Monday, November 10, 2014

In whose eyes?

When I was a young professional in Boston, I couldn't commute to work without passing construction sites, doorways, or canteen trucks where clutches of men hung out every day. Whether they were black, white, Latino or striped, I knew I was going to be noticed and hasselled. 

When the attention came, it was not flattering. It was not affirming. I didn't feel more attractive because these men found me "hot". It made my heart race, and one late evening, it made me cry to think I might not reach my car without help.

It didn't get easier just because it happened all the time. When a man calls out, when another joins in, your normal radar becomes skewed and you are always aware that the worst could happen as easily as it probably won't. 

And it hasn't changed. "I keep my head down," says my oldest daughter, who teaches violin to inner city kids in Cleveland, "and one hand on my pepper spray." Said my younger daughter, whose former commute required her to travel a stretch between the bus and subway in Boston, "It gets sketchy." 

In my reading last week, the subject of unwanted attention that you must deal with was interestingly juxtaposed against the attention that you can't get anymore.

On one hand, the now gone-viral "catcall video" had been seen, exhaustively dissected and in inevitable backlash, critiqued for its racially selective portrayal of what women really confront when they walk the city.  (Long story short, people wondered why the white douchebags had been edited out, possibly leaving the impression that only blacks and Latinos were doing the "calling". Well, not only isn't that the impression we probably have, but here's an example of a white uber-douchebag, who is probably more of a threat than those guys on the street because he is also rich and self-important).

Later that day. 

In a piece called, "The Case of the Vanishing Woman: Ayelet Waldman on the Invisibility of Turning 50", writer Deborah Copaken detailed her conversation with Ayelet Waldman – an intelligent, funny, and insightful writer – about this notion of becoming, as Ms. Waldman refers to it, "invisible". 

When I say I read this piece as if I expected to be blown away by a brilliant punch line – because, really, she couldn't be serious – I'm not kidding. But here is a quote:

"There's this whole thing going on right now about guys in the street harassing women," said Ms. Waldman, referring to the catcall video. "I get that, when you're a young woman, it can be really demoralizing to walk through the streets of New York ...and yet, I am so flattered when that happens to me at this point. It's so sad, because I'm a feminist! It’s ridiculous, I know. But when somebody says to me, "Oh, sweetie, you're shakin'!" I feel like, "Okay, I still got it!"

She's not alone.

Tira Harpaz is a graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School and the mother of three children. She was formerly a Senior Attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell and she is currently the founder and president of CollegeBound Advice, an independent college counseling firm.

Last year, Ms. Harpaz made an observation similar to Ayelet Waldman's in her piece for "The first time I felt invisible was on a train to New York City, about nine years ago. As I eased into the end seat of a three-seat row, the 30-something man sitting in the window seat glanced up at me. It was a brief glance, but it conveyed disappointment and complete days and years went by, I realized that the look was everywhere."

To hear talented, vital women discuss their fading value in terms of their age or physical appearance  made me wonder:

In whose eyes do we consider ourselves invisible?

I know so many women, fifty and older, who possess such confidence in their histories, skills, gifts, talents, wisdom, presence and intellectual contribution, they don't just turn heads when they walk into a room, they engage minds, and capture hearts.  And I know many confident, bright men, fifty and otherwise, who consider the way a woman feels about herself to be not just sexy, but beautiful.

And I know men who don't.
Who might be attractive.
But who are not sexy.
Or worth the time and preoccupation of women.
Who fear becoming invisible.

It was disturbing enough to know that bright, accomplished women feel endangered by an expiration date, but it was insulting to be spoken for by women who hold this view of  the rest of us. And yet, women agree. Women lament loss of purpose right along with their worsening vision and memories.

Many in my own circle of writer friends co-lamented Ms. Waldman's assertions of "senescence"; some made "half-serious" comments about being  "lucky" if, at a certain age, anyone catcalls you at all.

What is wrong with us?

If we are an ageist society, we are an ageist society because we have allowed others to assess and value us for the wrong things.  But to tell ourselves – and our daughters and sisters and friends and mothers – that "we" women outlive our time of true worth on the planet by about thirty years is worse than an anti-feminist position, it's sexist.

We can be feminists, and ask all the respect and equality in the world. But are we offering it to ourselves, first? Because for better or worse, it is self-perception that is reinforced by the outside world. 

In her Salon piece, Ms. Harpaz discusses the new awareness and perceptions that evolved of the train revelation. They are attitudes I hold myself, but  importantly they are those I hope to see my own daughters cultivate:

"We have to fight or ignore our insecurities and look for opportunities to become visible – run for local office, get on a community board, start a program – and find ways to take control of our lives. I have found that when I reach out to old friends, get involved in activities I’m interested in and share my thoughts through social media or in person, I feel that people are really listening to and seeing me – not the anonymous older woman who is ignored time and time again, but the youthful, creative, interesting me who still lives inside."

Exactly. In other words, be who you know you are – in your own eyes – and not some guy's on the train.


  1. I've been having a dialogue about this subject with my oldest friend. Both of us agree--in our early fifties--we are at our prime. My writing is the best I've done because I have time to write. I'm the most confident I've ever been and physically I might be jowly and a little jiggly but I'm the healthiest I've ever been. I don't feel invisible to the people who matter in my life.

    1. Well, I could have trimmed this considerably if I'd come up with that very concise kicker: I don't feel invisible to the people who matter in my life. Thank you for visiting, Laura.

  2. I am always a little put-off, I'd say, by women who enjoy catcalls at any age. I am also put-off by women in mid-life and beyond who think looking younger than they are is vital to their success and acceptability. It is not. Who you are and who you believe yourself to be is what should concern you.
    We all have youth, it passes. For everyone! That's life. What doesn't have to pass is your good heart, your talents and your beliefs. Those help form the you that other people see and either love or don't.
    It is our business to BE who we believe we are and what other people think, reflects on them, not us.
    I am not invisible and I do not get catcalls. I am not 30, I'm one month short of 65. I'm not a hardbody by any means, but I'm confident and compassionate and well read. I am still learning to be who I am, but I'm not interested in becoming what anyone else thinks I should be.
    I am clearly VISIBLE in any room, on any street and even alone.

  3. Visible you isible, Jo. That last line was perfect.

    I guess it can be a matter of definition, a matter of what feeds our identity, or a matter of habit. But I think there's a self-fulfilling prophecy going on as well. I felt too bothered by this to write it up last week. This week, it came into focus: I don't want my daughters to believe their best years have a shelf life.

  4. Getting catcalled frightened me when I was younger. I don't mind that it doesn't happen now. I mean, I still get the OCCASIONAL comment..but I've learned to define myself by my standards..not by what a stranger thinks of my looks. I don't feel invisible at all. Or at least, no more than I ever have.

  5. I have experienced such an invisibility. Your writing was helpful and insightful as always. Thank you.