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Reading Carolyn Heilbrun's 1991 address to Smith Alumnae was my introduction to the concept of "the invisible woman," the failure of the aging woman to so easily capture the attention of men. Being in the second year of a self-imposed sabbatical from romantic entanglement, I crouched behind my own veil of invisibility to observe, to check out the credibility of Heilbrun's assertions. I began by listening closely and reading carefully whenever the word "invisible" appeared in conversation or reading. Well into my vigil, I was attending a meeting of writers when someone read aloud the following passage from Ralph Ellison's (1990) Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything and anything except me.
In the history books and literature texts of my 1950s school years, women were all but absent. As the feminist movement gained momentum in the 1970s, women's voices were being heard—for the most part, the voices of young women born during the baby-boom years following World War II and the Korean War. Historian Lois Banner (1992) wrote of her generation: "Aging remained obscure to us partly because we were in rebellion against older generations perceived as antifeminist. Moreover, reflecting traditional attitudes, we chose to look on old women as invisible and on our own youth as the real reality" (p. 6).
Some things seem not to change. Each generation in turn sees youth pressuring for change of that which was so carefully crafted by the older generation in its youth. What makes the present generation of midlife women unique is their growing numbers. The baby boomers who created, with their sheer numbers, youth consumerism and its twin, consumer youthism, are now deriding their creation and moving to change it. Again, by sheer numbers, they are quite likely to succeed.
Writers write of what interests them; scientists research what interests them. Indeed, as Ellison's invisible man noted, people even see what interests them. Before the women's movement organized in the 1960s, very little of what was being written was written by women. The scientific community was nearly exclusively male; research conducted and reported by women was rare. Not surprisingly, then, that which was written and reported prior to the women's movement coming of age contained little that was of unique interest to women and much of what was of primary interest to men.
With a smart, new husband in tow and a newly acquired prescription for estrogen, Gail Sheehy, in an article for Vanity Fair (October 1991), saw midlife invisibility as a phenomenon only of a certain group of women. "But for those whose self-worth rests primarily in appearance and sexual desirability, passing fifty is like taking the veil [and] suddenly they feel invisible," she declared (p. 252).
In the 1970s, feminist researcher Barbara DuBois (1983) wrote, "That which has no name, that for which we have no words or concepts, is rendered mute and invisible: powerless to inform or transform our consciousness of our experience, our understanding, our vision; powerless to claim its own existence" (p. 108).
Much has changed since DuBois and many of her cohorts pled in the 1970s for a feminist research model to recognize women's experiences. As women became the writers and researchers, writing about and researching that which interested them, the feminine experience took form in elementary schools, high schools, institutions of higher learning, and in professions. As these women move into age, the feminist experience comes with them. Those who have passed successfully through the denial of their 40s have entered their 50s with less grace than fierce determination.
Carolyn Heilbrun is among many who have worked diligently to bring the women's view out of the closet and who are now becoming vocal about the "M" word; words and concepts are now being assigned to that unique experience of aging femininity: Menopause. Its existence is being proclaimed and explored as these aging feminists live it.
Heilbrun (1991) dared to name midlife invisibility, celebrate it, and define it. She called it the "magic circle of invisibility [through which one passes] into the land of new accomplishment and new passion" (p. 27)—hardly the self-esteem problem defined by Sheehy (1991).
"To get to that new place," Heilbrun (1991) declared:
a woman must pass through the state of invisibility. You will be mysteriously unseen. You will not be noticed immediately upon your entrance in a store, a party, a meeting. You will move invisible for a time, to learn to see, and to forget being seen. As you grow slowly visible in the new life you have chosen, you will be heard more and seen less. Your voice will ramify; your body will become the home of a new spirit. (p. 27)
Novelist Isabel Allende, in an interview with Carolyn Rountree (1993) for Rountree's book on women over 50, mused "when you articulate something, it then becomes part of your reality; before you articulate it, it's just confusion."
