Saturday, April 7, 2018

INVISIBLE WOMEN, an essay by Rhys Bowen

RHYS BOWEN:

Earlier this week we discussed suitable and unsuitable clothing for women over 50.  One thing I have noticed as I travel on business is that women over fifty are invisible. Have you noticed that we can stand at a counter or in line for a table at a restaurant and will be overlooked if we don’t speak up?

Example 1: I am waiting in line behind a man at the rental car counter. He is called up to the counter. I wait. There seem to be assistants just sitting there. I ask, “Are you free to help me?”
The answer, “Oh, I thought you were with that gentleman.”
If I had been a man would anyone have thought that I was with THAT GENTLEMAN?
The assumption: that no woman of my age should be traveling alone and, God forbid, wanting to rent a car, all by herself! !

Example 2: I go into the hotel restaurant. The hostess looks at me nervously, then asks, “Are you waiting for someone?”
I’ve now learned to reply, “Only if I get lucky.”
That makes them embarrassed. And usually the woman alone will be taken to a table behind a large potted plant, at the back, beside the door to the toilets. I have made it a rule NEVER to take the first table I am offered. “Thank you,” I said, “but I prefer to sit over here.” And I choose the prime position by the window. Then I immediately ask for the wine list and choose a wine that is difficult to pronounce! That makes them realize I am not a pushover.

Example 3: I am on a plane heading to Houston. The man in the seat has been yelling into his cell phone until the last second when we take off. As we land he seems to notice me for the first time. “So, are you going to visit your grandchildren?” he asks in patronizing tone.
“Are you going to visit family too?” I ask, sweetly.
He frowns. “No, I’m on business,” he says.
“So am I,” I reply.

And you know, there are advantages to being older and invisible. As writers we can overhear some really juicy conversations, great fodder for future books. However I have an elderly friend who is really annoyed by people speaking on their cell phones in public places. If someone on a bus/train/plane starts talking on their phone while seated right next to her she switches into old-lady mode and pretends she thinks they are talking to her.
“Oh no,” she replies, “I certainly wouldn’t want to go to a club with you on Wednesday. I don’t even know you and I hate loud music.”
The young person stares at her in disbelief. “Not you, you silly old bat!”
“Then why did you ask me in the first place?”
“I didn’t.”
“I distinctly heard you say “do you want to go to the club on Wednesday?”
“Not you.” The person is screaming now. “I was asking my girlfriend.”
“But you were talking so loudly in my ear I was sure that you were asking me,” she says.
And you know what? The girlfriend on the other end has lost patience and hung up. Victory achieved!


Let’s make a pact: we are not going to go gentle anywhere. We are going to wear purple, as the poem says. And rattle railings and rattle pre-conceptions about older females. Who is with me?

75 comments:

  1. Although I’ve somehow managed to miss out on being ignored or parked behind the potted plant or suffering through difficult plane conversations, I know that this is happens quite frequently.
    I can’t figure out why older women suffer these sorts of indignities. I’ve never been able to come up with the right rejoinder when I need it, so I’m in awe of your perfect responses in these situations.

    However, I’m definitely good with not going gently, with wearing purple, and with rattling the railings and the pre-conceptions . . . .

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  2. I've never gone gently, so why start now? I'm a short woman on top of it. Talk about not being seen! Back in my early twenties when I was a car mechanic, I learned to step forward when all the men around me assumed I knew nothing and that the only reason I worked at a gas station was because my father owned it (he didn't - Daddy was a mild-mannered schoolteacher an hour away). So I'm in on the pact, Rhys. (I love the story about how your friend reacts to cell-blabbing!)

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    1. Edith, John always says that I don't understand that I'm short. Unless I'm in an elevator crammed with tall people--then I know it!

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    2. Yes. Sometimes I find myself standing in a small group and everybody else is a foot taller. I want to tell them all to sit down!

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    3. Edith, my husband is not tall, and he is less tall than he was when I met him, as he has lost a few inches in height. He says the same thing, that short men (he's biased here) are not taken as seriously.

      I still think he's taken more seriously than I am, even though I'm a little taller.

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    4. Edith, I've lost some inches of height and am now under 5'2"(I won't say how much under:) It can make me nervous to be around extremely tall people; I sometimes feel like someone could step on my head!

