I happened upon a blog that caught my attention because it was about The Male Gaze, which is something I recently realized has gone missing in my life.
The author said that when she was 19 she became very ill, and as a result, very skinny. She compared the difference in the gazes she got from men when she was skeletal after the illness (“forceful, hungry attention”) versus before, when she was fleshy (“hoping for an adamant admirer”).
She made good, valid points, but what went through my mind was, Yes, but you (the blogger) can always shed that weight again. Diet and exercise do work, so your issue about how men respond to you depending on your weight is nothing against the issue of how men respond to you when you are aged.
Notice I used “aged.” Pronounced ājed, and meaning “having lived or existed for a long time.” I deliberately am not using that disparaging and depressing word, “old.” Aged cheese is appetizing; old cheese gets discarded.
At 62, I have aged, though many younger people might look at me and just call me old. But I don’t feel old, and if I don’t feel old, how can I look old? That’s one of those unsettling mind-tricks. How we see ourselves in not always how others see us.
Heightened awareness of this reality occurred last month when I was traveling to San Francisco to meet my sister and niece for a long girls’ weekend. (Girls’ weekend, though our collective age is somewhere around 160.) So I was in a “girls’ weekend” state of mind as I strode down the concourse. I felt as I did when in my 20s, off for a fun adventure. I felt as energetic and enthusiastic as ever. But there was one glaringly-obvious difference—unlike in those younger days, men didn’t gaze at me.
And I wondered: When did I become invisible? I couldn’t really say, because I hadn’t been paying attention, so I missed my attractiveness-expiration date. As I awaited the boarding call, I considered it, and I grasped onto that first-rung of aging to explain it—my lost fertility, which fled around my mid-forties.
I have long known that women of childbearing age give off pheromones, a natural aphrodisiac that attracts men. As Helen Gurley Brown said in her book, The Late Show: A Semiwild but Practical Survival Plan for Women over 50: “By nature a man needs to get his genes into the gene pool—i.e., procreate. The need is programmed into him. Impregnation is done with his penis and it responds best to young, healthy women with whom he figures he can produce a healthy baby.”
So I surmised that being non-fertile was the first leg on my journey to invisibility.
In researching this phenomenon, I found an article written in 1991 by Carolyn Heilbrun, Feminist Scholar, titled, “Rite of Passage: Middle-aged women must pass through the magic circle of invisibility.” It discussed the very subject I was exploring...the relationship between aging and the male gaze. She wrote, “We all bring into our lives as older women the baggage of the male gaze, the fear of disappointing people, the anxiety about not being dressed right, the knowledge of not seeming desirable. We must drop that baggage.”
Ah-ha! I realized that the reason I hadn’t really noticed when I became invisible was that at some point along the road of aging, I had dropped that baggage. Being in a loving and fulfilling marriage certainly helped, but during those menopause years, and many years beyond, I took care of my ill parents. Their needs overtook mine, because I focused much of my energy and attention on ensuring their quality of life and healthcare.
When that phase of my life passed, I thought I could relax and revel in the joy and newfound ease of my life with my wonderful husband of 25 years. I believed I could age comfortably by wallowing in leisure. How very boring! In short order, I strapped on my “get-going” attitude and looked around for the next meaningful idea to inspire me.
Inspiration found me when I gave serious attention to the escalating attacks on women’s reproductive choices. I have been a lifelong feminist, but I had done little to advance that thinking in recent years. Haven’t we already been through this? I thought.
But an intensified battle was being waged upon women of reproductive age, and I was compelled to wade into the fight. I updated and published a book I had written two decades before about a hypocritical anti-abortion governor whose mistress becomes pregnant, and the choices he is forced to make when an unintended pregnancy threatened to upend his life. I published two other books that touted female sexuality and power. I started blogging for Huffington Post about women’s issues, including sexual health and pleasure for aging women. I read, I wrote, I engaged and I contributed in a way I didn’t take time to do when I was younger.
And with all that, I recognize that I am participating in events occurring at this time in my life, fostering a new beginning. Aging has proven freeing. Aging freed me up to be as frank as I wanted in writing about women’s sexuality, and assertiveness has escalated to aggressiveness in my fight for women’s rights. That “Right of Passage...through the magic circle of invisibility” has led to a richer life. I’ve accepted that no matter what I might do to maintain my youth, I will fail. The best I can ever expect anyone to say at this point or beyond is, “She looks pretty good for her age.”
And I’m fine with that, because even though my youthful vitality has diminished, my aged vitality has rendered me more substantial.
Is that a fair trade-off for our youth? It is if we allow it to be. And since we really have no choice in the matter, it could even be considered a high-quality compromise. After all, unlike pounds, we can’t shed our age—but we can wear it with an audacious confidence that doesn’t depend on the male gaze.