At 52 I looked in the mirror and wondered what my hair looked like—not the L'Oreal-blessed calico streaks that had ornamented my head for ten years, but my hair. I began the agonizingly unattractive process of allowing my true color to emerge—and who knew what that would be? My mother offered to buy my hair color (surely only a woman woefully lacking in funds would do this to herself); my best friend accused me of trying to resign myself to old age. "I just want to know who I am," I defended, "and for starters, I want to know what I really look like." It was 18 months before the last vestiges of hair color were snipped from the tips of my hair just below my ears. "That's it," I said aloud as I watched the hairdresser sweep the wisps of yellow-tipped hair into a dust pan.
In my world I was treated as an antisocial oddity; "Something is wrong with Janice," they whispered. It was, then, with great interest that I read Carolyn Heilbrun's (1991) words:
My own statistical example suggests that many women will stop dyeing their hair after a few years, but a few will persist even to their death beds. It doesn't really matter. So long as we don't think we can successfully impersonate youth, we should do with hair dye and makeup what offers us the chance to take our bodies for granted. For as one enters upon this new life, this time when one becomes an explorer of a new landscape, one should not underestimate the importance of camouflage. (p. 27)
Heilbrun (1991) is adamant on the point of "impersonating youth": "Men will still say, if I am not turned on by just looking at you, you are no longer woman. And she will answer, only youth has that talent, and I will not impersonate youth. I will not live in drag for your sake" (p. 27).
Germaine Greer (1992), writing in The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause, too, warns of the dangers of imitating youth. "The woman who retains the viewpoint of the young, to whom older people are not only invisible but uninteresting, will manage this transition badly," (p. 53) she wrote.
Heilbrun warns of donning the physical trappings of youth; Greer warns of clinging to the viewpoints of youth. These are not two different views, but rather two aspects of the denial of aging.
Fiction plays a special role in reflecting life. Unhampered by double-blind studies and scientific method, the fiction writer is free to describe things as she or he sees them to be (or can imagine them to be). In defending her use of literature as source material for In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality, Lois Banner (1992) wrote: "I would submit that as evidence of human consciousness, of cultural mentality, of mythic and collective representation of cultural belief systems about gender, literature offers a special window on reality."
Doris Lessing (1983) in her novel, The Summer Before the Dark, offered a view through her special window on reality as she described the transition from youth to midlife by her character, Kate Brown. This upper-middle-class British housewife makes a psychic and emotional shift through a series of synchronistic events that catapults her through a midlife change in consciousness in a single summer. Exploring the idea of midlife invisibility, Lessing likened the attraction between men and women to the gosling identifying its mother:
A goose just out of its egg follows a shape or a sound and is imprinted ever after by 'Mother' whatever that shape or sound chanced to be at a certain crucial moment of its chickhood. . . . Men's attention is stimulated by signals no more complicated than what leads the gosling; and for all her adult life, her sexual life, let's say from twelve onwards, she had been conforming, twitching like a puppet to those strings. (p. 186)
Kate Brown is pressured by her husband to accept a summer job, intended to be only a few days duration to help a family friend. The job turns into a lengthy assignment, requiring a different kind of wardrobe and a different appearance. With a new hair color, new hair cut, and a new wardrobe, Kate Brown becomes visible to an entirely new world of people. And as she becomes visible to them, they become visible to her. The new look, quite by chance (or so it seems to her), is the look of an assured woman, a woman in charge of her life as well as her area of the business of the organization. It is a look that attracts the glances of men.
A brief, unsatisfying love affair later, Kate falls victim to a mysterious summer malady, unable to keep food down, semi-conscious and feverish for weeks. As she begins to recover, there is a new persona present in her mirror: a gaunt, wasted woman with dry frizzled hair, a distinct outgrowth of gray roots becoming apparent. Her newly acquired haute couture hangs from her frame.