      DebRo

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  3. There is the semi-sweet revenge when the hostess/host asks the gentleman in front “Two?” And they all have to bumble and mumble “no” and apologies. ;-)

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    1. That's fine unless the man looks around, sees you and says, "Good God no!" Not good for the ego!

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    2. Fortunately, not happened...just mumble, bumbler guys.

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  4. I love this! And I find that I am 'getting my voice' more and more these days. Not sure where that has come from as I was a very shy and quiet young woman. However, I also hate people having loud conversations on their phones in public places. And I'm constantly amazed at the very personal details they will share while walking the grocery store aisles. As to your first example, my question is would any counter staff ever think that the gentleman behind you was with you automatically - of course not. And I like purple anyway - it goes well with silver-ish hair.

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    1. That's been my experience, Kay - being overlooked is certainly a thing women of a certain age are subject to, but I'm also, like Rhys in her examples, much more likely to firmly state my needs and wishes than I was as a young woman.

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  5. I'm in, rattling railings with Rhys and friends!

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  6. I wear purple A LOT! and although I'm quite tall, yes -- invisible. Hmph. "Do not go gentle into that good night..."

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  7. While standing in a jam-packed airplane aisle, I had trouble heaving my roller bag into the overhead bin. "If you're not strong enough to hoist your own bag, you should have checked it," the man behind me said. A college student stood up and pushed and shoved the bags already in the bin to make room for mine. The guy behind me had to gate check his roller bag. HAH!

    Before I was invisible but had two children under three, a businessman sat in the aisle bulkhead seat next to me. "You'll have to move. I don't sit with small children." I pushed the button for the flight attendant and told her the gentleman needed a different seat. He was moved to the back of the plane. HAH!

    A man asked me to give up my aisle seat on a nine hour overseas flight. I refused. The flight attendant wouldn't help him. HAH!

    When I get my car serviced, I have a female service tech. No problems. No man-splaining.

    I WILL use that marvelous cellphone technique the next time I fly.

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    1. Margaret, that man in the plane was staggeringly rude - and I bet he wouldn't have said that if you had been, say, an older man who couldn't reach the bins. Hurrah for the well-raised college student!

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  8. Being over 50 and under 5' 2", and especially since I stopped coloring my hair, I have certainly had my share of invisibility experiences. The phenomenon is definitely real, I am 100% on board with not going gently!

    I will say, though, that since my hair went gray I do also find that people seem to find me less threatening, too. I can interact with babies in shopping carts around me and the parents don't seem to find it weird. I have become completely at ease with stopping a fellow shopper and asking him or her to reach an item on the back of a top shelf for me -- they usually not only do so, but they smile and are friendly about it. Or I snark about the long line we're waiting in to a complete stranger, and more often than not they engage in conversation with me in ways I don't think they would with a younger person. So at least my experiences aren't all bad.

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    1. Susan, hair is silver, too, and I never hesitate to ask someone tall for help with top shelves, both out and at home!

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    2. My mother was always afraid to ask someone for help reaching things. I told her that people love to help others - she'd be doing them a favor by asking. But I believe that is true and I have never been turned down when I ask.

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  9. Even when I was in my 20s I found that restaurants always wanted to seat a single female at the odd tables. The exception was the Hamilton Princess in Bermuda where they made a point of giving me a window seat since I was alone.

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    1. I love Bermuda! Glad you were treated well there.

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  10. Brava, Rhys! I love your attitude, and fully support calling people out on their stupidity and prejudice.

    I was just telling a Finnish friend, a woman professor or medieval religion who speaks seven languages, about my first experience of European travel. I was 50 myself, and with seven other, all older, women, and we were on a bus going back to Florence from Fiesole. There were two 20-ish young men sitting across from us, either Austrian or German, and they were laughing at us, right in front of us. So rude! My professor friend is militant about telling this kind of person they cannot assume they aren't understood, but I did not have the words--or the courage--at the time.

    Some people have a lot of nerve, including those who demand special consideration over others they deem as "less than". I have no patience with that kind of behavior.

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  11. FLASH. Somehow I get treated the same way (and I'm an older man). It's the older single person thing.The service industry (with exceptions) seems more comfortable with folks their own age or maybe they're just intimidated by the sign of maturity and wisdom.By not acknowledging their elders they subconsciously believe they can avoid reality.
    No matter wear purple and smile.

