Do Women Turn "Invisible" As They Age?

Profiling isn't always just about race.

In a story in the April 25 edition of The New Yorker magazine, Nancy Lieberman talked about what it was like to coach basketball in the NBA’s Development League or D-League.

The 53-year-old former Olympian and pro basketball player had to find ways to connect with young, mostly African-American men who played for her on the Texas Legends.

Lieberman said, “I tell these guys we have more in common than you think. Young black men don’t want to be profiled, and old white women don’t want to be profiled.”

Amen to that. Young black men get profiled as dangerous and middle-aged and older white women are dismissed as harmless. Both stereotypes are insulting.  

We’re living in a culture that prizes youth and no doubt there are middle-aged and older men who feel dismissed. But I still think there’s an assumption that a man in his fifties or sixties has more to show for his years.

Either he’s traveled or served in a war, succeeded in a profession or somehow led a more adventurous, interesting life.

Once women start to lose their looks they’re more apt to be seen essentially as support staff: the soccer moms who drive kids everywhere, the grandmas who bake the Christmas cookies or knit the scarves; nice to have around but not likely to be booked on David Letterman.

Lieberman’s quote about being profiled hit home with several friends. “I think you become invisible,” one middle-aged woman told me. “It’s like you don’t exist.”

Another said for years she’s accompanied her husband to black-tie functions for his job.  “When I told people I had my business they would talk to me,” she said.

When she had kids and quit work to stay home with them, the reception she got was different. “When I told them I was a stay-at-home mom, they moved on,” my friend said. 

Suzanne Weaver, Cedar Crest College professor of social work and  gerontology, agreed that middle-aged and older women are often underestimated but said those ages are also a time for women to reinvent themselves. Women might lose beauty but they gain substance. 

“You’re not going to turn heads if you walk into a restaurant, but you’re going to have more to say,” Weaver pointed out. And, hopefully, care less about what other people think of you.

That’s true, but the stereotypes still rankle. Once an old friend overheard young co-workers talking about how college was the high point of their lives.

About 15 years their senior, she assured them there were good days ahead. You don’t understand, they told her condescendingly; we were wild in college, going on road trips and other adventures.

The woman they were saying this to had hitchhiked to Alaska during summers in college and worked in fish canneries. She’d backpacked through Europe, lived in Ireland for a time, held all manner of jobs and had all manner of love affairs.

She could teach Wild and Crazy 101, plus the advanced courses. If only the world would look past her wrinkles and her sensible shoes.  


Jonathan Gerard July 21, 2011 at 04:09 PM
Our columnist discusses the two-fold dilemma of how men often treat women--when they are young and beautiful their looks trump their seriousness of mind. After thirty-five or so those men only interested in "looks" will no longer look at them. But Dr. Weaver gets at a second reality which Ms Peterson brings us to in her conclusion: that in middle age, when women are past the age of being sex symbols and candidates for male fantasies or the Letterman show, men will finally appreciate them for their ideas, their accomplishments, and their experiences. The women I hang around with are glad to have reached this stage in life where they no longer have to worry about aggressive stares but can now work the crowd at a party on their own terms... if they choose.


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