July 19, 2011
It was after work, a nice Autumn evening and I was heading to the bus stop. Two boys were there, waiting in the bus shelter. They were 16 or 17, that sort of age, and every time a girl walked by, they turned their heads to check her out. Then they’d look at each other, raising their eyebrows if they approved, screwing up their mouths if they didn’t. I walked into their line of vision, right into it, and something strange happened, which was: nothing. Nothing happened. They didn’t raise their eyebrows or screw up their mouths. They didn’t turn away. They looked straight at me … and they couldn’t see me.
I had become invisible to teenage boys.
The thing is, I was only 34. I was married, but every now and then a random male would ask me out for a drink, and not in a guys-together kind of way. In other words, I was still what would be considered presentable.
But not, apparently, to teenage boys — not anymore. Of course, in itself, this was no great loss. It’s not as if I was interested in teenage boys; that would have been creepy and probably illegal. Nonetheless, the implications were disturbing. If I was no longer visible to this segment of the population, was I going to start fading, incrementally, from the view of the rest of the male world? Would it be like one of those horror movies where bits of the heroine keep disappearing — an elbow one day, an ear the next — until nothing’s left but a set of teeth?
According to a recent survey, women think that 46 is the age when they become invisible to men. I’m sure there’s some truth there, but I also don’t think it’s that simple and precipitous, that you wake up one morning in the middle of your fifth decade and discover you’re wearing a Harry Potter invisibility cape. Instead, I suspect that it — let’s call it the Female Invisibility Factor, FIF for short — is a gradual phenomenon, a three-phase process:
The Three Phases of FIF
Phase 1: Failure to register on the retina of teenage boys. One day you’re trying to ignore coarse comments from mini-males with gym kits and acne; the next day they’re ignoring you. This shift is easy to dismiss, in fact, it’s something of a relief. Even better, it can be viewed as one’s full flowering into womanhood.
Phase 2: The hot guy calls you ma’am. This is when men in their mid-to-late twenties start offering you their seat on public transport– and you’re not even pregnant. Even worse is the accompanying “Ma’am?”, which makes it painfully clear that this is not a charming pick-up gesture but an act of courtesy towards an older woman. This phase is marked by a severe reduction in attention from construction workers, truck drivers and those mildly tipsy men who hang out on street corners. The coup de grace is the day you acknowledge to yourself that it has been some time since a fireman flipped you an appreciative glance.
Which brings us to:
Phase 3: The edge of the cliff. This is not to say it’s all over, but the signs are hard to ignore. Things just don’t seem to happen. There’s the sense that you might be occupying a sort of negative space. If older men notice you, it is now most definitely in a guys-together way. When repair men come to the house, they repair, no messing. What you anticipate about parties is the chat as opposed to the chat up. And there’s a definite change in a key — but rarely discussed — strand of the FIF phenomenon, which is visibility to other females. For most of our lives, most of us are checking out other women — lightning assessments of style, appeal, success and shoes. Younger girls, whether they’ll admit it or not, are always clocking not just each other, but the previous generation for tips and clues, how to be and what not to do. Forget invisibility to men: the failure to register on the retina of teenage girls is the true beginning of the end.
And the end itself? That comes on a trip to Italy. You’re walking, alone, through a small village in the southern tip of the country. Three old boys are seated at an outdoor cafe. They’re leathery and ancient, with crooked cheroots shoved into the corner of their mouths. Every time a female walks past, they smack their lips and mutter “Bella.” You come into their line of vision and … nothing. Nothing happens.
Now that’s invisibility.