Sunday, June 25, 2017

Not Ready to Be Invisible

Full-on gray, December 2016
"That guy looked right past you, and that pissed me off." This observation by my husband Ken dominated our conversation as we drove home from our Sunday shopping excursion. 

A little over two years ago I decided to abandon my monthly hair-coloring and let my hair go gray. I wrote about this decision and the myriad factors that led to it.  Today's shopping experience represents only one in a plethora of incidents that have altered my perspective and led me to change course as I consider abandoning the gray hair.

I first noticed a change in how strangers speak to me as the gray strands outnumbered the blonde locks. More sales associates called me "honey." The tone of utterances changed from one of respect to a saccharine sweetness that suggested accommodating my perceived frailty. I shared these observations with my husband. He never contradicted me but often indicated he hadn't notices. 

Today marked a tipping point. 

I stood at the fish counter in a local store as I awaited my turn. I visited with a young woman who also eyed the sockeye salmon. She explained to her son that "all sockeye salmon is wild, so there's no need to indicate that on the sign."

"A redundancy, " I added. 

"Yes," she agreed, turning her attention to her young son. "Don't put your hands on the case. It gets dirty, and someone has to clean it."

We chatted about the salmon and a sunburned splotch on her neck I hadn't noticed until she mentioned it. "I went on a long motorcycle ride and guess I missed a spot when I put on the sunscreen." Her comment belied her own insecurities about a physical mark I had not noticed until she mentioned it.

The middle-aged, graying man behind the counter finished with another customer and took the young woman's order. "I'd like a pound and a half of the salmon." He weighed the salmon and indicated it's not quite 1.5 lbs, which she accepted. "That's fine." 

"Fish doesn't work well as a leftover," I said. 

"I agree," the young woman responded as the associate wrapped the salmon and emerged from behind the counter with the fish and handed her the package. 

During this entire exchange, I stood to the woman's left, and the associate emerged from behind the counter to my left.  


he looked right past me and turned to my husband as I stared at his back.  

Ken had been waiting several feet behind me so that he wasn't blocking the corridor. 

"Is there something I can get for you today?" The associate asked Ken. 

"He's with me," I said simultaneously to Ken's, "she's the buyer." Ken pointed at me, prompting the associate to redirect his gaze and acknowledge my presence at the counter where I awaited my turn. 

Uncharacteristically, I said nothing about the slight. I saw the shocked, dumbfounded look on my husband's face. In that moment we shared the knowledge that the man behind the meat counter had failed to notice me. To him I was invisible. To him I am invisible. He looked past me, a 58-year-old woman with gray hair. He looked past me to my 69-year-old husband, whose hair is also gray. 

I don't need a Harry Potter invisibility cloak to be invisible.

In a 2013 issue of Salon, Tira Harpez wrote: "If you want to make a person invisible, just put them in the shoes of an over-fifty woman and abracadabra, watch them disappear."

We still live in an age when society entwines a woman's value with her ability to birth babies, a society that celebrates youthful exuberance and frowns on a woman's frailty in late middle-age and our senior years. Gray hair may be popular among teens and twenty-somethings, but it's also a marker of menopause and shriveled ovaries for the over 50 crowd. 

This past week we've witnessed the political castigation of Nancy Pelosi as a member of the "old guard." She's blamed for Jon Osoff's loss in the GA-06 special election. In contrast, her fellow independent turned democrat Bernie Sanders and democrat Joe Biden enjoy a loyal following of young and old alike. 

For years I've read the research about Hollywood starlettes' shrinking careers as they age. This age discrimination extends beyond the silver screen into the workforce. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lauren Stiller Rilkeen says, "Hundreds of women in their 50s and 60s have shared their stories of demotions, job losses, and the inability to find another job—outcomes they attribute primarily to their age and gender." And in 2009 the Supreme Court made suing on grounds of age discrimination more difficult, Rilkeen explains.

A 2015 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research offers empirical evidence of the difficulties older women face in the job market when seeking employment. My own anecdotal experiences of seeking a part-time online teaching gig reinforces these findings, although I must admit my inherent bias. Even as older female teachers become more valuable during this time of teacher shortages nationwide, we also witness those younger looked upon as experts whose opinions deserve voice while ours get marginalized. In effect, older women in the workplace and public sphere live the Nancy Pelosi effect day in and day out. 

Sadly, women unwittingly contribute to the invisibility of other women. During our recent vacation to the Grand Canyon, we boarded a bus as the driver, a woman older than I, announced: "The first eight seats are for handicapped and seniors." 

"How old do you need to be to be considered a senior," I asked.

"You qualify," the driver answered. She saw gray and responded accordingly. 

But I'm not ready to don an invisibility cloak.

With my granddaughter at the Grand Canyon, June 2017


  1. I love this so much! I am 52 and have held out coloring my hair until I "had to" and am almost at that point. I am not totally decided but think I am leaning to going naturally gray. Why not? For men gray hair is often associated with respect. Why the double standard for women? I am proud of what my gray hair represents - I have lived life hard and well. Thanks for encouraging me in this decision.

  2. Glenda, this article resonated with me as a 52 year old with very salty salt and pepper hair. I think women who once were beautiful have a much harder time ageing, and as a very ordinary looking person I have not felt the angst that some of my beautiful friends have had. I don't like the condescension with which I sometimes get treated, though.

    More even than this I have a difficult time accepting it when people treat me as if my ideas are unworthy of attention because of my age, and I am feeling this increasingly as twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are becoming predominant in my district. Regardless of the work I do, its innovation, or its effectiveness, I feel labeled as "past it" and "outdated." I don't remember this happening to teachers of previous generations--in fact, most of us "young'uns" revered the more experienced educators with whom we taught. I remember wishing for the day when I had 20 years' experience so I could feel like I was on top of the job (HA!).

    Having said that, though, I am not ready to dye my hair again. Like Susan B, I am proud of what my gray hair represents. As with other choices I have made with my life, I am willing to swim upstream against the opinions of other people who don't really matter to me in the long run. It has taken me an awfully long time to become contented with who I am, and I am not willing to compromise that for the sake of how other people view me.

    I'd love to hear how your hair change works out for you. As always, it's so important to be able to present yourself as *you* wish regardless of anyone's opinion.