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    1. "They subconsciously believe they can avoid reality." You hit the nail on the head, Gerald. No young person - myself included - every believes he or she will be old and gray someday. (I still can't believe I have arthritis. Me? I'm too young for arthritis!)

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  12. Oh honey, dearie, sweetie, don't get me started! My favorite story still is the young businessman in the middle seat who was visibly annoyed that this middle-aged woman had the aisle seat, separating him from his cool colleagues. I was elbowed, ignored, subject to his loud voice for the entire--but mercifully short flight. He couldn't wait to spring into the aisle and open the overhead bin--at which point my map case rolled right out and smacked him upside the head. Karma! I'm with you all--nobody ignores me or tries to put me at a crummy table more than once. And Susan, babies and small children interact with me--it would be churlish not to respond!

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    1. That's another thing, Susan. Being called dear, sweetie or Miss!

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    2. Don't know if it's still true but once upon a time in the South children would call you ma'am or sir. I still remember being called ma'am for the first time; I was in high school. Total shock.

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  13. I was the tallest in my class until fourth grade and then... I stopped. Weirdly I still think of myself as tall.
    RHYS: I'm standing up and applauding!!

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    1. I was too, Hallie! I was my current height at eleven, which was when I dropped our of ballet school when I was cast as the tree in the woodland ballet

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    2. A tree, how humiliating. It's like being asked to lip synch in the choir.

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  14. I am completely in, Rhys! At 5' 5" and of (ahem) matronly build, I'm not exactly tiny, but I can be standing in a group of colleagues and hear my boss introduce all the men to the new guy without ever introducing me. I've learned to step forward with hand outstretched and job title at the ready. When traveling or going out to eat I've become accustomed to walking up to counter staff or host and simply announcing myself, rather than waiting to be noticed. The place where all my strategies fail, however, is the big box home repair store. My toilet may be overflowing or my sink not flowing at all, but I could grow moss before I can get a clerk's attention in the plumbing department. Those guys in the aprons always assume the woman is there with some invisible man, and will wander off in search of him, rather than ask me why I'm standing in the aisle with a flapper valve in my hand, looking annoyed. I've complained all the way up the corporate chain on that one.

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    1. Gigi, at the store where I work (not as salesperson but as accountant), there are 2 women who know a lot about building, repairing , renovating and who are really good at what they do. So, when a customer comes in for the first time, he looks for a male to help .But if he has to come back, it won't be long that he'll go directly to one of the women for help.

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    2. That's great, Danielle! I will say that the male clerks were worse about overlooking female customers at the store out in rural west Texas, where I used to live. Now that I live in a more urban area, I see more female clerks and all the clerks seem better-trained about waiting on women.

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    3. I go to a small hardware store in the neighborhood. There is always a man when you walk in and he always asks if you need help, regardless of your gender. Love those guys!

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  15. Wearing purple, espeically the more vivid hues, reduces the chance of getting run over! The things that people, sometimes perfect strangers, share with you unbidden, are fascinating.

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    1. I'm laughing, because purple is my favorite color and I was wearing a purple coat when I was run over by a car in a pedestrian crosswalk in December! (And then my Good Samaritan called 911 and described me as "elderly". That hurt more than the injuries, but it may be the reason the ambulance showed up quickly!)

      DebRo

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    2. Ouch. That hurts in more ways than one. Elderly?

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  16. I'm definitely going to use the cell phone tactic.

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  17. Interesting. Maybe I’ve passed the age of invisibility, but I seem to have people of all ages and sexes tripping over themselves to open doors, etc. Just now I left our hotel room to get ice and a charming young man insisted he do it for me, then carried it back to my room. Maybe it’s the spiky platinum blonde hair. He probably thought I was Pink or Lady Gaga

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    1. Ann, I wonder if you exude "motherliness." The same thing started happening to me when I got into my fifties and let my hair go natural - suddenly I was surrounded by metaphorical Boy Scouts happy to help me across a road. I asked a young friend of the family, who said, "There's just something about you that makes me think of my mother." I knew a 30-year veteran of elementary school who got the same thing, despite having no children of her own. A lifetime in education gave her an aura of Mrs. Everyteacher, and other adults responded to her as if she were their beloved 2nd grade teacher.

