It’s said we disappear as we age. Writer Jane Chelliah examines some of the reasons why and what we can do about it.
The invisibility of being an older woman is something I am fighting against. I have reached that stage in life to my horror. My voice has become louder, and I keep thinking ‘mutton’ when I choose new outfits.
I am reluctant to say ‘I have reached that ‘age’ because the cloak of invisibility is not always age oriented. I would opine that it is more a subjective experience which can strike women in ‘midlife’, defined as women over the age of 40.
While it may be a subjective experience, rest assured that it is not a figment of your imagination. The invisibility of the mature woman is asserted by media narratives which, in turn, heavily influences societal views of the older woman. A feedback loop that reasserts our status. Think ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, a dark film featuring an older woman – Bette Davis in a deranged stage lamenting her years gone by.
There are times when I want to kick and scream to be noticed. During these moments I am reminded of a particular scene in a highly acclaimed TV miniseries from the 1980s called ‘Thorn Birds’. The intensity of the words and emotions remain with me to this day.
Barbara Stanwyck falls in love with Richard Chamberlain who plays a Catholic Priest. She was 76 years old in real life when she played the part. Richard Chamberlain was 49. Their pairing produces pivotal plot scenes beset with anger, frustration, and sexual tension. These emotions reside within the role which Barbara Stanwyck plays because her love is unrequited. The tension reaches a climax when her sexual advance is spurned.
She blames ‘a vengeful God who ruins our bodies and leaves us with only enough wit for regret. Inside this body I am still young, I still feel, I still want, and I still dream’.
It is a painful scene to watch. From time to time, let us face it, we may feel this way too. It does not help when you keep hearing about older women losing their jobs because they are deemed to be ‘too old’ to be on TV or in the work place.
The male gaze
But what is the criteria for determining whether we are acceptable faces or not? Is it the male gaze?
For much of our lives, our sexuality and appearance are judged on the scale of the male gaze. In my 20’s I would get insecure if not chatted up by a man within a space of a few days. How shallow of me.
As we get older and acquire more confidence, a choice presents itself of how we view ourselves. We want to be known as good mothers, competent workers or even as an excellent friend. None of these rely on the male gaze. The way we view ourselves becomes affected by the roles that we have played in our lives over the decades. Yet, the public face of older women is still determined by the male gaze whether it is Hollywood or UK media.
Striking back – finding your voice
Older women are striking back though.
There are numerous midlifers on social media, once thought to be the terrain of younger people, showing ourselves capable of leading lives on our terms.
Last year I fulfilled a long-held ambition of writing a novel and signed a literary contract with an agent. I was also promoted at work which was a dear ambition of mine despite being told time and time again that an older woman would not be capable of such an achievement.
While I take care over my appearance, I do this for me and not the male gaze.
The American writer, Francine du Plessix Gray, penned an essay titled, ‘The Third Age’. A woman who constantly delved deep into her psyche, she wrote, “acquire instead a deepened inward gaze, or intensify our observation of others, or evolve alternative means of attention-getting which transcend sexuality and depend, as the mentors of my youth taught me, upon presence, authority, and voice.”
Therein lies the answer of how we learn to view ourselves as we grow older.