The waiters in restaurants, the clerks in stores do not look at her as they serve her. Shopkeepers no longer see the well-heeled housewife certain to make a substantial purchase. The restaurant servers no longer see the self-assured woman executive sure to leave a substantial tip. "She had to know at last, that all her life she had been held upright by an invisible fluid, the notice of other people. But the fluid had been drained away," wrote Lessing (1983, p. 180) [emphasis added].
Any fear of the change is nullified by Kate's fascination with this new experience; she experiments with her new invisibility. She smooths her hair back tidily and slips into a better-fitting, borrowed dress, making the attempt to appear well groomed, caring of her appearance. This time as she walks on the street, construction workers appraise her as she passes, a man she meets in a café invites her to dinner.
Returning to her flat, she looses her frizzing hair, dons her own baggy clothes, and returns to the street. It is magic; she is again invisible. It becomes a game that she repeats, becoming more the observer than the participant. Wrote Lessing (1983):
A woman walking in a sagging dress, with a heavy walk, and her hair this above all not conforming to the prints made by fashion, is not "set" to attract men's sex. The same woman in a dress cut in this or that way, walking with her inner thermostat set just so and click, she's fitting the pattern. (p. 186)
"Neither the gaze of men, nor her former need for them to gaze, will any longer define the life of a woman who has undertaken this rite of passage," Heilbrun (1991) stated eloquently and defiantly (p. 27).
Nature apparently supports a woman weaning herself from male attention, as reflected in research reported by Winnifred Cutler (1990) in Hysterectomy: Before and After:
. . . by about age 54 . . . 75 percent of women no longer have the same level of interest in sex that they once had. . . . The loss of libido is generally more sudden than gradual—rather like walking through a door and finding oneself in a completely different room. (p. 227)
Cutler assures the reader that "although the libido may be lower, the capacity to respond to a sexual advance is not diminished" (p. 228). Interesting: just as capable, not as interested.
The present generation of midlife women is not silent in this passage. Forty-eight-year-old actress Sally Field said in an interview for TV Guide (Feb. 18, 1995), "For the first time in my life, I feel liberated about the fact that I'm not thinking about my relationships with men and not upset about it. I don't feel concerned. I don't feel anything" (Seibel, p. 13).
Cathleen Rountree (1993) interviewed 18 women for her book, On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Mid-life Discoveries. Seven of these women discussed the fact that men were less important in their lives than they had ever been, and nine made no mention of their relationships with men. Though eight were in apparently stable marriages, 17 of the women rated their work as the most important thing in their lives. They did not speak of the youthful work of making their marks in the world; they spoke of the purposeful work that lent special meaning to their lives.
Dolores Huerta, co-founder (with Cesar Chavez) of the United Farm Workers Union in California, is a woman of causes. Throughout her life, which has included four husbands and 11 children, Huerta has been a political activist. Now single again, she told Rountree (1993), "I don't know how many years I have left, but I figure I have to give what I can in my few years that remain, and not be worrying whether my old man is going to be there or not" (p. 130).
When feminist Gloria Steinem was interviewed by Gaily Sheehy in 1991 for a Vanity Fair article on menopause, Steinem was certain that her interest in men had changed, but not so certain as to why:
Sex and sensuality—going to bed for two entire days and sending out for Chinese food—was such an important part of my life, and it just isn't anymore. It's still there, but it's less important. I don't know how much of it is hormonal and how much of it is outgrowing it. (p. 256)
Interviewed later for Rountree's (1993) book on women over 50, Steinem seemed more certain about why her interest in men had flagged and, in addition, what purpose this declining libido served in her life:
For me as an individual, aging has also brought freedom from romance; freedom from the ways in which your hormones distort your judgment and make you do things that aren't right for you. When I was younger, there was a part of my brain back here that was always thinking about sex. I might not have always been tending to it, but every time I turned around, it would be there. Sometimes it took over, sometimes I forgot about it, but it was there. It's not there anymore! It's funny—it's like you have an entire part of your brain that's free for other things.
