Let me tell you what my life was like when I was young and men looked at me.
Once, at a street market in Moscow, I dismissed the advances of a guy. A block later he caught up with me and punched me in the back of the head. Hard.
On my way to work one morning, I crossed Broadway at 36th Street and a man grabbed the back of my hair. He pulled it like he was going to drag me somewhere, but let go, maybe because the light changed.
In a bar one night, a man, whose unwanted advances I’d been avoiding, urinated on my leg. It was the ’90s, and I was wearing tights and wool clogs.
Living in NY in my twenties, this was my walk to work: Hi, Baby, why don’t you smile? Smile! What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you smile? Let me see that pretty smile. Back then, I claimed I was going to make a t-shirt that said politely (because I didn’t want to be punched or urinated on), Please don’t tell me to smile. And I was going to wear it every day because I needed it literally every single day because apparently I was a decoration and I was doing a lousy job prettying up the place.
But that was then. Now, I’m middle-aged and men no longer look at me, which I’m supposed to think is tragic.
This fall, a poet posted this gem on Facebook: “Midlife woman,” the poem starts, “You are not invisible to me. /I seem to see beneath your face/All the women/You have ever been.”
When I read that, I wanted to write him a thank you note. I wanted to say thank you for this poem because I was just about to turn 43, and it helped me so much. I mean, what a giant relief! In one stanza he explained to me exactly why I’d been so inexplicably happy recently.
Here’s the note I imagined sending him: Dear. Mr. Whyte, Thank you for trying to affirm my value in your man eyes, but no thank you. My midlife is sublimely happy precisely because you don’t see me. P.S. Please stop staring at me searching for the hot girl I used to be. It’s creepy.
For me, this is mid-life: I tell the truth in mixed company. I am good at what I do so I don’t sit silently waiting for my turn to speak. I am read, I am heard, and I’m no longer expected to be a decoration, which is a huge relief.
Other women my age are reveling in this newfound freedom, too, but for some reason when we talk about it, we whisper, like it’s a shameful secret to enjoy getting older. Why? It’s like J. Edgar Hoover sent out a secret COINTELPRO memo ordering the FBI and the cosmetics industry to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of women in midlife so that we continue to believe the myth that when we outlive our decorative usefulness our power and our joy and our happiness fade. Ladies, we know this is a lie. Why are we whispering? (Hoover really did have a midlife woman deported for being too powerful—Emma Goldman. That’s no joke.)
Ten years ago, I told a colleague I was moving to another campus for a promotion. I was excited. I expected praise for a job well done—we had worked together for a long time. He said, “Oh, no. Really? That’s too bad. You really improve the aesthetics of this place.” I’d officially like to thank him, and the guy who punched me in the head, and the one who pulled my hair, and the one who peed on my leg, and the one who wrote that stupid poem for making midlife invisibility so damn sweet and powerful. In fact it makes me smile a big, toothy smile just thinking how free I am to be my brainy self, unassaulted by men checking me out, demanding I step up my interior decorating game.
Sarah Yaw is the award-winning author of the novel You Are Free To Go. Check her out at sarahyaw.com and on twitter @sarahyawwrites. Sarah has a very cool day job at Cayuga Community College where she teeters at the edge of academic innovation.
Image via Stop Telling Women To Smile
This post was originally published on April 7, 2016
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