‘There’s a deep irony in getting older,’ she laughed. ‘I may be becoming an invisible woman, but I can still put on my bright yellow, high-vis vest, get on my bike and be seen clearly among the traffic. The vest says ‘I’m here, look out!’ but once I take it off, it’s like there’s an invisibility cloak underneath.’
She was speaking of the oft-felt sense of many. That of feeling overlooked and less valued as the age clock ticks on. In daily terms, it’s being ignored in shops by assistants who assume you aren’t there to buy. It’s stepping off the footpath to make room for the group who take up all the space. It’s hearing someone else in a meeting enthusiastically repeat and claim your idea as their own.
Is this about getting older? Perhaps. It’s also the mum pushing a buggy, invisible to those who gush over her new-born. It’s the migrant with accented English, dismissed as being too hard to talk to. It’s the teenager whose opinion isn’t invited because of their youth. As American entrepreneur Jacqueline Novogratz writes, ‘What we really yearn for as human beings is to be visible.’
In each case, there’s a need to be seen for who we really are, not what others judge us to be from our appearance. So what makes us visible? What makes us relevant? Is it largely how we are perceived? Or is it a choice we make for ourselves?
Marketers say that the first sale is always to yourself. So I wonder if being relevant starts with our own perception of our worth. Our beliefs about getting old are often associated with loss. Are they setting us up to accept limits far earlier than necessary? Do we laugh about senior moments and creaking knees in ways that give others permission to dismiss us as ‘past it’?
I fully accept that ageism is rife - along with so many other –isms. In New Zealand, age provides no birthright for being valued. That doesn’t mean that we have to succumb to the stereotypes. We can’t control others’ perceptions of age, but we can influence their recognition of us as individuals.
Being seen requires us to stand up, to put on our high-vis vests and claim the space. Breaking the mould and showing up, every time. The flipside, of course, is that we challenge our assumptions about others, making sure that we are seeing them as they want to be seen.