This essay first appeared in the now defunct The Frisky, but many people ask me about it.
I was on the subway a few months back when a somewhat intoxicated man stopped right in front of me on the nearly empty train car and tried desperately to get my attention. It was during the freezing cold winter and I was doing the crossword puzzle while swaddled like a newborn in layers of fleece and poufy down.
“TITTIES,” he shouted while gesticulating madly toward my general chest area and definitely not using his indoor voice. “I KNOW YOU GOT SOME BIG HONKING TITTIES AND I NEED TO SEE THEM.”
Being a native New Yorker, I sent up a rare summoning prayer to the gods of mariachi bands and train car buskers, wishing they would magically appear and save me from this particular indignity, to no avail. I waited for my unwanted admirer to move along and harass the next person, but he remained. He changed his tone to one somewhat more caressing and intimate and started wheedling and begging.
“Please, baby. Please. Why you gotta cover up so much? Why can’t I see ‘em?”
Over the next few weeks I retold this tale to mixed reactions and ultimately ended up more amused than shaken by the experience. There was also a disconnect on some level; unlike Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans baring their breasts for beads, I was so obviously intentionally covered up and wholly disinterested. Why choose me to target? This led me back to a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years: Why do I intentionally choose to cover up some of my best assets in public?
Was it because of my religious Jewish upbringing which stressed modesty in dress and deed? Not really. I was always a fairly outrageous dresser as a tween/teen/young adult. I started pretty early on in trying out different hair styles and colors, makeup and clothing. From club kid to Gibson Girl to modern flapper and just about everything in-between, I would try out entire eras and affectations and test out the effect it had on others, particularly the men in my immediate orbit. Whether it amused or attracted or even intentionally repelled, I always got attention. And at that point, it seemed to be what I wanted and needed.
I explored different personas into my 20s and 30s. Ultimately I settled on a combination of stylish, chic, iconoclastic and trendy with a side of outrageous, but I almost never revealed anything aside from the odd glimpse of cleavage or too-tight tops or slightly too-short skirts. I wasn’t overly worried by the effect I had on others. No matter what I wore, I almost always attracted comments or attention, albeit on a smaller scale and level I was comfortable with. I also noticed that men would crane their necks and contort themselves to get the slightest glimpse of what I wasn’t showing, when there might be a full-blown booty buffet much more visible and accessible.
As I got closer to 40, I seriously panicked. After all, the women’s magazines and movies would have us believe that women disappear en masse after that birthday. And I listened to my older friends and relatives who seemed to echo that sentiment. And somehow I expected that I would hit 40 and cease to exist as an interesting and highly attractive woman. So for a while I sort of bought into it and eased into that transition. Like planned obsolescence in a tech toy, I assumed that being in my 40s would render me undesirable and naturally invisible.
Something amazing happened when I hit that big birthday, I expected to fade away entirely — only I wasn’t quite that invisible after all. I was still attractive to men, if not all men. I realized that somehow during my journey through the decades I’d become more discerning and therefore wasn’t projecting “it” to every man in my path. And I was relieved not to have to worry if a random stranger at the bank thought I was cute.
I slowly rediscovered my attraction comfort zone. I also started paying more attention to teen girls or women in their 20s on the subway or in restaurants or the street who were so painfully focused and wholly aware and so concerned with the looks or attention that they were or were not getting. Their focus was on others and they seemed almost incidental to their own lives.
Suddenly(finally, maybe?) it occurred to me — while our society doesn’t equally value every demographic, women in their 40s disappear. It’s the reverse. We choose invisibility and slowly disappear ourselves with great intent. Like Wonder Woman with her invisible airplane, we drop in and out of situations as we choose. Sometimes we save the day. Sometimes we choose to blend into the woodwork. But it is or can be by choice. Some of us intentionally choose not to be noticed by every single man we encounter. The flirting is there if desired, albeit more subtle, with the response far more targeted. As I’ve stopped looking to random men on the street for validation and approval, I’ve stopped needing to be what they want to see. I ease out of the anxiety of living up to the unattainable ideal.
There are so many beauty and lifestyle products marketed to women to cover up the things society doesn’t quite want to see. Concealer hides unsightly bags under your eyes. Hair color covers your offensive gray roots. Spanx smother your bulges. The list goes on. Maybe that’s where the actual disappearing comes in; the incessant brainwashing that what you’re becoming is no longer worth seeing. Pretty soon women of a certain age will be slathered or smothered in so much product and spandex that they’ll finally disappear completely hidden under layers of manufactured or medically produced youth.
But what if like me, you sometimes choose invisibility?
Online quizzes are fond of asking us what we’d choose as a superpower. Would you choose to fly or turn back time? Or like Harry Potter during times of great strength, would you dream about a cloak of invisibility? Lucky me. As a thinking woman in my 40s, I already have a powerful and intentional invisibility cloak in my attitude and demeanor when I choose to use it.