seen just as you do. Be generous! Give a lot of smiles, winks, hair tosses, and compliments to the world around you. I promise you the world is going to begin to see you right back! Your cloak of invisibility is going to vanish. Your hips are going to begin to roll again as you walk. You might even try on the color red again...”
In middle age, invisibility isn’t necessarily our destiny. We can choose to be invisible if we like. Or we can choose to be visible. And perhaps having that choice is the best superpower of all.
This essay was written by Kelly Dwyer, a published novelist, playwright, and freelance writer.