      On the other hand, maybe they DO thing you're Pink! ;-)

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    2. From what I know of Ann, she probably exudes "hop-to-it-you-moron"ness, from all her years in nursing and admin. I wouldn't dare ignore her! ;-)

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    3. I suspect Gigi came closest here. I do not suffer fools. Period.

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  18. Rhys, you reminded me of an old story (or maybe an essay?) by one of my favorites, Ursula LeGuin, in which she's giving a brief description of a woman's appearance, and then says, "and then she got older, and nobody saw her at all." I've been trying to think whether I'm guilty of the sorts of things described here, and I'm left with a rather cautious, "I don't think so, but I'm grateful for the reminder to pay attention." So thanks.

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  19. Ha!
    Hank in a meeting—Seated around the conference table with men. Scene one:
    Hank: here’s an idea—how about we do x y z?
    Men: ::keep talking::
    Hank: ::trying again :: How about x y z?
    Men:: keep talking, until one man says Hey how about x y z.?
    Followed by a generous round of approval of what a great idea that is.
    Hank : ::so annoyed::
    Sometimes I think, wow, if I am that invisible, I am going to go rob a bank.

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    1. Don't you wish your recorder was on when that happens? How infuriating.

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    2. If this happens to you, who are so memorable and assertive, think how most women must be ignored!

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    3. I can still picture the conference tables surrounded by all men and me, a lawyer in her 20s, or 30s, or maybe even when I hit 40 and wasn't always the only woman, and still feel the ire rising....

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    4. Such a familiar scenario. And the interruptions! I can't get a complete sentence out without a man interrupting me, but if I interrupt a man, I'm being rude. I've taken to saying in a loud, no-nonsense voice, "If I may insert an opinion here . . . " at which point the guys all shut up and look guilty.

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    5. Exactly, you all. We have ALL had this happen, right?

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  20. Yes to everything everyone has said. I actually believe that women are invisible in this world until one of two things happens: a man decides to notice the woman OR a woman decides to show herself. The sad truth is it takes time, energy and constant commitment to be a visible woman in this world. We need to hold our space and use our voice and inhabit our life. Not always easy, but almost always worthwhile.

    Some of us work in worlds where the men don't need to see the women; we are merely window dressing no matter how hard we work at not being that. It's called patriarchy, and one day we shall overcome it! #mfgp (pardon my language)

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  21. No exemples coming in mind for now but I' m 100% with you Rhys: wearing purple and not going to get gentle.

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  22. Helping a neighbor get car out of snow/ice. I'm at the wheel, he is pushing.
    Other neighbor guy comes out and first comment is "She can't drive a stick."
    I hadn't heard that comment for a long time. It used to be a standard (excuse the pun) comment about women.

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    1. My dad insisted I learn to drive a standard when I was eighteen. Not only can I still drive a stick, when in the UK I shift left-handed!

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    2. I drive a stick too. When we moved to Texas from Minnesota I remember one of the movers being impressed by that.?????

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  24. Applause to Rhys, and astonishment that anyone overlooks Hank ( I have seen Hank looking camera-ready and all brain cells firing at breakfast events!) Yes, I am both old and short and getting shorter. Truth is that I was easy to overlook even when young. BUT I have developed a firm voice for getting attention when I need it. And that cloak of invisibility has definite advantages for a writer. Also - on the brighter side- the gray hair routinely gets me a seat on a crowded bus or subway car and sometimes help with suitcases, too. Anyone else find that?

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  26. Here, here! Well done all of you!
    Continue o fight the good fight for dignity.
    Karma--ain't she a bitch?! Love it.

    Libby Dodd

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  27. I don't think my body has changed much in shape in the last 10 years. Suddenly I am frail. I showed up to work on a gardening project and was told to go home. They felt it was too hot for me. The youngest in the family, I was hopeful that the boomer generation would always have a voice, so many of us compared to those who came after.
    Didn't happen, generational contempt continues, the 'young whiper snapprs vs the ol' geezers, as it was then, is now.. but with change shall not always be.

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  28. Since I no longer color my hair it is grey so, of course, I am ignored, overlooked and become completely invisible. I mentioned this many times as far as the invisibility is concerned and they discounted it, but I felt and experienced this so many times that you have reinforced this feeling.

