I used to panic about being seen naked. Now I don’t even shut the hotel curtains. I’m no more inclined to display myself, but I’m invisible. I’ve gone from a scrawniness I’d grown accustomed to, to a broader, deeper, run-of-the-mill middle-aged unattractiveness that the world simply doesn’t see. All those billions being spent by the military-industrial complex to develop a suit of invisibility, and all they really need to do is dress every soldier up as a flabby white guy pushing fifty. - Nick Earls, Analogue Men
I recently came across this passage when reading the 2014 novel by Earls, a writer from Brisbane (where I live). I’m actually a little older than the protagonist, but I could definitely commiserate with his feeling of being “invisible” at this age. I rarely catch a stranger making eye contact with me (and rarer still, smiling back). People who don’t know me usually look through me. Picking up my son from school is the clearest example of this. Dozens of parents will be waiting with me for our kids to pour out of the classrooms at the 3:00 bell, but usually it is only my son who sees me in the crowd. Of course, my co-workers, a few students, family, and my friends acknowledge my existence, but in the last decade it does seem like I have achieved some sort of special power. No one even seems to notice when I get a haircut these days!
I thought that I was uniquely invisible until I read Earls, but then I thought he might be right that this is an affliction of unattractive middle aged men. I have since heard, however, a middle aged female friend spontaneously lament that she and other women her age are invisible as well. This leads me to conclude that just being older than 40 makes you invisible, regardless of gender.
Perhaps what’s going on is that “invisibility” is widespread among all sorts of social categories. As a long time researcher in the field of prejudice, I’m used to researching negative feelings about groups to which we don’t belong. I realise now that completely ignoring or not seeing people in other groups is another form of prejudice. When you have no regard for people in a certain group, you can hate them, sure, but it seems more powerful that you can just cease to acknowledge their existence all together. I think I’m capable of this myself. In the past few days I’ve tried to be more conscious of the people I see out in the world, and I quickly realised that I frequently ignore certain groups of people—I don’t look in their faces, I don’t people watch them, I don’t try to smile or make chitchat. They just cease to exist in my social perception. Acting as if someone doesn’t exist is painful to that person, especially if large numbers of people (i.e., the majority) do this. I should know.
If I don’t like being invisible, then I certainly shouldn’t treat other people like they are. I need to break the spell.