The mysterious case of the disappearing women ...

In a Dick Smith store early last year, a 58-year-old woman made a silent protest. "All the screens and sound systems were blaring. [The shop] was staffed by young men and I knew I was definitely never going to be served," posted "Airdre Grant" on the online news site The Hoopla.

"So I went around and turned off five TVs, six sound systems and four DVD players. I was quite blatant. I even turned off the flat-screen car-racing in the middle of the store . . . Can anyone beat this record[?] Don't worry about being 'caught'. No one will even know you are in the shop."

Grant doesn't tell us whether she succeeded in attracting the attention of a sales assistant that day, but her post reveals her frustration at being consistently overlooked in shops as a mere result of her age.

Her experience is just one example of the social phenomenon known as "invisible women's syndrome": a condition generally understood to affect women aged from about 45 to 59 – or 2.2 million Australians.

Reports from the gender wars suggest 50-plussers are the worst afflicted (post-retirement age is a whole other story) but that those as young as 40 suffer symptoms. And they hurt.

Yet for these "Generation Jonesers" – those born between 1954 and 1965, wedged snugly between the baby boomers and Gen Xers – there has, in so many respects, never been a better time to be 50. (Longer life expectancy and better access to both information and education are just a few benefits.)

We are all staying younger longer. Being 50 really does feel like 40. Very few of us look or act the way our parents did when they were 50.

Yet juggling work and family still takes its toll. And some women – once their fertile years are behind them, and despite the gains of 40 years of feminism – feel marginalised. Invisible.

While marriages may be lasting longer, according to the Bureau of Statistics, most people are still divorcing between the ages of 40 and 50.

"Women who have been 'having it all' come to us around 45, 50 and they are clapped out," says Relationships Australia's director of operations, Lyn Fletcher.

"They've made themselves exhausted by being indispensable, rearing a family while forging a career, and they've lost something along the way. If they don't see themselves as important, it's easy to think of themselves as invisible."

Observes a friend, who recently divorced: "Everyone our age is working too hard. They're over-geared and they often have teenage children and ageing parents and a partner they're at least looking twice at out of narrowed eyes. No one has time to cook for 10 people any more, let alone set their friends up. We're opening a bottle of wine in front of the footy on Saturday night and saying, 'Cheers, I'm buggered.' "

Ageing, says feminist and ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold, "makes women invisible, on the street and in the boardroom, and being invisible sucks". A few years ago, Cannold outed herself as a Botox user in a newspaper column. She was arguing for an end to the hypocrisy and silence surrounding Botox compared to other age-defying treatments, such as dyeing hair and using make-up. She started having the anti-wrinkle injections to ease herself through the difficult, painful transition from the fertile, overtly sexual woman she had been to the still sexual but increasingly invisible woman she felt society, and men especially, viewed her as. "I wasn't ready for it," she admits now. "Whether, as feminists, we like it or not, men find us more attractive when we are fertile and able to reproduce, and this is of course transitory."

Botox is seen in some feminist quarters as a test of one's soundness. It's a cosmetic procedure that has kept female actors working in their 40s, but few own up. Cannold has stopped the injections for now.

"I was buying myself some time to get used to my new situation. Time has gone on, I feel a little more ready to manage this stuff, but that's today. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel different.

"Some women say they like their invisibility; the gaze has gone, so they can get on with things under the radar. I wish I felt that – I am pleased for them but also mystified."

There has been some high-profile discussion lately about the "mature" woman and the cultural isolation she experiences. The writer, director and actor Rachel Ward spoke publicly last year about her own struggle with invisible women's syndrome – and if Ward is noticing it, something must be going on.

"Try climbing through higher education, motherhood, self-employment, years of self-improvement, gyms, diets, abstinence of everything enjoyable – from ciggies to Magnums to suntans – to selflessness, to finally reach the summit of womanhood, fit, exultant and ready to fly – to find . . . a generational wipeout," she ruminated in a column in The Sun-Herald. "Visibility: zero. Scream 'Where the bloody hell are you?' all you like, but don't look to the movies, the media or airwaves because, aside from Gillard, Germaine on Adam Hills in Gordon St Tonight the other week, glimpses of Jenny Brockie and Jennifer Byrne, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche buried deep within the bowels of a French film festival, there's barely anyone out there who represents my age group." Ouch.

In 1979, Kathy Lette and her then-BFF Gabrielle Carey published their slyly subversive feminist novel, Puberty Blues, the book that spoke to a generation of women about being an invisible teenage girl in the 1970s. Last year's TV adaptation still made those women (now in their early 50s) cringe and laugh and get tight knots in their stomach as they recognised their younger selves.

