I have hit rock bottom.
A few days ago, I was walking downtown. A man walked toward me, his face stubbled, his soiled hands clutching plastic shopping bags. An oversized jacket hung loose and undone from his thin frame. As we passed each other, a low voice spoke out. “Nice legs mommy.”
I know a modern woman raised on feminist principles should oppose, even abhor, such behavior. Yet, as I walked by, I felt a bit lighter. Dare I say a smile crept across my face.
These are the depths I have fallen to. Weakened by the slow chipping away of age and motherhood, the years of playing second or third fiddle to my young children, the lack of validation and affirmation for anything from a home-cooked meal to a new haircut, I have become starved for a compliment. So much so, that my self-esteem rises from a passing comment by a stranger who quite likely was a homeless person.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I felt like my whole being was part of the public domain. People felt justified to offer running commentary: about the size of my belly, my healthy glow, whether I was having twins. A (much older) friend said to me, “Enjoy the attention. After you have your second child you become invisible.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was still young and foolish enough to think she was merely older and more cynical. Before long, I began to notice a subtle shift. At first I assumed people were just moving out of my way. I was, after all, a harried mother charging her over-sized stroller and squealing children through the street. As time passed, though, the truth my friend had warned me about became clearer.
It was as though the lens through which I was viewed had been adjusted. Perhaps it was slightly out of focus now. People looked less. They noticed less. The thing is, as you approach 40, you begin to notice the gradual decline of the quick glance, the turned head, the spontaneous compliment. It’s not like they were frequent occurrences when I was younger, but it’s like Joni Mitchell said: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
I remember my first head-on confrontation on the slow road to oblivion. I was at the grocery store. The cashier, a boy in his early 20s, looked up to hand me my change. “Thank you, ma’am” he said.
“Pardon?” I said. “That’s babe to you.”
Okay, that’s not exactly what I said. It is what I wanted to say, though. I was in my early 30s, yet I felt like a grandma. I should have taken the opportunity to teach him a lesson in civility. One never refers to a woman over the age of 29 as “ma’am.” You might as well ask her to present her senior citizens card. Why do you think every woman loves Ryan Gosling? It’s “Hey girl.”
I live in a university town, so I am surrounded by young females. In line at Starbucks, I sometimes find myself staring at the porcelain skin of a student in front of me. I’m tempted to run my hand down the smooth surface of her cheek, like I do with my 8-year-old daughter. Of course, as they say, with age comes wisdom, so I’m smart enough to see the cracks underneath the veneer of that clear skin. I recognize the neurosis and girlish insecurities that come with being young. The student doesn’t realize how great her skin looks. Or that her body is lovely, and she should relish it before it reshapes under the strain of childbirth and years of sleepless nights. She is preoccupied with whether her jeans make her look fat, and why her hookup from last weekend hasn’t texted her back.
I wouldn’t go back to that age for all the wrinkle cream in Macy’s. Yet that desire to be noticed, to be seen, doesn’t fade like the glow of my skin. No one wants to feel invisible.
Last year, the internet was buzzing with accounts of how a 24-year-old walked down a New York City street and was cat called over 100 times. I’m pretty sure if she were 42 she would have had a fraction that number. I wonder, as she ages, will she notice the slow decline? In most cases she will welcome the absence. No one likes to be objectified, or subjected to cat-calls from strangers. (Although, as my situation attests, sometimes things get so dire that you take these comments lightly and simply walk on.) But, for the 24-year-old, will age and the often unflattering accessory of a few whining kids bring an end to the positive moments of being seen, of being visible?
I have a friend who sets her message ringtone to the whistle. She claims it’s a mini boost to her ego every time a text arrives. Again, these are precarious times. The truth is, after a certain age, being on the receiving end of a compliment, or a warm smile, or an opened door, is more welcome than ever. It’s one thing that never gets old.
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