Turning invisibility into stealth.

In the summer of 2007 I won a fellowship to attend the University of Washington’s two-month Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. One day we were given 20 minutes to write something about a specific aspect of our identities.

Here’s an excerpt from mine:

“All terrorists should be middle-aged women,” I once said – only partly in jest. 

It’s the ultimate undercover. You are there, but not seen. More precisely, you are not valued.

You’re probably someone’s wife, someone’s mother, walking into a building with a clean tie or a forgotten lunch.

Such functions do have value – but only as they apply to someone else’s needs.

Your own needs? Who needs ’em?

The only need we have is to be needed.

I was surprised how easily these sentiments fell out of my pen. But not too surprised. Finally I was beginning to discover the vocabulary for subversive thoughts I’d been having for years.

A lifetime of inculcation

Ever since my mid-teens I have been taking care of other people and pretending to have no needs of my own. I’ve spent four decades being defined in terms of how I look, whom I serve and which rules I might be breaking.

Now, in midlife, I am examining my life – not because I can, but because I must. I cannot consent to another 20 or 30 years of an existence that gives too little and takes too much.

This kind of change isn’t simple. (If it were, Oprah would be out of a job.) After a lifetime of inculcation you really do believe that guests will instantly judge the cleanliness of your carpet; that your children’s successes belong to them but that their failures are all yours; that if someone in the room needs something then it’s up to you to provide it.

You grow up inside a body that is not your own but instead must be shaped and adorned according to media images. Your feelings don’t belong to you, either; women are trained to be attuned, always, to the desires of others. Your ability to rebel is limited: To buck the system means to risk losing social approval and thus the chance for love, family, advancement at work, the right to exist at all.

The perfect disciplinary apparatus

The philosopher Michel Foucault refers to observation as an integral part of discipline, whether that’s in a boarding school, a factory or a prison. A person who can be seen at all times has two choices: to conform, thereby avoiding punishment, or to act in ways deemed unacceptable by society and thereby risk trouble and/or ostracism.

“The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly,” Foucault notes.

Women have been subjected to the constant gaze for so long that we’ve become the agents of that power as well as the objects of it. We police ourselves. We watch our weight. We watch what we say. We watch TV to see how we’re supposed to look, what drinks we should order, which shoes we should buy, whether our eyelashes are thick enough and our ankles thin enough (hi there, Hillary Clinton!).

We also watch what happens to other women when they challenge the status quo.

By contrast, we’ll never watch Rush Limbaugh checking the mirror for flaws, or watch Henry Kissinger confess to Larry King that maybe he should have had his hair straightened.

I bought into all that. I didn’t feel that I had a choice.

Now I do.

And as I noted in that 20-minute essay, my new tactic is resistance:

I’ve learned to turn invisibility into stealth.

The slightly frumpy middle-aged reporter walks right past the “media area” and into the laundromat where a mother weeps in despair. A woman who looks like me is probably there to pump quarters into machines.

But while the TV reporters freshened their lipstick, I got the scoop.

Or take my presence here at the university. Usually I’m mistaken for staff. Not for a teacher; I don’t dress well enough to be a professor.

Yet here I am, inhaling subversive readings, exhaling deliciously forbidden thoughts on power and praxis.

Who let me in? I let me in.

I’m learning to knock on doors, to speak up instead of swallow pain, to ask for not just a chance to excel but to learn how to stop taking shit.

At which point I realize: All middle-aged women are terrorists.

Or could be.

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  1. Hooray for the panopticon!

    But you’re right: We learn what we should do, rather than what we want to do. And others’ needs too often come before our own.

    Besides which, most guys I know think that the rail thin women are scary, not sexy. Marilyn Monroe did not have a six-pack. (Wouldn’t that make for a great body image book title?)

