Society ‘disappears’ ageing women. So I harnessed that cloak of invisibility to do all sorts of ‘inappropriate’ things

The notion of becoming invisible as an ageing woman has become an accepted trope. My friends and I, from our late 50s onwards, were first gobsmacked then increasingly enraged at being talked over, not served, not replied to, brushed aside and not taken seriously. Small accretions of casual insult that eroded our hard-earned sense of self and agency.

Instead of simmering in a stew of rage and resentment I began to wonder if that conferred invisibility could be harnessed. If I reframed it as a cloak of invisibility I could do all sorts of things “inappropriate” for my age.

I refrained from robbing a bank (though fairly sure I could have got away with the loot), instead turning my attention to street art.

My first guerrilla paste-up a decade or so ago was in a lane in Ballarat, Victoria. I was quite nervous and slightly fearful of being at least fined so I donned a hi-vis vest and put out semi-official public work signs and had a friend spotting for me. I needn’t have bothered – people went past me and simply did not see me.

Street artist Deborah Wood stencils a wall.

Yes! My cloak worked! This meant I could merrily take my artwork into the public domain and put up (mainly) drawings of old ladies dancing in tutus – just a small rupture in the expected representation of older women. Sometimes I’d get permission to use a wall but I preferred the more transgressive act of just wandering into a public space and slapping up the posters whenever and wherever I felt like.

Then there was the terrific initiative of the artist Dans Bain to gather women artists together to reclaim what was then a fairly blokey space – Melbourne’s Hosier Lane. It was such a hoot; generous, inclusive and has now continued for five years to become a welcome addition to the Hosier Lane community.

I love to take every opportunity to spread the idea of how visibility, agency and joy is possible and erasure not inevitable. Something that happens time and time again when I am pasting up my ladies is the wonderful conversations I have with other older female passersby who always say how welcome it is to see figures they can relate to and identify with.

Deborah Wood’s joyous ‘drawings of old ladies dancing in tutus’.

This year I pasted up two distinctly different images: my dancers and also two large faces of a screaming older woman. The dancers are deliberately a light-hearted rebuttal of the usual stereotypes – the screaming woman less so.

Let’s be clear: invisibility for my cohort is no joke. It’s actually dangerous. It leads to exclusion from the workforce, financial precariousness, growing homelessness, bad health outcomes, elder abuse and silence and inaction in social policy.

When I put up the screaming heads in Hosier Lane I asked women going past what would they like to yell about. I then wrote out their words and pasted them coming out of the screaming mouth.

Here are some of their words: Enough! Make Good Trouble! Be Difficult! I Matter! More Respect! Hear Me, See Me! Older Women Count! Be Outrageous! I Am Not Invisible! Rage!

Joy and rage are both necessary tools to counter the effects of ageism twinned with sexism. Let’s not accept the tired old stereotypes. Perhaps by wryly donning the invisibility cloak on our own terms we can be disrupters and activists who change expectations around ageing. We won’t manage to completely overturn this last obstacle thrown at us by a tired, dated yet stubbornly persistent patriarchy but we can have some fun along the way dancing out on the streets.

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