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  29. Hooray, Rhys! I think we should wear purple and rattle the railings at every age!

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  30. I love it. Didn't Miss Marple solve a lot of mysteries because she was essentially invisible?

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  31. I've noticed men's perceptions of woman change as both get older. I think men become more aware of women's challenges. Perhaps ageism is one of the culprits. As men are "targeted" because of age I think they may understand women's issues due to gender. Of course there are always exceptions! Fortunately I don't run into too many these days. I think my no longer being in the work force reduces my exposure to the invisible little lady problems. But I experienced all that and more while I worked. Annoying as hell.
    "

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  32. Lorena McCourtney wrote a series about an older women being invisible and solving crimes. When I retired I got teal glasses and purple sunglasses. A lot of people compliment the teal glasses. I thought I should stand out a little and celebrate being retired.

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  33. You hit the nail on the head, Rhys! A very few years ago I was thinking of doing a video in my video class in the Photo Program about age and invisibility. I was the oldest student in many of my classes and embraced by most of my fellow students but as a "woman of a certain age", ok 69 for a few more months, there have been many times I have felt totally invisible! Maybe I need to rethink doing that video! In the mean time I am WITH YOU!

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  34. Since I have reached the age of invisibility I have decided to cultivate a bohemian vibe. Several years ago I went to lunch with a couple of author friends including the ever delightful Earlene Fowler. She and I were passed on a staircase by a couple of tall gorgeous young women who looked at us like we were the most pathetic creatures on earth. Earlene smiled and said, "Just you wait, my beauties. Just you wait." This has become my mantra. Just you wait, my beauties. Just you wait.

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  35. So true, Rhys! I do love the "sneaky" aspect of being older, in New York City, especially. I can dawdle along behind all-business businessmen and eavesdrop shamelessly. Wow, the things one hears....

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  36. I think this is an especially American thing. I was in England last summer and younger men were incredibly nice to me and seemed to care about what I was saying. I couldn't figure out what was going on at first. I realized I hadn't been treated that way in a long time. Maybe they thought I was rich? All I know is I enjoyed it. Came home to being ignored again. And I'm 5'9" with a teacher voice so pretty hard to miss.

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  37. In Charles Stross's Laundry Files books a middle-aged female character becomes so invisible it becomes her superpower.

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  38. This made me laugh out loud, and yes, it's true. You get to a certain age and you become invisible. "Only if I get lucky!" LOVE IT.

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  39. Well said, Rhys! I've definitely noticed the invisibility factor kicking in as I age. But also kicking in is a resting bitch face and a take no prisoners attitude. I figure I've earned it, especially after years of being meek and shy. So let's wear purple and kick some a*s.
    p.s I'm reading Her Royal Spyness and love it.

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  40. LOL!!! I'm laughing because of the friend thinking someone speaking loudly on a cell phone was talking to her. I was reminded of when I was a kid and I was at a coffee cafe with my parents. I think I had hot chocolate. I saw a lady at another table get up and it looked as if she was approaching us. She was moving her mouth and I thought she was talking to me. Turns out she was talking to someone behind us!

    I must have missed these cues when I am out in public. I do not recall someone asking me if a man in line was with me. At restaurants, sometimes I go by myself and the first thing I say is One person. If I am meeting friends, I say the number of people for a table so they know how many chairs to get for the table. On planes, I usually sit next to women.

    When you talk about women being invisible after the age 50, are you talking about the USA? Does this happen in England too? France? When I was a kid, I thought I was invisible because no one seemed to see me. Now I know it was because I did not hear them talk to me. LOL . Some people rely more on auditory cues than visual cues. I was a very visual child. The people who seemed to notice me were my parents, my teachers, my classmates and people who were fluent in Sign Language.

    About people who are invisible, I noticed that people do not seem to see people who are very short. Sometimes people seem to blend into the background if they are wearing colors similar to the background. For example, when I am driving, I always slow down when I approach crosswalks because there have been people appearing from under the shade of trees and often they are wearing colors that blend into the shade.

    I was going to ask if the "invisible" women were wearing the "Invisible cloak", thinking of Harry Potter stories. That is fiction.

    This post is about reality. It's hard to believe how anyone can be invisible. This mades great stories for mystery novels.

    Diana

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