  2. Recently I’ve been appalled at some of the comments made regarding Supreme Court nominee Kagan:

    “Has anyone seen Mike Myers and your new Supreme in the same room at the same time?” – Neal Boortz

    “[G]rotesque…looks like she belongs in a kosher deli.” – Michael Savage

    Two thoughts come to mind:

    1. How is this relevant to her competence as a Justice?


    2. Have either of these guys looked into a mirror lately?

  3. Donna Freedman

    Oh, Stella, I know exactly what you mean! I devoted a couple of pages in my undergrad thesis to that subject.
    Sometimes my “Living With Less” columns get comments from people who don’t agree with me. I’m OK with disagreement (even though they’re wrong). What makes me head-bangingly furious is the fact that they don’t attack my premise or whether I supported my argument — they attack me personally, calling me “ugly” or suggesting that I get a makeover. What has that got to do with what I wrote???
    They do it because the quickest way to shoot down a woman in this society is to tell her she doesn’t look good. Which begs the question: Why do I let it bother me, dammit?
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  4. I have found that I embrace the whole invisibility thing–it used to be that others looked at me and judged me (too fat, not enough make-up, unfashionable clothing) but now they don’t see me at all. I could hate that–many of my friends feel that way. But personally, I’m glad to not be seen and I’m very, very grateful to no longer be judged. It frees me to do what I want to do. Maybe I should look into a terroist gig?

  5. Donna Freedman

    @Grace: There’s a lot more we can do with our lives once we stop worrying about what other people will think. I need to develop a thicker skin.
    Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment.

  6. The whole piece clangs the gong for me, but I especially like “Stability is a story that we tell ourselves so we feel good about staying right where we are in our lives. But life is a series of risks. It is our duty, and our responsibility, to embrace those risks.” I cannot conceive of a life without risk. For one thing, how unutterably dull. But I know I’m in the minority. I find that inconceivable, too.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dana: You need to start your own movement, the “Life IS Risk Society.” I hereby appoint you empress in charge of inspiring the rest of us.
      (To those who don’t know who Dana is — which *I* find inconceivable — go read some of her books, or at least visit her site at stabenow.com.)
      Thanks for coming by, Dana, and I hope I get down to Homer when I hit Anchorage this summer.

  7. Meghan Pembleton

    Well put, even if I do have to now look up “inculcation” and “panopticon” (Abby’s comment). And I have an English degree!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Meghan: The “panopticon” was one example of that “see-all, know-all” form of punishment. It was a prison design that would enable the jailers to see the prisoners at any given time — but the prisoners would not know whether they were being looked at. The idea was that if you knew you could be seen, you would police yourself by staying within the rules.
      Sounds really creepy to me.
      Thanks for reading, fellow Jersey Girl. (But not in a “Jersey Shore” way.)

  8. I teach a high school-age class once a week, and I tell them, “You know how people say your teen years are the best years of your life? That’s bunk!” Teen years are painful because we care more what people think of us then than at any other time. By 50 (a milestone I just reached), I really don’t care. In a good way.

    I love new clothes, I still get my hair done. But it’s not to please anyone else. I’m SO over that!

    Good, thought provoking article, Donna!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sally: I need a dose of your kick-ass attitude. Does it come in capsule form???
      Thanks for reading.

  9. I’ve learned about the importance of the pre-emptive strike.
    “I’m fat. Okay, that’s out of the way, what have you got?”
    “Are you hiring me for my looks or my copywriting?”

    I too have gotten the story, breezed past the cameras and won because I was so ordinary and fat as to not stand out. And that’s okay. When we truly don’t care about our looks we don’t care about the rest of this something inside us shifts. Oprah may get her share of fat jokes, but she hasn’t let her weight or looks stop her. When we don’t care – truly don’t care – neither does anyone else.

  10. Nancy

    I hear you, Donna.
    I am trying to figure out the workings of the website world, social media, Twitters, Tweets, facing Facebook, apps, IPads, IPods; differentiating between logins, passwords, account numbers and other electronic flotsam and jetsam. I want to create a place in this world where I can call my own shots, but the world I have to work in and the world I know are two very different places. My website developer may decide to kill me next time I see her, because I don’t know how to speak her language yet. It’s cold-sweat time every time I see an email from her. I want to tell her that if I knew what I was doing, I would not have asked her for help.
    I want to take the risk, stop being invisible and do what I know I can do, before I change my mind. I have not decided whether it is scarier to go forward, or stay put. But you are right about the lie of stability. It is a feel-good story we tell ourselves, just so we don’t have to keep trying for different or better.

