When you’re young and female, male attention is a given, whether you want it or not. You walk past a group of men and you can feel their eyes on you. Men’s conversations with you often have an undercurrent of flirtation. Random strangers try to hit on you.
When I was young, I mostly didn’t mind this attention. It could be a kind of validation, a bit of an esteem boost. There was the sense that I should be grateful for it, that I should appreciate being appreciated by men.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
All too often, male attention would tip from appreciation into something else, something annoying or awkward or downright scary. The groups of guys in cars who would yell out comments. The creepy co-worker who was convinced that I would one day agree to go on a date with him, if he kept asking. The man following me home from the station on a dark night, trailing me as I crossed from one side of the street to another.
I would read middle-aged women writing about how depressing it was to feel invisible, wishing that workmen would still whistle at them as they walked past building sites. As annoying and awkward and sometimes scary as male attention could be, I expected that I would miss it when it was gone.
Then I had babies, and was sucked into the vortex of feeding and nappy-changing and reading The Cat In The Hat over and over. Babies and working from home took all of my attention for a few years.
Eventually I stuck my head out into the world again. It took a while, but at some point, I realised that I wasn’t the subject of male attention anymore. I wasn’t feeling eyes lingering on me. Conversations with men were simply just conversations. Guys didn’t feel compelled to give their opinion on the quality of my breasts. Weird and unappealing strangers no longer tried to convince me to have sex with them.
Seriously, how freaking awesome is that?
I’m sure it wasn’t just age. It was also the way I dressed. I stopped wearing knee-high boots and leopard print and push-up bras. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It’s just that I found a style I liked better – retro dresses and chunky heels.
(Also, I’d chopped up my leopard print clothes to make tiny cut-out cats for my daughter.)
It is such a relief to not have that male attention directed at you. When you can feel yourself being looked at and assessed, you can’t help assessing yourself, thinking about how you look at any given moment. Even without all the annoyance and awkwardness and scariness, it’s just a constant low-level stress.
Of course, there are a million other stresses, a million other things to think about. But still, it’s a weight off. It’s freeing. It makes life that bit easier.
I don’t feel like I’ve become invisible in other areas of my life. I don’t feel I’m being ignored in shops, or talked over in conversations, or bypassed at work. I’m just not getting the stares, and I’m not missing them, one bit.
I can’t face the word “middle-aged” yet. It makes me want to block my ears and scream. (Surely middle age starts at 60, anyway, doesn’t it? Maybe 70?) But I am very, very happily accepting the invisibility that comes with being in my forties. And I am wondering why I ever dreaded it.
Speaking about ageing, these are five uncomfortable habits that eventually pay off in the long run.