Making Women Visible After Midlife
The anthropologist Margaret Mead married a series of men, each one a researcher about to travel to a place she wanted to study. At the end of an assignment, she divorced and married anew. An extreme method, perhaps, and yet it enabled Mead to examine and write about cultures all over the world. Decades later, when her work was already famous throughout the first world, it amused Mead that her invisibility as an older woman enabled her to visit remote cultures on her own and ask a thousand questions while hardly being noticed.
Is our invisibility after menopause a superpower or a detriment? If we want to observe unhindered, invisibility can be marvelous. If we want to seduce someone, invisibility is inconvenient. The answer depends on what we want to do.
And then there are women who are strikingly noticeable long past midlife. The antithesis of the invisible older woman is Iris Apfel, known as the Accidental Icon, who developed an interest in fashion as a young child and, after a stunning career in fashion and textiles, became a fashion model in her 80s. Now in her late 90s, Iris published her eponymous book in 2018 with the subtitle “Musings of a Geriatric Starlet.” Her advice is a recipe for continuing to shine: Wear bold glasses, red lipstick, a big necklace, bracelets on both arms, and dress to please yourself. Hit the vintage stores if budget is an issue. Apfel brings joy and play to this issue with every bright outfit she wears.
The key thing is for us to own our visibility as women after midlife. Like a superheroine with a cloak of invisibility, we can choose when to be seen and when not to be. Among the many lessons of the marvelous Ms. Apfel is that we can keep on making that choice, with joy and playfulness, right up to the century mark.