  11. Donna Freedman

    @Nancy: Both going forward and staying put are scary. The difference, I think, is that you will likely regret the latter.
    I’ve bookmarked your site and will keep watching it.
    Re the website developer: Yeah, I know what you mean. My web guru is 24 years old and he’s had to be patient about explaining things to me. Sooner or later I will figure this out. Just not today, and tomorrow’s not looking good, either.
    Thanks for reading.

  12. priskill

    “The lie of stability” — how that frightens me! I’m not brave! I like to think of immutability as my god-given right, but clearly my waistline and gray hair would say otherwise. We are so great, we older women — and we spend so much of our time denying it, and outing our weight/age/lack of digital knowhow in self-defense.

    Yeah, my skin is very thin here, too, but I kind of agree with Grace — the cloak of invisibility has some good points, too. I do feel more powerful and a bit less worried about the surfacey stuff. Such a good piece, DF — you hit the nail right between the eyes, as a friend used to say.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Priskill: Thank you for your kind words. And you’re right: I feel more confident in many ways as I get older.
      Thanks for being a reader and consistent commenter.

  13. Great post. I grew up with a father who was verbally abusive, psychologically abusive, and a control freak. I finally broke away from him after college. Being happy, living for myself, and having control over how I live my life is incredibly important to me. Because of my childhood, I’m also very aware of giving my children their space and freedom to pursue their interests. I believe my role in their lives is to encourage them and accept their failures & successes.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jersey Mom: Control is a big issue for lots of us — having been controlled for so long, we want a little say in our own lives.
      Incidentally, I’m a Jersey mom too. South Jersey: Cumberland County.
      Thanks for reading.

  14. “Such functions do have value – but only as they apply to someone else’s needs.”- Everything you write seems to speak directly to me. You seem to be a gift of guidance just for me. Wisdom and insight are your gifts for us and yourself.

  15. Donna Freedman

    @SonyaAnn: You can’t see me right now, but I’m blushing. Thanks.

  16. Interesting post.

    I’ve felt invisible all my life, mostly because neither my father nor my (ex-)husband were given to taking women seriously.

    For a woman, though, it can be highly undesirable to be visible. When I was young, I had one helluva figure — big boobs (for those days, when most women’s were real), a tiny waist, and capacious hips. Men used to harass me everywhere I went. It wasn’t until I got a large German shepherd that I could even walk in my own neighborhood without men hollering at me and following me around.

    When such a woman reaches middle age, all of a sudden she ceases to be attractive. And I do mean sudden. As if at a signal, on a given day men stopped yelling at me and directing obscene noises in my direction.

    The silence was heavenly.

    At Cal-Tech when I was staying at the Atheneum, I met a Moslem woman — this was long before 2001 — who explained to me that the chador and the burqa effect a kind of desirable invisibility. She pointed out that a veiled woman can walk around in public with no harassment from male strangers. In her view, that was such a good thing that it outweighed the custom’s oppressive overtones.

    Personally, I’ll take a German shepherd or a doberman pinscher over a veil. But it’s something to think about.

  17. Susan Morgan

    Wow, Donna. This one hit home. I struggle with if you don’t speak up and say your piece, it’s easy to be invisible, as you put it. But when I finally get to the point of speaking up, sometimes I’ve worked up quite a head of steam and tend to not be the “nice” person I was inculcated to be. Be invisible or be a bitch. Maybe that’s why I love Xena so much. She NEVER struggled with that choice!

  18. Donna Freedman

    @Susan: The trick is to speak up sooner, I guess. Still a struggle for me, too.
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  19. Ha !

    My new t-shirt! “All middle aged women are terrorists!”

  20. I love the phrase “turn invisibility into stealth”. You have stated so elegantly what I have been feeling. Thank you Donna.

  21. valleycat1

    I’ve argued for several years now that I’d make the perfect terrorist. I’ve actually had airport security basically just wave me through & tell me not to bother taking off my shoes or coat like everyone else has to. And I love being subversive in my late 50’s! Thanks so much (here from Funny About Money today – will keep reading you!

    • Donna Freedman

      @valleycat1: Raise hell from the inside, I tell ya! Thanks for reading.