Lette is a highly visible woman, a successful writer who has never stopped taking the piss and skewering societal hypocrisy, usually at the same time. But she doesn't buy the line that cosmetic surgery is simply another choice women are free to make.

Rather, she argues, it's being foisted on them because the alternative (women with faces and bodies to match their age) inevitably renders them invisible.

"Age to women is what Kryptonite is to Superman," she says. "Inside every older woman is a younger woman screaming, 'Get me the hell outta here.'

"If we weren't invisible, if we saw normal-looking women over 50 on television and in movies (not playing grandmas), then perhaps women would feel more confident about saying 'no' to cosmetic surgery.

"I may have lines on my face but, hey, read between them – there it all is, the babies, the books, the broken hearts, the hours of fun-loving foreplay." The minute a woman of a certain age sticks her head above the parapet, opprobrium rains down on her. Madonna, almost halfway through her sixth decade, has attracted particularly snarly flak for the crime of daring to think she is still hot – and worse, flaunting it.

I conducted my own small survey, sending an email to 25 women aged 40-plus, three-quarters of whom are in relationships and all of whom work. My questions ranged from "Do you lie about your age?" (most do, especially on their CVs), through to "Do you see any evidence in your personal or professional life that you are becoming less visible as you approach 50?"

The responses poured in and revealed a complex mix of contradictory feelings. Some said they'd never felt more confident sexually, but others felt a youth-obsessed society made them feel like a sexual and cultural desert. One single woman sent a one-line response to the questions: "Too painful to answer."

"I recently lost my job working in the aged-care sector at a relatively senior level," wrote Liz, 48. "It may be that turning 50 [soon] is coincidental, but when I applied for another job where I met all the criteria, I didn't even get an interview. I [just] dyed my hair back to blonde."

Rachael, 50, wrote: "Retail experiences are the times when I feel most invisible, particularly in fashion outlets and department stores where, often, the younger sales people completely ignore you."

Claudia, 52: "I'm invisible to everyone else except, of course, other women my age: they are definitely paying attention. There's a kind of verbal shorthand that occurs between my friends, where we know what we're thinking and feeling, but it's like we're speaking another language when we try to explain this deep sense of relevance deprivation to anyone else – husbands included."

"I'm not sure I'm less visible, but I am treated differently," says 46-year-old Kim, who, at 40, made the decision to stop dyeing her hair because she wanted to start feeling comfortable with the "real" her. For some of her friends, this was deemed tantamount to an act of lunacy.

"One screamed at me, 'Your husband will run off with a younger woman if you do that,' " Kim recalls. "I went on a rant about our relationship being more than that but, inside, I was shattered."

And this from Eliza, 51: "People don't see you as a sexual being any more.

I don't mind that, we need to get over it at some stage. That said, being an attractive woman in a business environment can be helpful if you want to get in the ear of a male who is influential. Otherwise as a woman you have to be three times better to attain the same position."

"When I'm out at the theatre or at book club," says Sarah, a woman with a great job and partner who adores her (but also tells her that the blokes who pick up her single female mates refer to this Friday-night sport as "granny-grabbing"), "I find myself comparing myself with the other women and wondering if I look as old/invisible as they do."

Women, it seems, are not beyond making their own judgments about what makes other women invisible. And it's usually around looks.

There is a highly successful ad on TV for car insurance that is predicated on the assumption that middle-aged women are susceptible to flattery that at best is kind. You know the one; Rhonda, the sweet but deluded woman living it up in Bali, who is so gormless that she is flattered by the attentions of the much younger, hunky Ketut. It's become a mini cultural phenomenon, with websites devoted to serious discourse on its possible colonial overtones, or barely disguised racism, or the urgent question as to whether Rhonda and Ketut are going to get it on.

A quick ring-around of my friends confirms my thoughts. Rhonda is dreaming; that's the joke. She has to take a cheap holiday to get noticed.

As another friend said, the ABC and SBS have a higher quota of women over 40 who are smart and come in all shapes and sizes, "but the commercial networks are appalling. I don't want to be represented by effing Melissa Doyle!"

The invisibility phenomenon couldn't come at a worse time. "The costs of compromises made to manage work and family . . . are coming home to roost," Cannold says. "That we aren't going to get as far, soar as high, achieve as much as we planned, is a bitter enough pill to swallow. Losing our youth at the same time, and the potential for the second chances and happier endings it conjures, only rubs salt in the wound."

In 1986, a now infamous Newsweek article declared that a single, college-educated, 40-year-old woman was more likely to die in a terrorist attack than walk down the aisle. The Sydney psychologist John Aiken says the man-drought myth continues to create a lot of panic among women over 40, and it keeps some in bad relationships and sends many others through his door.

