At 48, I'm GLAD I've become an invisible woman...

Too old for the builders to wolf-whistle at you? Count your blessings!

The other day I passed a building site. I was wearing a summer dress and the scaffolding was full of 20-something, half-naked builders. So what happened? Absolutely nothing. Nada. Zilch. No wolf-whistles, no catcalls, not even a ‘cheer up, love, it might never happen’. Did I feel invisible? Yes, I did. And guess what, I loved it.

At 48, I’m two years past the age when, according to a recent study, women become tragically invisible to unknown men. Apparently, our spreading middles, crow’s feet, grey hairs and — gasp! — reading specs act like Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, rendering us able to sneak about without being spotted by even the most eagle-eyed chap.

One forty-something, who dubs herself The Plankton, has even taken to the internet to bewail her terrible plight. She is ‘plankton’ apparently because she is barely visible and ‘at the bottom of the food chain’ when it comes to men.

Rejoice: Leah Hardy is reveling in the fact that she has become invisible to unknown men over recent years

Rejoice: Leah Hardy is reveling in the fact that she has become invisible to unknown men over recent years

Oh, leave off! Like The Plankton, I, too, have found I get far fewer wolf-whistles, leers and comments from random men as I’ve sailed into middle-age. These days, when I go shopping with my gorgeous, flame-haired 19-year-old stepdaughter, I see every young male eye on her, not me.

But I’ll let you into a secret. I think being invisible is like having a fabulous superpower. There is nothing like the glorious peace of walking down the street thinking my own thoughts without being yelled at, pestered or even molested by strange men.

It is so relaxing to have a conversation or transaction with a bloke without feeling as if he’s just trying to look down my top, and to have a drink with a female friend without fat, sweaty businessmen thinking they are doing us a favour by joining us.

Yes, I might have put on a few pounds and the odd wrinkle, but I’ve also gained a wonderful sense of freedom. And I know I’m not alone in revelling in the peace and privacy of being invisible.

‘Being stared at all the time when I was younger made me feel permanently self-conscious,’ says my friend Kate. ‘But now I’m nearly 50, I can walk tall, make eye contact in the street without being leered at and generally be treated with far more respect. I’m seen as a human being first, and a woman second, and I love it.’

When younger, things were so different. I didn’t look like a supermodel, didn’t walk around in a bikini, yet, simply because I was a young woman, I found myself stared at and harassed by men wherever I went. I was treated like a piece of meat to be assessed and commented on.

Now I’m nearly 50, I can walk tall, make eye contact in the street without being leered at and generally be treated with far more respect

I found passing building sites on my way to work an ordeal. My shoulders would go up, my head would go down. After a while, the workmen, riled by my refusal to respond to their leers, started to resort to cruder comments about my appearance, and one morning, actually threw stones at me to get my attention.

The truth is, there is a fine line between ‘hello, gorgeous’ and ‘nice legs, shame about the face’ when it comes to comments from strange men. On parenting website Mumsnet, women have shared their experiences of being catcalled, often in obscene ways, when pregnant or with their young children, and how ‘sullied’ ‘self-conscious’ and ‘dirty’ this made them feel.

I, too, remember the awfulness of having my body commented on while I was with my toddler son, and feeling nothing but impotent rage, as my tiny boy said: ‘Why did that man say that to you, Mummy?’ 

Even putting these horrible kinds of attention aside, one of the worst things about being a visible woman was how it spoiled one of life’s pleasures: walking alone, daydreaming.

So it is wonderful now that I can stroll about, happily planning, say, how I’ll spend my (non-existent) Lottery winnings, or what I’ll have for dinner, without being bothered.

Sense of freedom: Leah feels more confident now than she did in her twenties

Sense of freedom: Leah feels more confident now than she did in her twenties

In the study on female invisibility, middle-aged women claimed men stopped being chivalrous — holding doors open and so on.

The main difference I have found is that men have stopped being so patronising. They feel less obliged to ‘flirt’ by telling me how silly I am.

Socialising with ‘plankton’ female friends is hugely enhanced by our invisibility. The other evening I met an old school friend for cocktails and we spent a happy, giggly evening together.

Twenty years ago this was rarely possible without a fat, sweaty businessman lurching over, slurring: ‘Would you ladies mind if I joined you?’ before plonking himself down at our table with an air of entitlement, as if he were a Christmas present we were dying to unwrap.

‘I’d almost forgotten that particular horror,’ laughed my 47-year-old friend Lucy. ‘It would be so tricky to get rid of them as they were always so sure that two women laughing their heads off together were desperate for a man, any man.’

Another friend, Lisa, 48, says: ‘Being “plankton” these days means I no longer have to do a mental edit of every outfit I wear out of the house to assess what message I’m sending out and whether it might attract unwanted attention. I now dress entirely to please myself.’

As it happens, Lisa looks fantastic, and I, like most of my friends, still enjoy fashion, make-up, and have a head full of expensive highlights, rather than grey hairs.

So yes, we might be now invisible to rude scaffolders, drunks and perverts, but surely that’s an advantage? Think of it as an in-built idiot filter. In my experience, a cheerful woman with intelligence, charm and experience can make herself entirely visible to the right sort of man when she chooses, even if she is over 45.


A third of middle-aged women are annoyed that their partners are aging better than they are

‘I still enjoy catching the eye of an attractive man my own age,’ says my friend Sarah, 48. ‘But it’s a more subtle form of flirting, more sophisticated.’
Another friend, Robyn, who is approaching 60, is divorced, but always has an urbane boyfriend on her arm.

‘The kind of men I date are usually about five years older than me and they would hate to date a young woman who wanted children or to go clubbing,’ she laughs. Now, when a man pays me a compliment, I find they are rather sweeter and less predatory than the crude comments of my youth.

‘You look beautiful,’ a man told me the other day as I walked down the street, and the handsome chap in the antique shop definitely flirted as we haggled over a chandelier.

But as I left, I saw a gorgeous young women, hunched over and red faced with embarrassment as a fat man shouted at her from his white van. I felt sorry for her, as I clutched my invisibility cloak just a little closer, and strode off, happily lost in my own thoughts.

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