In my own case, just as I reached that age when sex was supposed to be less important (though I was unaware of any biological influence at that time), life conspired to make it so. An eight-year relationship came to an end in such a dramatic way that I had no desire to seek out relationship.
"No sex is better than bad sex," Greer (1992) wrote in defense of midlife women who eschew the joy of coital bliss (p. 9). Greer's statement reflects the feelings of many women at midlife who turn away not so much from sexual relations as from the off-mattress dissatisfactions inherent in relationships primarily centered in bedroom aerobics. Whatever they had tried before that didn't work is what they now had the resolute desire to avoid . . . and a more cooperative libido.
It was more than a year into my sabbatical from romantic relationship when thoughts of nocturnal bliss and afternoon delights began to again enter into my consciousness. It was then that I knew that I had no desire to enter into the sort of romantic relationship that had once been the center of my existence.
At three, my grandson discovered the magic of the word "need." When he told his parents he wanted something, he found that he frequently did not get it. "You don't need that," they would tell him. "I need that bubble gum," he learned to say with deep sincerity, legitimizing his chaotic desires. I was reminded of this primal confusion of wants and needs when I read artist Coeleen Kiebert's assessment of the history of her relationships:
In my first marriage, I married somebody I wanted and fortunately made a good choice in terms of having my needs met for that period of my life. In my second marriage, no question about it, I married somebody I wanted. There certainly were needs of mine that got met, but they were not necessarily in my best interest. In this relationship I have been much more understanding and respectful of my deeper, more intelligent needs [emphasis added]. (Rountree, 1993, p. 155)
Victor Hugo wrote: "The forties are the old age of youth/While the fifties are the youth of old age" (quoted in Rountree, 1993, p. 5). Sheehy (1991), in apparent agreement, called menopause the "mirror image of the transition to adolescence for females" (p. 252).
If one thinks of the time of newly developed breasts and giggling over the notice from boys, it would seem that adolescence does not share with menopause the veil of invisibility. But what of that painful period just prior to the evident breasts, the notice of boys? Should I or shouldn't I?—the question of whether or not to call attention to the barely perceptible nubs that will become breasts by wearing a training bra. Caught between the cuteness of childhood and the nubility of full adolescence, the early adolescent is the least visible of all children. People find them less attractive, less interesting, and, for the most part, these not-yet young women would just as soon be left unnoticed to pass through this period in relative anonymity.
To my mind, there is a distinct similarity between the threshold of menopause and the threshold of adolescence. As in adolescence, a woman's emotions at menopause are delicately vulnerable. Jungian analyst Elizabeth Strahan (1990) said she found herself "crying often and deeply about very small things" (p. 189).
"The beginning of menopause is one of those very powerful in-between spaces in a lifetime," wrote Strahan (1990), "the woman is not a young woman anymore, nor is she one of the old wise ones. She is truly middle-aged. Such in-between spaces have great power; senses are heightened, emotions intensified, experiences peaked, both positively and negatively" (p. 194).
Yes, this does indeed sound like early adolescence—no longer a child, not yet a young woman—truly an in-between space.
Carolyn Heilbrun (1991), in her truculent stance against men and their gaze, seemed to be echoing the soliloquy of Ellison's (1990) invisible man: "I am invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me" (p. 3). Her spirited rhetoric is directed in rebellion against men who are demanding that their women be youthful. "Men will still say, if I am not turned on by just looking at you, you are no longer woman," she declared, adding, "I will not live in drag for your sake" (p. 27). Heilbrun is making of this time of transition into a woman's midlife "a matter of their inner eyes" [emphasis added] (Ellison, p. 4). For Heilbrun, getting on with the business of aging seems a matter of rebelling against "them."