According to RSVP.com (owned by Fairfax Media), Australia's busiest online dating site, the two fastest-growing age groups in the online dating market are the over-50s and the under-30s.

"Women who are 50-plus are quite clear that they're not looking to replicate what they had in a previous relationship," says Glenis Carroll, RSVP's general manager. "They're less worried about looks and jobs; they don't want to give up what they've got; and they select a much narrower age pool than 50-year-old men. In other words, they're realistic."

I sent a different set of questions on the theme of "invisible women" to 25 men aged 45-plus. Initially, the silence was deafening. An old boyfriend suggested I pull my head in. Apparently, expecting them to give honest answers to questions about whether age is a factor when it comes to female sex appeal or – just as controversially – whether, if they were to start a new relationship, they would prefer it to be with a woman younger than themselves, was a bit much.

"If any of them say they are equally attracted to a woman of 50 as a woman of 30, they're lying," another said. "Younger people have more life to them – we're all getting tired," wrote Richard, 49. "That's not to say that older women aren't sexually appealing.

"Some are, but take 20 random women in their 30s and 20 random women in their 50s and ask a man which group is more sexually attractive to him and he'll say, 'Why are you asking? Isn't it obvious?' "

Then more emails arrived.

The most common response was along the lines of, "Isn't this universal? Don't we all feel increasingly invisible as we age?"

Here's Paul, 49: "There is the potential for a much deeper and more satisfying appeal with a woman over 50. They are emotionally mature, more certain of what they want, and probably more experienced in the give and take of the broader [aspects] of a relationship, but any man who pretends that the idea of a physical relationship with a younger woman is not appealing is not being honest with you (or themselves).

"The mere idea that a younger woman might find you attractive is immensely flattering."

There's certainly nothing invisible about the thousands of middle-aged Lycra-wearing blokes who've abandoned golf and a beer back at the clubhouse on Saturday mornings for bike-riding and a latte. What makes them pedal so hard? "Pure fear," says a 51-year-old male colleague who looks about a decade younger.

But men at 50 are not invisible; they still hold the reins of power when it comes to deciding who we see projected back at us through media. The boardrooms of Australia are dominated by balding men in suits who are regarded as peaking professionally in their 50s.

As one female friend, an executive with an ASX 200 company, told me bluntly: "A man's midlife crisis too often amounts to their search for their soulmate, who usually happens to be 30, leaving behind their 50-year-old wife and kids.

"If I read one more story about some old coot extolling the virtues of being a father again at 60, I will puke."

One could never accuse Wendy Harmer, 56, of being invisible.

The successful author, comedian, broadcaster and mother is outspoken on the issue of middle-age invisibility. Last year, she and her business partner, Jane Waterhouse, launched The Hoopla, an online news site which caters unashamedly for 40-plus women. The site is full of stories and opinion pieces on current affairs written by the likes of Jean Kittson, Corinne Grant and Tracey Spicer.

"If you don't see your face in advertisements [and] on TV, or hear your voice on the radio, it's not that one is invisible, but one feels invisible," Harmer says.

In the past few years, she and former ABC radio broadcaster Angela Catterns filled in on Sydney ABC 702's early-morning slot during the summer holidays, calling themselves the "early girlies". They were upfront about their age, but their shtick was to come across as bemused and middle-aged, not grumpy old women. Despite the program's popularity, they didn't receive a single offer to replicate the success anywhere else on radio. "One senior radio executive told me men didn't want to hear one woman talking on the radio, let alone two," Harmer says.

Trying to convince media companies and, in particular, 20-something men in advertising agencies that it's worth spending their dollars on a website whose users are middle-aged women or older is tough.

"Eyes glaze over in meetings when I mention the F [for "fifty"] word, so I tend to say 39 now when I'm describing [the age of] our market," Waterhouse says. "They don't automatically get that there is this huge, highly educated, financially independent category of women who are buying houses, cars, insurance and who are travelling, and that they are missing out big-time by ignoring them." The pair say The Hoopla attracts 40,000 to 60,000 unique browsers monthly.

The University of NSW journalism professor Catharine Lumby definitely does not feel invisible, and she says women should stop being coy about their age. "I've been told on a number of occasions that I should stop being so honest about my age – 50," she says. "I even had a very smart and attractive colleague who refused to confirm when she was turning 40. The best way to refute the invisibility nonsense is to be upfront and out there as women, proudly and loudly proclaiming that we may be ageing, but we're not going anywhere soon.

"When I turn 60, I'm going to invite all my friends to a pool party. Bikinis will be optional – but I've got a brand new one in my top drawer just in case."

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