Invisible Women

“Women who are not stereotypically attractive, young, and able-bodied often speak of feeling ‘invisible’ — as if they don’t exist. ~Laurie Penny Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution unspeakable things

Fifteen years ago, as a chubby university student, I wrote an op-ed ‘How to Disappear on this very topic. A couple of years later I lost weight and discovered size six is no panacea. Thankfully I’m old and cranky enough to care less (I no longer think men ignoring me is particularly cruel or humiliating) but I am sad society has changed not at all.

How to Disappear

I have been disappearing on a regular basis since I was 14 or so.

Sometimes at school, sometimes at work, sometimes just hanging out with friends. It is easy to do. And last Tuesday night I was reminded just how quickly and painfully a girl can vanish.

I was propped against the counter in the pub where I work, watching football along with the handful of customers. My fellow bartender, Sam, had disappeared downstairs moments before, leaving me to wallow in boredom.

Minutes later, a strikingly beautiful girl — all long dark hair and longer legs — sauntered past on her way to the toilets. I turned my attention back to the England Under-21’s battle with arch-rival Argentina, until Sam popped back upstairs.

“Did you see her?” he asked, eyes glassy with adoration.

Long brown hair? Gorgeous? Yeah.

“Whew,” he said, as if trying to recover from a strenuous physical or emotional experience, “she is so amazing. She has a stomach like…” He rapped his knuckles on the wooden table-top illustratively.

Suddenly I was aware that I had my arms crossed over my own stomach, a stomach that no one would compare to hardwood. I glanced at myself in the mirror, seeing something massive, thick, unwieldy and unlovely.

But Sam was too enraptured to notice. “I have such a thing about girl’s stomachs,” he confided, happily ignorant of the disgust that was creeping inside my chest.

My self-esteem collapsed from there.

Every 10 minutes Sam found an excuse to run downstairs to catch a glimpse of this beauty, only to return drooling each time.

Memories came rushing through my brain. The dozens of times male friends have stopped a conversation in mid-sentence because their jaws have dropped to the ground. The way in high school I was ignored by the opposite sex whenever I went out with my slender, blonde, blue-eyed best friend. Going out with my waif-like sister, and having to wait patiently while she fended off a steady stream of male attention.

By the end of my shift I felt almost physically ill. And instead of the usual beer at closing, I had a pint of water — no calories. Like a metronome, the thought ticked in my tired mind, you have to be skinny, you have to be skinny, you have to be skinny.

A furious determination seized me; I have to make the soft tummy— that in private, self-indulgent moments, I am rather fond of—disappear. Turn to wood. Ditto for my legs, my bum, my upper arms, my hips.

At the same time my conscience called me a traitor. You know better, it jeered. That is what you are supposed to think, supposed to feel. How can you call yourself a feminist and still believe you aren’t
worth anything unless you are a size 6?

Because it’s true, I told myself bitterly. No matter how liberated I am, it still hurts when people (that is, men) look past me like I’m not there. Looks shouldn’t matter but that doesn’t change the fact that they do. And sure, I would love to make a stand, to live my life in my body— complete with its rolls and bulges and un-woodlike bits — without apology. But am I strong enough to keep on disappearing?

People need to be appreciated and acknowledged, and the only way it often seems for women to achieve that is through beauty. It is superficial, but it seems to be the rules of the gender-typing game — rules I’m not sure I’m strong enough to defy.

Because it doesn’t seem to matter how smart, or funny, or interesting or gregarious you are — let a real model-type come waltzing through the door and suddenly you are an absolute zero. It is the cruelest and most humiliating thing in the world, to be reminded by men that (to borrow from U2), “I don’t see you/When she walks in the room.”

What is there to do? Swap feminist texts for diet books? Better yet, trade in your library card for a gym membership, or see just how little you can eat without going crazy? Or stand up to the cultural oppression that has conditioned men to look at women in such a way that women cannot look at themselves without loathing?

The choice is not easy. But which is braver — suffer to be beautiful, or suffer for refusing to be told what beautiful is?

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