  22. My new t-shirt : “Be invisible or be a bitch”

    Love it! Really great post-thanks

  23. 998Fbird

    Donna, terrific essay! I missed this earlier, but I’ll make sure to pay better attnetion to your site.
    The sad thing about this essay is that it is all too true and women need to bust out and bust a move and not be scared to talk back. I’ve been talking back most of my life and I’m sure I have paid a price in terms of climbing the work ladder, but thanks to my wicked quick mind and tongue there are a few males walking around a little less secure in their place in the world and that is sweet.
    Glad to know that behind your good girl exterior hides a wicked smart, funny, subversive woman!

  24. New reader and just got to this. A banquet of food for thought in this piece.
    I’m going to be thinking about this line:

    Who let me in? I let me in.

  25. I so needed to re-read this post this week. In my department in work all of the women were invited to an upcoming fashionable wedding of a thirty something female colleague, that is, all except for myself, a slightly frumpy middle aged women and an older frumpier woman. Talk about feeling invisible, excluded and quite honestly hurt. As you suggested to another reader, I need to develop a thicker skin! Thanks Donna for a fabulous post donna so pertinent to me and which I have read several times.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ash: I’m sorry you were excluded. Although it’s the bride’s prerogative to invite anyone she pleases, perhaps she could have done this more discreetly, e.g., advised the others that not everyone was included so they should keep the invitations to themselves.
      I hope your co-workers won’t spend hours gushing over the amazingness of the event, oblivious to the fact that you and the other woman are sad about not being invited.
      Thanks for your kind words, and for reading Surviving and Thriving.

  26. Thank you so much Donna for responding and yes they are already discussing at length the dresses they will be wearing etc. And of course you are right. It is her prerogative to invite who she wants. Its’s not the ‘not being invited’ that hurts but the fact that it’s only the two ‘old birds’ that have been left off of the invitation list!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ash: I can see why your feelings are hurt, even as you acknowledge that it’s her party. I just hope she doesn’t send a wedding announcement, i.e., “I got married! Give me a present”

  27. Thanks Donna. Maybe in the not too distant future you will write another inspiring post especially for us older girls out there in an often tough world ‘surviving and thriving’.

  28. I figured out at about age 16 that I was never going to look like a super-model – and I decided that I was honestly okay with that. I’m neither gorgeous nor ugly, and I honestly do not care. At age 23, after an abusive relationship, I also decided that I deserved to be treated well, and that while it would be nice if I found someone I loved, if I didn’t I would be fine with that. I enjoy my own company, & unless I met a man whose company I enjoyed more than being alone, I wasn’t getting married. I could live a perfectly good life either way. Well, suddenly, after I decided I really didn’t need a man to be complete, and i really wanted time alone, for the first time in my life, I was literally swarmed by interested males! Maybe I gave off a different scent? ;-). I think maybe it was an aura of confidence and of being happy in my own skin. Within 6 months, ironically, I ended up getting together with the man who later became my husband, & to whom I am still married, over 20 years later. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that sometimes, being beautiful can be a problem. A friend of mine is jaw-droopingly lovely, & she was one of the most confused women on the topic of men that I ever knew. She had 8 marriage proposals by the time she was 25, and every Valentine’s Day, there were dozens of bouquets on her desk. She said that she always wanted to be liked for herself, but often, guys didn’t want to get to know her. They wanted to sleep with her, period. Whereas in my case, with my ordinary looks, I always knew the person really did like me for me, & didn’t just want an arm decoration.

  29. “Who let you in? I let me in!…are words for all women to ponder.

  30. I see nothing but the Ladies leaving comments, but men feel the same way. I am 48 and bald and no-one looks at me either. Im also in manufacturing. I dont have the suits or ties and probly make more than most lawyers however. I too move around like a ghost.The only time some one want to talk to me is when they want something fixed.

  31. Happyback

    OH YES~!
    Awesome, awesome, AWESOME!

    Excellent. Applies to me completely. I served, I obeyed, I served more. For EVERYONE. I learned from it. I gained insights.
    But, now I get to take those “terrorist” skills, and use them for my own future.
    Stealthily. Life is good. 😀


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