If the media is a mirror on society then, like vampires but (unfortunately) without the milky skin and gothic glamour, middle-aged women lack a true reflection.
Psychotherapist Susie Orbach sums it up: “You’d never know that women like me, who still enjoy their lives and haven’t metamorphosed into old grannies, existed from today’s media. We’re almost invisible and if we are visible then we are supposed to be trying to pass for younger, [trying] to reflect those women… who are in the anti-ageing advertisements, selling us a mantra that age can be defined.”
But is the social phenomenon known as “invisible woman syndrome” a social reality, or just a low-pitched whine from a few dowdy women with dubious self-esteem?
Is it, perhaps, all about sexuality and therefore something of a self-prophesying prophecy, or is the Invisible Woman more like the yeti, or Sasquatch, just an urban myth that grew from dubious evidence, like fat, flat footprints and extraneous body hair?
Being somewhat invested in the subject (i.e. being middle-aged myself and well used to the less welcome aspects of this life stage, such as chin hair, neck wattle, and the inability to wear denim shorts with quite the same sartorial result), I decided to devote some time to discovering the answer. Starting with that barometer of our times – the media.
It came as little surprise, especially as I’d been recording the data each day, to see that middle-aged women were relatively invisible on television, particularly on the commercial channels. More surprising was the similar lack of imagery in women’s magazines, which one would imagine have a target audience of mainly, well, women.
Does that mean even we don’t want to see each other once we’ve begun ageing? There are more Australian women poised to enter middle age (45-69) than ever before, and yet most of the space in women’s magazines was given to depictions of children (15%) and young women (a whopping 43%). The press were not quite as magnanimous, but only men benefited from the redistribution, with middle-aged women remaining much the same regardless. I suppose at least we’re consistent.
Overall, midlife women fill just a third of their allotted space within the media. If we take this opportunity to ignore the teenagers, the only demographic that is depicted less are elderly women. Meaning our future is even less visible than we are. Excellent.
If the lifespan of a woman was measured by media visibility, we would have a relatively flat line that peaked dramatically in young adulthood before falling, equally dramatically, into middle-age and beyond.
This is not to suggest that there is some Machiavellian conspiracy at work; rather the media mirror is simply reflecting, and thus perpetuating, a set of skewed values that already exist.
According to the Dove Project (1996), many middle-aged women acknowledge that they have become accustomed to not seeing themselves reflected in popular culture. Yet in reality we are everywhere, taking up our requisite 15% of space and casting a long shadow over the rest.
We have a middle-aged female prime minister, deputy opposition leader, governor-general. We have talk-show hosts like Oprah and Ellen, and actresses like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon and comedians like Magda Szubanski and Denise Scott. We have watched Aung Sun Suu Kyi inspire from behind barbed-wire and Hilary Clinton emerge to become a political force all her own.
And then there are all those less remarkable lives, but equally vibrant, framed by friends and family and careers. The linchpin of a million networks.
Of course a certain loss of visibility is inevitable, even natural. Menopause rings the death-knell for female fertility and we become biologically incidental. As Germaine Greer explains, the constant gaze of sexual scrutiny ebbs, and is withdrawn. An embrace becomes a handshake.
However this is exacerbated, hugely, by Western society being so youth-obsessed, weight-obsessed, image-obsessed. Female ageing has become demonised, an enemy to be battled on all fronts at any cost, automatically reframing the older woman as loser.
Which is why studies indicate that younger women hold negative images of midlife, creating a fear factor that demonises a life stage and a life process.
And also why the Dove project (2006) found that almost half of all middle-aged women shun revealing clothing because they feel badly about their ageing bodies, while 35% avoid being photographed, and 24% don’t even want to see their own reflection.
The most common complaint from women surveyed for this article concerned ageing itself, with several comments indicating a perception of this as more of a medical condition than a fact of life. how self-destructive, to spend our midlife focused on the one thing over which there is no control.
None at all.
And it is a truth that record numbers will be realising within the next few years. Over three million in Australia alone, with baby boomer women spearheading the way. The wealthiest demographic also, with median income having soared and standing to inherit even more as elderly parents die and husbands are outlived. Such a sweet spot for marketers that surely someone, somewhere, will wake up and smell the profit. We are simply too good an opportunity to miss.
And we’re different too. Less complacent than our mothers, more feisty, and more self-aware. Prepared to either rewrite the rule book or just skip the boring chapters. We know (well, most of us), that our lives are not defined by male attention, and we reject the sexist, ageist notion that the erosion of overt sex appeal should be allowed to define us, and our societal value.
A shift in sex appeal is one thing, a lack of public space is another. We are more, so much more, than our sexuality.