Lack of confidence and feeling invisible to men: Is middle-age really that bad for women?

Getty Images: Dimitri Otis / Photographer's Choice

Getty Images: Dimitri Otis / Photographer’s Choice

A study of 2000 women aged 45 and older carried out by A.Vogel (a herbal supplement company)* released its findings earlier this week. It informed us that many women start to feel invisible to men at around age 51, and that they report low confidence levels, related to their aged physical appearance as well as the loss of the male gaze and attention.
What is interesting about this study is that it taps into a very real issue – women’s insecurities about their looks as they get older, and especially at midlife. For many women this can be a continuation of the dissatisfaction they already feel about their bodies, which may be something they’ve experienced throughout their adult lives – there is consistent evidence that a high number of western women experience body image dissatisfaction from a very young age. And this has been related to the social and cultural conditions that girls and young women are brought up in, where they learn to value themselves through how they look to others, particularly men, as a result of exposure to gender stereotypical messages. These messages, both implicit and explicit, communicate the ‘rules’ of feminine behaviour; how to be a ‘good’ woman. And tell us, for example, that because women are the nurturers, they are the ones responsible for maintaining harmonious relationships and pleasing others. Girls and women interact with these messages and may resist the stereotypes, but they are surrounded by them as their gender identity develops.
Kathryn Bayer has noted how women have undergone cosmetic surgery to look ‘better’ at their age (by looking younger) in order to retain a sense of themselves as powerful in their work place. By a process of association, being young is connected – in a youth-orientated society – with strength, power, independence, creativity. In contrast being old is connected with weakness, deterioration, and dependence. Although middle adulthood is very different to late adulthood, ageism begins to be noticed around this time of life, and the combination of ageism and sexism means that women can be particularly prone to experiencing prejudice and discrimination.
There is little wonder then that some women feel ‘bad’ about their ageing bodies and begin to loose confidence. But this is because in contemporary western societies there is a tendency to judge women on the basis of their physical appearance, and to be judged against an impossible standard as the dominant beauty ideal for women is the slim, smooth skinned, wrinkle free, dewy skinned version of their younger counterparts. As Susie Orbach has argued, looking good (i.e. younger) has become a moral value: if women don’t make the effort then they have failed.
I want us to change that script. It can be difficult for women when they reach midlife (which according to some starts in our late 30s) in the context of a society that values pert bottoms and an absence of thread veins, and where ageism and sexism are deeply entrenched. But there are things we can do. We can stop talking about ageing in terms of a decline in physical appearance, stop saying things like ‘losing our looks’ and ‘becoming invisible to men’. By simply changing the way we talk about getting old or being an ‘older’ woman, we would stop reinforcing the negative connotations of ageing and make a positive difference. Who knows, one day the dominant public discourse on women’s aged appearance might be about beauty and visibility as opposed to ugliness and invisiblity.
End note:
* I’m not sure about the reliability of the A.Vogel study. We do not anything about how it was carried out, and this is important to academics and researchers like me because knowing the details puts us in a strong position to assess whether or not the study has been carried out in a reliable way, using the correct approaches, and that the results are trustworthy. And because of these methodological mysteries, we can’t say that these findings are representative of women at midlife; that all midlife women feel this negatively about the loss of the male gaze (indeed, I expect that very many do not).
The study also explored experiences of menopause, and one finding was that hot flashes can cause a lack of confidence. The company who funded and carried out the study advocate taking a supplement for hot flashes.
Finally, if the women who took part in this study were in the menopausal transition, then symptoms such as night sweats can cause extreme tiredness. Couple that with a busy work and home life, and it is difficult for women to retain their sense of confidence when they are shattered. Factors like these should always be taken into consideration when interpreting the findings of a study on beliefs and behaviours related to health and well-being.

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  1. Very interesting, Dr. Hinchliff. Thank you for this excellent post. I believe that we continue to perpetuate this perspective by apologizing for being older or making disparaging comments about our age when in the company of younger women. This gives them little to look forward to as they age. Why not turn to them as mentors and glorious examples of life lived fully? They will look to us for strength if we are strong in our own eyes.

    • Dear Amy, thank you for your kind words. What a great idea to try and make ageing better for women younger than ourselves. Many women love their older selves, feel more confident, and view their sense of attractiveness outside of the young is beautiful ideal. It’s a shame these positive stories seem to get overlooked for the ones that reinforce negative stereotypes.

  2. Well, there is something to the “negative” stereotypes, and I for one get sick of the glossing over very real issues re: menopause gets. I’m 53, and YES I do feel invisible to men I haven’t had a boyfriend or even a date in 4 years!l I look in the mirror and feel quite unattractive. As I live in a college town, it doesn’t help seeing all the younger and prettier girls out there and the men give them all the attention. I feel old and dried up…and yes I wish I was younger, but alas I know that’s not gonna happen. Not much I can do about it, but I would like to have those feelings acknowledged as real and not hear more b.s. about how menopause years can be the “best years of our lives” because right now it sucks!

    • Dear MidlifeMelancholy, thanks for adding your voice. As you say, it is important that alternate views are heard. I know that for many women the menopause years aren’t so great. IMO we shouldn’t promote any part of our lives as ‘the best years’ but should try to eliminate ageism.

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