In Plato’s version of Gyges, the Lydian shepherd has a magic ring of invisibility which gives him the wherewithal to seduce the queen, kill the king and take over. As greasy pole climbing goes, it’s an effective approach, but could be judged inappropriate by today’s demanding behaviour standards.
Children’s literature usually encourages more positive behaviours around invisibility. But in both cases, invisibility is voluntary.
Women’s invisibility, scrutinised via a deluge of grim statistics in Caroline Criado-Perez’s recently published book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, increases as we age.
I am 62, and I have been ceasing to exist for a decade or so. The process is so discreet that I barely notice most of the time but, a couple of nights ago in a south London bar, I had a jarring reminder of my non-existence.
The barman — or rather, mixologist hiding beneath a vast beard — appeared to have selective blindness in favour of the millennials at his bar. Shaking and twirling an Old Fashioned (gin is dead) he served three people who materialised after me. Was my money not good enough? Or did he think I was someone’s mother? My smiles, coughs and “hellos” got nowhere.
So how does an older woman command attention without risking jail or ridicule? I riffle through an imaginary Rolodex of role models who grew old without vanishing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 85-year-old US Supreme Court Justice, has nailed it. Hollywood certainly seems to think so. Aside from a gruelling day job, she took time out to call Trump a “faker” which demonstrates eloquent restraint. She has also stood down various cancers on top of meting out justice by the shovel load.
And how about 85-year-old philanthropist Dame Steve Shirley? She is still highly visible. So it’s just a matter of starting a software company and giving away £67m. I’m working on it.
Bunny Mellon, the Listerine heiress, gave away oodles of money too. In the last few years before her death in 2014, aged 103, the widow of the philanthropist and art collector Paul continued to run her estate by broadcasting instructions from her chauffeur-driven car. Hot and cold running staff are such a boon.
Her powerful model for ageing was eased along by a close friendship with Jackie O, and her elegantly understated design brio. Her clothes and hats looked as if they were timeless classics from French couture houses. Many were. Others were Mellon’s own creations. This highly noticeable woman revealed her secret in 1969 when she announced: “Nothing should be noticed.”
That’s fine when you have the resources to command just about anything including, presumably, your very own caravan of mixologists. For those of us still failing to catch beardy boy’s attention, “Nothing should be noticed” is not a useful motto.
So how about a more flashy exemplar? The late novelist Dame Barbara Cartland was highly visible thanks to her large hats, floaty pink dresses and fluttering false black eye lashes.
It is easy to mock Cartland for her appearance alone, and many did, but she also had some decent connections, a huge following on both sides of the Atlantic, and a penchant for coming up with catchy quotes such as: “After 40 a woman has to choose between losing her figure or her face. My advice is to keep your face, and stay sitting down.”
I tried that. It hasn’t worked.
And actually, Cartland didn’t sit down much other than when she was churning out romantic novels — 723 of which have been translated into 38 languages. That helped to secure visibility and an income to live almost as opulently as some of her heroes and heroines until just shy of her century.
Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Cartland at her grand house north of London. Sitting beside her on the sofa I turned on my tape recorder. And she turned on hers, pulled up her skirts and commanded me to admire her thighs, which had “been transformed by a special skin cream”. Without having seen her thighs before the alleged treatment, I was not in a position to comment — but she was then in her 90s, and her thighs seemed to be in keeping.
Interview over, we climbed the massive central staircase to her bedroom to inspect a bouquet of flowers before returning downstairs for high tea of the scale normally reserved for shooting parties. Cartland managed to gad about without stairlifts or sticks. Just force majeure.
Her pink excess bordered on the alarming, but I would rather turn into a sort of mobile lampshade a la Cartland than give in to vanishing beige dullness as featured in models advertising stair lifts and walk-in baths that fall out of certain magazines.
Cartland’s books and her campaigns — from advice on the health benefits of honey, to being chaste before marriage and old age pensioner rights — gave her purpose however bonkers some of them seemed. Her books also earned her vast amounts of money, which is usually an excellent means of guaranteeing courtesy and attention.
So, the next time I agree to a meeting someone in a groovy bar, I will bling up, stick £50 notes all over my person and wander casually across to the Bandholz beardy boy and see if he has overcome his selective myopia.
Jane Owen is an author and FT Weekend’s former deputy editor. She is on the board of Women of the Year and has presented various TV programmes. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Jane_Owen
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