“I was never hit on or sexually harassed by my professors in college, or later, by my co-workers or superiors. I have not felt as if my male teachers, friends or colleagues thought less of me because of my gender. I’ve never been aggressively “hit on” in a bar, despite the fact that I have frequented them alone throughout the years. In fact, I’ve rarely been approached in a bar at all.” – Jennifer Bartlett “Longing for the Male Gaze“
We tend to see the world in black and white. If this woman is being harassed in the street then ALL women are being harassed in the street. Men are continually invading our personal space demanding our time, our attention, except when you are deemed unworthy of such attention. Unlike Ms. Bartlett, I do not have CP. Like Ms. Bartlett I have been sexually dismissed by men for most of my life, moreso now that I am single and middle aged. When I was young I was never the pretty one, never the beauty, never hot. Newly divorced, I have stepped out into a literal and figurative no-man’s land. This is life when you are plain. Trust me, I am not one of those women who has collected enough social capital where I can proclaim my plainness from the rooftops and be greeted with a rousing chorus of “no you’re not!” The best I get is not conventionally attractive or lovely. I’ve read countless flippant articles, usually written by people with sufficient social capital, telling us invisible unfortunates how not to be invisible. Advice includes:
- Get male friends. Done.They’re all married with families or gay. That counts.
- Get older, younger, different than you friends. Done my friends range in age from 24-80.
- Wear dresses more often. Done, including a Marc Jacobs minidress.
- Stop waiting to be invited. If I waited to be invited I’d never leave my house.
- Take boxing, karate, or some other self-defense class. I’m going to yoga, pilates, and core training classes and training for a marathon. That counts
- Spend 30 seconds on your make-up before you go out the door. Since I actually work for a living, I put on makeup before I walk out the door, except when I go to the gym because wearing makeup to the gym is stupid.
- Stop dressing solely for comfort. Like I said, I work. I don’t run out of the house in yoga pants unless I have my mat slung over my shoulder and I’m going to yoga class. I don’t own a single pair of sweatpants.
- Speak up. This is a strange one because when I do speak up I get the dreaded you have three heads look. I have also had to wave my arms to get the attention of the male server who has just finished flirting with my much younger friends. Like I said, social capital.
- Embrace your grownup-ness. Let me see, I survived sexual assault, emotional and verbal abuse, divorce, death. I make my own living and own my own home. I rebuilt my life quickly and successfully. I still have baggage, but I’m working through it. I think that’s pretty grown up.
- Always carry cash in several denominations and tip generously. Apparently older women think men are supposed to pay for everything. I developed a system when I was in college. I pay for the first date and I pay for myself unless the other person insists. The logic being that I don’t expect anyone to feel that they have to pay for me and if something goes wrong I don’t what the other person to think I owe him anything. As for tipping, my paternal grandmother raised five children on tips. I tip generously whenever I can.
- Lift weights. Done. See also #5.
- “In research, you see time and again you are the company you keep. For me, I may not technically be the smartest or most beautiful person, but I run with those who are.” This is advice given by a self-help specialist named Leigh Peele. As she has fame, she was recently published in The Guardian, she has social capital. She may think she is unattractive, but she is tall and blonde and a celebrity. Having social capital makes a difference.
The vast majority of the advice out there is dedicated to improving your personal appearance, sometimes couched in language about pushing yourself physically further than you’re pushed yourself before. The assumption is that you have turned into a middle-aged shlub so no wonder you’re being ignored. You, middle-aged woman, have brought your invisibility upon yourself. I’ve done the vast majority of these these and yet I am still invisible. The other advice is about embracing who you are. The assumption is that my accepting who you are you break the rules and will gain acceptance. It never occurs to them that they are, in a way, telling us to embrace their our invisibility. Perhaps we should embrace it as part of our grownup-ness?
In my case, there is a deeper and sadder aspect to my lack of visibility-that it’s nothing new. It’s not like I expected to step out from my divorce into a new and vibrant world where I would be the belle of the ball. Quite the opposite. I knew this is how it would be, I just hoped and keep hoping that it will be different. I hoped Philadelphia would be like New York and that I would find my place. It’s not. Philadelphia is like Buffalo. The standard of beauty is brutally rigid and the pressure to conform is intense. If you do not fit it’s not like you will find your place. It’s fuck you if you don’t like it. It’s narrow-minded and lazy. If you aren’t hot enough to be on my arm, you are not worth knowing. I’ve explained it to countless people, but unless you’ve experienced it you won’t understand. Men have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Men are seldom invisible in a world that’s tailored to them. The ones that admit to feeling invisible externalise-it’s not them, it’s the bitches around them who won’t give them the time of day or the idiots who friendzone them and complain about their jerk boyfriends. I internalise-it can’t be all men, so it must be me. This internalisation is reinforced by lists of tips that focus on your appearance. It’s also reinforced by little comments like you don’t smile, you don’t dress sexy, you don’t wear enough eye makeup, it must be something you’re projecting. A straight man alone simply has not found the right woman, unless he shoots a room full of people and even then it’s because he was mentally ill. The straight woman alone is a freak or a defective.
I have wrestled with invisibility for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had issues with my looks. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was five. Not cute little kid glasses or reading glasses, real blind-as-a bat glasses. I tried contacts in late high school and college and found that more often than not people didn’t recognise me. The lack of glasses did not make me more attractive or appealing. They made me more of a stranger. I had baby fine impossibly curly hair which succumbed eventually to chemical straighteners and now silicones. When I straightened my hair for the first time I shook my hair reveling in its manageability. This was the late 70s early 80s. They didn’t have the products to make the curls themselves manageable like they do now. I was told to not even try to be sexy. I was always tall and thin with no breasts to speak of until college. I was the smart one, the problem solver. No one wants a problem solver. My sister was the pretty one. She showed our parents by getting a PhD. I’ve never been able to show our parents that I’m attractive because my lack of attractiveness is borne out almost every day. One day a college friend asked, didn’t your father ever say you were the most beautifil girl in the world? I watched the colour drain from her face as I had to actually think about that question. No, I said, I don’t think he ever did. My father was never one to say things he didn’t think were true. Unlike most women, I have been called ugly to my face. I’ve had men turn their backs to me when I’ve tried to engage them in conversation. When you are plain, civility goes out the window. Those who are not plain don’t think these things happen, but they do.