The Invisible Women Syndrome (Warning to the gentle reader: Gender sensitive piece)
Here’s a syndrome that I have recently come across, that didn’t exist when I was studying psychology 20 years ago: The Invisible Woman Syndrome. That’s right: invisible; as in, unseen, undetectable, imperceptible. According to the sources – which in this case includes far more non-peer review publications that I care to admit reading and watching – it applies to middle-aged women, usually over 50. It is reported that women of this age feel invisible by others, i.e. they are no longer admired, stared at, desired. In the words of Pamela Adlon, via the female middle-aged protagonist of ‘Better Things’ Sam Vox, “You're primed and you're prepped and abused and adored and harassed and worshipped and then it all stops. All of it. We even age out of the bad things like being fetishized or diminished or talked down to. It’s even worse. You are invisible!” [i] It is explicitly implied that the subjects who have stopped admiring, staring, adoring, fetishizing, and desiring are men. Once you have lost your youth and (a certain definition of) beauty you are no longer relevant and thus of no value. In mid-life you become irrelevant. (The syndrome seems to concern primarily heterosexual women, who as a whole have far more gender issues than one would imagine/admit.)
As I was following links and threads related to the above topic I came across several pieces on abortion – most likely due to the key words I’ve been using and the current popularity of the topic. Initially, I ignored them, thinking they are off topic. Yet, there’s an association that begs attention: A major societal plague becomes obsolete once a woman enters this age-group. With the end of her reproductive years, her body autonomy is henceforth nobody’s business (and the fact that is it during the previous part of her life is far more tragic and outrageous than any existential crisis. And here lies an illustrative example of the fact that the most important parts of a text are usually found in parentheses). No one talks about her body’s fate as theirs to decide, because they no longer care; they no longer have a use for her since she is no longer seen as a reproductive vessel. A woman is henceforth left in peace – more like in exile, but still, alone and in relative peace.
Even with this appalling silver lining in mind, the disregard for women’s bodies by patriarchy is still in her face – or, in this case, in her genitalia – since menopause is treated as a non-issue, downplayed and ignored. And this is a huge chapter in the topic of invisibility. Perhaps “Body Invisibility” is a more encompassing and accurate title for this stage of a woman’s life. Women’s bodies become invisible as they age. Women’s minds are ignored and underestimated all along, at all stages of life, even by other women.
And here lies the power of patriarchy: it’s supported as vehemently by women. Women are not only visible/invisible to other men, but to other women as well. There’s an irony in this gender-related phenomenon. Even though Invisible Women identify the loss of visibility as coming from men, they are equally if not more so invisible to other women, and this is potentially far more hurtful to those who find themselves experiencing this unpleasant change of circumstances. If you are used to visibility and seek it in order to define the strength of your self-esteem, other women’s gaze is as defining as men’s. In her youthful years, a woman would frequently see herself as other women’s benchmark, their competition, their object of admiration-via-imitation. Sure, being desired is of essence for one’s self-worth, and it’s quite addictive for many humans. But to be able to measure yourself against others in order to reassure and sooth your self-esteem, your in-group – in this case members of your own gender – is far more important.
Women who report themselves Invisible find themselves depressed and with a sense of lost identity and lack of confidence. An essential part of their womanhood is henceforth missing, the part that had been visible up to that point in their personal history. To be imperceptible by all those, men and women, who have defined your identity for 50 years is indeed a dire existential issue. To have gone through half a century on earth, with all its hardships – several of which are related to gender-specific hormones and body parts – only to find yourself invisible, is tragic.
Or is it? Is invisibility such a horrible thing?
The ancient gods and goddesses used the Cap of Invisibility that originally belonged to Hades (who seemed to have very little use for it other than to fight the Titans. I suspect being the Lord of the Underworld and the ruler of darkness overrides the joys of invisibility.) It was used by Hermes and Athena, who then passed it on to Perseus. Even the immortals can benefit from invisibility. In Plato’s Republic we meet the Invisibility Ring of Gyges. Gyges, a shepherd up until the discovery of the magical ring, used its powers to seduce the queen, assassinate the kind, and gain dominion over the land; an otherwise impossible climb up the social ladder, especially during Plato’s time. And then, there’s modern mythology: Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. The most precious gift, inherited by his father, via the wise-old Dumbledore for protection. A gift that would save Harry’s life and assist in the fight against evil on several occasions. I read these sections thinking, ‘This is J. K. Rowling’s Deus ex Machina!’ How else would Harry penetrate a space where he’s surrounded by evil? A bit unfair for The Other, if you ask me, but I suppose evil had other tricks up its sleeve; it was never fair play to begin with.
An invisibility cloak: what an excellent piece of garment! I imagine myself invisible. Walking around undetected, concealed from the public eye, from its opinions, measures, judgment, small-talk and futile gossip. This would be even better than the anonymity provided by a metropolitan city. Invisibility is highly correlated with solitude. When intentionally alone you are out of sight. All the sages and wise women/men prescribe solitude as the way to achieve ‘enlightement’, have it be artistic, philosophical or existential (disclaimer: enlightenment, used loosely in this case, does not imply happiness. They are not synonymous. If you are expecting some sort of prescription for happiness you are, regrettably, at the wrong place). Solitude is perhaps the only practical way to achieve invisibility, given the fact that invisibility cloaks are still quite sparse. Solitude is an undeniable way to achieve equanimity, to turn inwards and be with one’s self. Tranquility, oneness with nature – inner and outer – can best be achieved when one is alone and thus, invisible:
“…when I am alone
I can become invisible.
