A 2014 study on women and middle age found that most women began to feel invisible and dismissed in society by the time they were 50. Among the thousands of women surveyed:
- 75 percent felt ignored by men when they walked into a crowded room,
- 50 percent felt as if they'd been "left on a shelf" and were judged negatively because of their age,
- 60 percent felt that society was geared toward younger women,
- 50 percent wished there was more focus on the plight of older women, and
- only 15 percent of the women surveyed reported feeling confident in any area of their life.
When asked what contributed to their lack of self-confidence, most of the women cited things like graying hair, having to wear reading glasses, and a lack of appropriate fashion opportunities.
What a stark reality for middle-aged women! Are you wondering why these women didn't just simply dye their hair, get contacts, and go on a little shopping spree? I did, but then I began to wonder if there wasn't a little more to the story. So I posted a status on my Facebook page and asked my middle-aged female friends if they ever felt invisible and dismissed, and to my surprise most of them said they did. And it wasn't just my gray-haired, glasses-toting, fashion-challenged, under-employed, single friends who felt marginalized -- my youthful, vibrant, active, career-focused, married friends also often felt dismissed in conversations, ignored at parties, and generally invisible in life, particularly to their male counterparts.
I'm not sure I've ever felt profoundly dismissed or invisible after turning 50, but I have struggled with aging more than I thought I would. I can no longer see my hand waving in front of my face without glasses, sometimes my left hip aches (I jogged once last summer), and I can no longer type on my laptop curled up and hunched over, because I can see the reflection of my neck in my screen, and it blocks my creative flow because once seen, I stop what I'm doing and start searching the web for reputable plastic surgeons.
Middle age involves major life changes and transitions, including some losses (night vision, waistlines, estrogen), and some gains (more freedom, no periods, discounted movie tickets).
After all of my pondering about the impact of middle age on a woman's psyche and sense of self, I came to some major conclusions about myself and my future: since the human lifespan has almost doubled in the last 100 years and we can now reasonably expect to live another 30 or so years beyond our 50th birthday, this middle-ager has no intention of living out the rest of my three-plus decades sidelined in some marginalized wasteland. No, I plan on living larger than I did in my youth, taking up more space, rather than less (metaphorically speaking, I hope), and doing whatever I have to do to ensure that the second half of my life is not only as good as the first, but far better.
I've also concluded that it doesn't really matter who's to blame for middle-aged women feeling invisible and disregarded. I don't care if our youth-centered culture is primarily to blame, and I don't care if some women are marginalizing themselves by relying too much on male attention for validation, or playing it too safe in life, when taking more risks could lead to their advancement in a number of societal spheres. I simply don't care, because if most women feel invisible and disregarded, then something has to be done about it.
And since I don't see society rushing to our collective aid anytime soon, I believe that each individual woman is responsible for finding a solution that works for her and her unique life circumstances. I also believe that as a group, women can be mutually supportive of one another by supporting each other's right to age however we choose. This means that I support your right to gray naturally and you support my right to get a neck lift in a few years. The point here is that we must make a choice about how we're going to age and hopefully that choice involves being true to ourselves and placing our own wellbeing as a priority.
For the record though, I don't think that aging well has anything to do with competing with younger generations of women, and I don't believe it has anything to do with conforming to unrealistic youthful standards and ideals. I also don't believe aging well has anything to do with the color of our hair, the quality of our skin tone, or the size of our bodies. Aging well is an attitude that translates to action in a number of different ways.
So here are my five suggestions for how middle-aged women can feel less marginalized and more visible, vital and relevant in the second half of their lives:
- 1. Go on a solo journey of self-discovery. Get to know the real you as a middle-aged women. Explore yourself in much the same way you would explore a new partner or a friend--as a new and unique person. Ask yourself questions, examine your feelings, motivations and reactions to various experiences. Don't be afraid to spend more time alone. There may be some comfort by being in the center of a crowd, but there's also a cost, often in form of sacrificing some of our individuality and uniqueness.
- 2. Renegotiate your self-esteem.
Explore what you base your self-esteem on, and consider valuing yourself more for intrinsic traits, such as your resilience and your creativity, rather than on superficial traits, such as your youthful looks, the size of your body, and your ability to attract a 30-year-old man from across a crowded room (although if you can still swing this at the age of 55, more power to you!)
- 3. Challenge your existing belief systems.
Explore how your current values fit with the woman you are today and the woman you want to become in the second half of your life, and consider letting go of outdated values. For instance, traditional notions of sexuality are often shame-based and not particularly female-friendly. Develop new standards and practices that feel right for you and your middle-aged lifestyle.
- 4. Find your voice.
Middle age is a great time to stop remaining quiet when you have something meaningful to say. Stop flying under the radar so much, stop asking for permission and start following the advice of Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg in her best-selling book, and TED talk, and Lean In to life. Take more risks, speak your mind, take up more space.
- 5. Practice acceptance. Self-acceptance, other-acceptance, life-acceptance. Life doesn't work out the way any of us thought it would when we were in our 20s. Spending more time lamenting your life course than proactively affecting change is only going to keep you stuck in the past, and not moving forward. Emotions such as self-pity, bitterness and regret bore into our skulls and press against the pleasure centers of our brain, robbing us of the joy that every one of us richly deserves. Choose to let go, move on, and be happy.
Regardless of how we choose to age, middle age can provide women over 50 with wonderful opportunities for renegotiation and transformational change in many areas of our lives. We just have to be willing to invest in ourselves in a way that we may not have had time for in our youth. But with some determination, patience and the support of a few key people, we really can make the second half of our lives better than we ever dared to imagine.