In The Summer Before the Dark, Doris Lessing (1983) allows her character to play with costume and demeanor in learning to move in and out of the veil of invisibility (p. 186). In the end she chooses to move into it. Lessing's Kate Brown decides that her hair is the only thing in her life that is really hers. She returns to her family defiantly displaying her graying hair, ready to ignore or defend assaults against these tresses which have become the icon for her new authenticity (p. 244).
"May I greet the morning as I am, with my own naked face," intones Ellen Burstyn's character in 1972's The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson) as she ritually buries her eye makeup on a sandy beach. Happily she enters the veil of invisibility, a dropout from the competitive world of sex objects. Her invisibility is so accepted that her husband can discuss her in the third person with his brother as she stands at their elbows. Unable to gain entry into the conversation which decides her future, she uses what tools are at her disposal to get their attention. The nearest tool is her husband's gun. She shoots him dead, then turns toward the bathroom to turn off the water so the tub won't overflow. The madwoman in the attic has moved downstairs.
"The object of facing up squarely to the fact of the climacteric is to acquire serenity and power," wrote Greer (1992).
If women on the youthful side of the climacteric could glimpse what this state of peaceful potency might be, the difficulties of making the transition would be less. It is the nature of the case that life beyond the menopause is as invisible to the woman who has yet to struggle through the change as the top of any mountain is invisible from the valley below. (Greer, 1992, p. 9)
Few people willingly depart the known to leap into the darkness. Willing or not to leave childhood behind, Nature furnishes us with a sex drive to mate and a reproductive system to fill our homes with offspring. And if all goes according to plan, our maternal instincts afford nurturance and support for the growth of new lives.
There is also evidence that Nature has arranged for a woman's passage from the concerns of her reproductive years in more ways than simply lowering her libidinal thermostat. "Young people give off the pheromones that attract sexual interest. Older people simply do not," wrote Greer (1992, p. 285).
Cutler (1989) reported that, in studies of the effect of sexual activity on hormonal levels in women, there was enhanced hormonal health (increased fertility) among consistently sexually active women. Masturbation in the presence of a partner was just as beneficial to the hormonal system as coitus, whereas masturbation in solitude had no such benefit. Exploring this phenomenon further, researchers found that pheromones isolated from perspiration had the same beneficial effect on hormonal levels as the actual presence of a sexual partner. (As a side note, the next step in this study was a pheromone pill, so that one will not need the presence of another to acquire hormonal health.) It would seem, then, that Nature has provided a scent that not only attracts a sexual partner but also enhances fertility when there is an opportunity to initiate reproduction—an increased ability to make hay while the sun shines, as it were.
With or without a stabilized exposure to sexual activity, a woman's hormone levels change as her supply of eggs available for fertilization nears depletion. Just as pheromones increase production of estrogen to improve the chances of impregnation, so does a drop in estrogen levels reflect an accompanying decrease in pheromone production. To paraphrase Tennessee Ernie Ford, the woman's invisible come-and-get-it just got up and went. It becomes increasingly clear that more is transpiring to avert the predatory gaze of men set for a mating dance than crow's feet and a wisp of gray hair.
"The need to truly know the self builds to its maximum crisis at mid-life, when self-knowledge must be attained at all costs," wrote Barbara Hand Clow (1991) in Liquid Light of Sex. This urgency for self-knowledge mingles with the urgency to explore new frontiers in copulation as women approach the menopausal threshold.
According to a Swedish study on sex in menopause, 58 percent of women 38 to 54 years showed an increased interest in sexual activity:
The truth is that many women, especially those with high circulating levels of testosterone, will feel increased clitoral sensitivity during the climacteric, and a disturbing level of genital tension, occurring regardless of the presence or absence of a partner. . . . Middle-aged women, having perforce cast off the narcissism of younger women, are quite likely to be more direct in their sexual advances and to make quite clear what it is they are after, especially if, for the first time in their lives, what they are seeking is not love but a fuck. If this is the case, it will be the first time in their lives that they have understood the male pattern of arousal and the male search for release. (Greer, 1992, p. 283)
Thus, in a twelfth-hour introduction to the male energy that will play a key role in their post-menopausal lives, women are ushered with a bang (no pun intended) into the time of silence.