I can sit on the top of a dune
as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned.
I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.” (Mary Oliver)[ii]
To hear the roses sing… There’s incredible power and beauty to be harnessed in invisibility. Dare I suggest a new term for this ‘syndrome’? The Invincible Woman Phenomenon.
One aspect of one’s middle-aged self that cannot be underestimated, and cannot be overstated is its experience and accumulated knowledge. (Unless, of course, you have spent your ‘visible years’ learning nothing about the world and yourself and relying exclusively on the by-products of your visibility. I would imagine that if you belong to that group you are most likely reading a different kind of musing, and therefore I don’t need to address your predicament.) As opposed to Body Visibility that diminishes with age, Mind Visibility seems to increase as we grow older. Interestingly, at least in the Western world, there seems to be an inverse correlation between women’s Body Visibility and Mind Visibility: the more you age into an invisible body, the more visible your mind becomes. (I am aware of the use of the limiting and invalid mind-body dichotomy. Bear with me: I am employing it merely to make a point that is, for brevity’s sake, best illustrated via a dichotomy.) My educated guess is that there’s the confounding variable of fertility/beauty, that seems to mess with our animal instincts which drive our societal collective views and use for female bodies. Once that’s out of the way, your mind can be seen – assuming, of course, that there’s something there to be seen. Essentially, your inner self is the only asset that is guaranteed to yield high returns as you age, in terms of visibility, recognition, and self-satisfaction, even when the gender factor is taken into account. When the hormonal influences that accompany youth are out of the way, inner beauty can surface. As Ursula K Le Guin explained, “For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.”[iii]
Middle-aged women’s sexuality and sensuality might seem endangered, yet, as Jean Shinoda Bolen who wrote extensively on femininity from an archetypal perspective assures us, the energy inherent in each woman’s nature does not evaporate with age: “Once a woman is old, she may become invisible as a sexual object, but the archetype can still be there, regardless.”[iv] The average man’s responsiveness should not be the measure of the existence of a woman’s sexuality and sensuality. She is invisible to some, perhaps to those who would previously identify her essence with her youthfulness, and make that known. Alas, the typical beholder no longer sees beauty. Yet, there’s a very satisfying way around this impasse: A woman can shift her perception of who the beholder is. Those who deem a woman invisible should be considered ‘invisible beholders’ and, therefore, irrelevant, i.e. a nonreality. And, conversely, those who can see beyond her diminished fertility-related assets and straight to her essence should be deemed worthy of her attention and time. It’s a two-way street, or should be. From this renewed position a woman can create a new reality, inner and outer, and claim a different kind of prominence for her womanhood.
This inner posture is intimately linked with another positive side-effect of Female Body Invisibility, which is in turn, perhaps correlated with happiness. Once other women are not experienced as competitors, they are her potential allays. It is not a coincidence that older women report finding themselves increasingly in deep and meaningful friendships with other women, more so than in meaningful partnerships with men. Invisible women seem to form beautiful sisterhoods, and to become audacious in their feminine power. As Grace Paley wrote, in an act of defiance against the invisibility that accompanies old age, “You may begin to notice that you’re invisible. Especially if you’re short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what? All the best minorities have suffered that and are rising nowadays in the joy of righteous wrath.”[v] The rise in the joy of righteous wrath! Who wouldn’t want to experience that?
Yet, comparing women’s suffering with the suffering of minorities could be deceiving. Women are not a minority – they are currently 49.5% of the world’s population – and it’s therefore mind-blowing that they are suffering as if they were one. Society, including most women, seems to have missed this crucial piece of info, and with it the potential-if-realized power in numbers. Moreover and to the point, middle aged women might be/feel invisible but they are the group that, in the words of the wise and hilarious Caitlin Moran, “hold the fabric of society together, for no pay.”[vi] The no pay bit might be a bit of a bummer, but being the holder of societal functions and thus of the collective framework is no laughing matter. Imagine what would happen if all these ‘invisible women’ refused to perform their prescribed roles and duties? Not so invisible now, are they? Many women have proposed this thought experiment throughout modern history via their feminist manifestoes, and even though this remain a hypothetical scenario its application would guarantee an overturning of society as we know it. Invisible women can literally end the world as we know it. And right now, that sounds like a great prospect and perhaps the only way out of a world that is spinning off its axis outweighed with testosterone and male-ego.
There is an undeniable sense of solidarity and power among older women who have grown out of societal projections of youthful beauty. The wholeness and integration that these invincible women have mustered is awe-inspiring. They seem to have a joined a mission of sorts: to survive patriarchy’s definitions of worthiness and to shine bright for each other. And shine they do. And sometimes, not as rarely as one would think, others catch a glimpse of their light, look up, and notice. They are more than visible, they are luminous.
[i] Better Things (2016-2022) FX Network, Season 4
[ii] Mary Oliver (2017). “How I Go into the Woods” in Devotions. Penguin Books
[iii] Ursula K. Le Guin (2004). The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Shambhala Publications Inc.
[iv] Jean Shinoda Bolen. Goddess in Oder Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, pg 175. HarperCollins e-books.
[v] Grace Paley (1999). “Upstaging Time” in Just as I Thought. Farrar. Straus & Giroux Inc
[vi] Caitlin Moran (2020). More Than a Woman. Harper Perennial