I propose that Heilbrun's defiance and the pique of women feeling suddenly invisible, which we direct at patriarchy, is but a dialog with that part of ourselves we are leaving behind—that part which struggles to survive when its existence no longer has meaning. Though some women seem to move gracefully and gratefully into the silence that welcomes the last half of life, those that hesitate are urged, through whatever force necessary, by Nature's own plan. That part of us that longs to hold onto every bit of power we have acquired, including the power of our youthful bodies, strikes out in indignant resentment at men, at society, at anyone and everyone who does not notice when we enter a room even though our demeanor voicelessly broadcasts our iconoclastic state.
Wrote Greer (1992):
The woman ejected from feminine subjection by the consequences of her own aging can no longer live through others, or justify her life by the sexual and domestic services that she renders. She must, being in free fall, take a long look at the whole landscape that surrounds her and decide how she is going to manage to live in it, no matter how chill the wind that buffets her ill-equipped person. At first she may cling to her old life, trying to claw back something of what she poured into it so unstintingly, but eventually, her grieving done, her outrage stilled, she must let go. (p. 373)
Whether women are eased into the silent time by some synchronicity, such as the end of my relationship that drove me into sexual reclusion, or are rudely catapulted into it by shocking body changes that remove them from effective competition in the mating dance, it is clear that entry into the menopausal years—stepping into the veil of invisibility—is a real and definable experience.
Jungian analyst Elizabeth S. Strahan (1990) named "three main threads of particular importance to menopausal women: going away alone, submission to being initiated by other women, and an encounter with impersonal phallic power" (p. 193). The first of these, going away alone, is descriptive of the period of invisibility.
Strahan (1990) wrote:
Being away stimulates the woman's creative thinking and a new way of seeing things, a sense that she is somebody in her own right. Disentangled from all the mergers in her life, she may find that, indeed, she knows who she is. She can hear herself. She just hadn't been able to hear her own voice in the midst of the clatter of all that Otherness. (p. 193)
With or without the ability to "go away" or isolate oneself from the usual demands of daily life, adopting invisibility affords women some measure of privacy for the physical, emotional, and psychic delicacy of the transition into midlife. Invisibility is a way of escaping when there is no escape. All women cannot retire to a European spa or bury themselves in a suite at a luxury hotel, but any woman can withdraw into herself and will her outer being to become less visible—a device that reduces distractions and demands in her life, allowing her to focus on her transition.
The veil of invisibility aids a woman in finding her center of silence where she can reflect on what she's leaving behind and what she hopes to achieve in her midlife years, a time that will prepare her to ascend to the next stage in her life as a woman. As Ellen Burstyn's movie character (Rafelson, 1972) so dramatically illustrated, this silent place, where a woman prepares to hear her own voice, is a place to be protected, not ignored . . . to be honored, not dismissed.
I propose that the task of midlife invisibility, and perhaps the task for all of midlife, is to acquire authenticity, a characteristic essential for moving past the purposes of reproductive years and into the meaning and purpose of the years of maturity. Heilbrun's (1991) qualified endorsement of the camouflage of hair dye and makeup can be taken to heart (p. 27). Doris Lessing, quoted by Greer (1992) from a 1973 interview with Harper's, said it well:
. . . you only begin to discover the difference between what you really are, your real self, and your appearance, when you get a bit older. . . . A whole dimension of life suddenly slides away and you realize that what in fact you've been using to get attention has been what you look like. . . . It's a biological thing. It's totally and absolutely impersonal. It really is a most salutary and fascinating thing to go through, shedding it all. Growing old is really extraordinarily interesting. (p. 52)
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