Optics and the Midlife Woman

Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles—my debut novel—examines both literal and figurative optics: Kris, the main character, is marketing manager for an eyewear company; how she and her over-fifty friends are perceived by others—especially bosses and potential employers—is at the heart of major plot developments.

Women in the vicinity of fifty, give or take a decade, are literally in the middle of their lives. Yet just when they hit their prime in terms of career development and wisdom, society often renders them invisible. In spite of a few actors and entertainers who have gained notoriety for looking fabulous after fifty, the average fifty-plus woman in a corporate milieu has a target on her back. Too often the job market discounts her value, assuming she’s got nothing new to offer.

Ageism is real, but judging people (aloud or internally) by how they look is also an age-old human trait we all express from childhood to elderhood. Meanwhile, we’re all PR flacks, trying to control the optics of our journey through this world, regardless of race, age, sex, or income. I’m no exception.

Women Need to Control the Optics

Managing our personal and professional optics—how we’re perceived by other people—can be a high-stakes game, especially for women. Presenting the perfect balance of warmth and competency during job interviews is one of the most obvious examples. But a razor-sharp résumé and friendly smile aren’t enough. Conveying the ideal package to a prospective employer involves managing the optics of everything from clothing and makeup to posture.

That’s one of the messages in Comeback Careers: Rethink, Refresh, Reinvent Your Success—at 40, 50, and Beyond, which confronts the reality of ageism and offers advice on how to fight it. The book, coauthored by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and her sister-in-law Ginny Brzezinski, counsels women returning to the workforce after a child-rearing gap and those switching careers in midlife to ensure their skills are relevant and updated. Dress and language, the authors add, also need to be contemporary. In a March video interview with Leslie Jane Seymour via her Covey Club, Ginny Brzezinski noted that glasses and haircuts and dress do make a difference in how midlife women are perceived.

That trio held me back from posting a photo on this website for several months.

Clothes Make the Novelist

I’m not fond of having my picture taken and made public even under optimal circumstances—whatever those might be. My Instagram feed, for example (@GailReit), is the antithesis of the selfie-stuffed social media presence.  I’d probably still be virtually invisible online were it not for a previous job that required me to be active on multiple platforms. Even now I avoid posting selfies whenever possible, but an author website must have an author photo, I’m told by the experts. Besides, web crawlers like to find photos, so if you want people to find your work online, you gotta play the algorithm game.

Even though I had a business-appropriate headshot I liked that was less than two years old, it didn’t seem right for an author photo. I didn’t look like any of the other novelists I saw online. Though the white shirt, navy jacket, and string of pearls were suitable (ahem) for a certain type of nonfiction author—which I once was and still am—the ensemble didn’t convey “novelist.”

So what does a novelist look like? Judging by photos of both famous and “emerging” novelists, they seldom wear jackets. Whether the writer is promoted by a big-time PR firm or presenting herself as an indie, jackets—when worn at all—tend to be leather or unstructured.

OK, so I could find alternative apparel in my closet, but then there was the hair. Another reason to procrastinate.

Blame It on the Coronavirus

In response to the New Mexico governor’s (wise) guidance in early March that all nonessential businesses close to the public, my hair stylist was unavailable in April for a scheduled appointment. I normally go three to four months between cuts and enjoy the transition between chin-length and longer hair, but this spring I wanted a reshaping before taking a new headshot.

That’s because back in November we’d tried something new—a much shorter style than usual. The cut was perfectly executed—my stylist is an artist; it just wasn’t me, and it didn’t grow out in a way I was familiar with. So I was ready for a fresh cut—which would have to wait indefinitely.

Meanwhile, my eyewear was also in limbo.

Glasses: An Obvious Metaphor

The eyeglasses on the cover of Optics, the main character’s career in marketing an eyewear brand, and the primary plot are all grounded in the real-world importance of vision care and prescription glasses. But frames can also make a style statement.

Cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife MuddlesI’ve worn glasses since second grade, and I always look forward to the periodic change in frames. As the Brzezinskis note, you don’t put your best face forward with an outdated frame style. I knew I’d need a new author photo before Optics launched, and my current frames were just beginning to show a bit of wear (if viewed from the right angle), so I ordered a new pair when I went for an eye exam earlier this year.

Shortly thereafter, my optician’s office closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. My new Spanish-made frames were somewhere on this planet, though who knew when they’d sit on my nose.

Fighting Perfectionism

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I tell myself a lot these days as we continue to self-isolate. After all, there’s no single “novelist” look, and the classic image of the author as idiosyncratic in habit and dress simply doesn’t apply to me. Besides, I don’t believe author photos sell books. Covers—that’s another story.

And so, with my hard-won midlife wisdom, I decided to make the best-for-now of my perfectly ordinary self. I gave a few snips to the front edges of my hair, pulled on a favorite sweater, donned my timeless-design frames (which my trendy optician’s shop still sells), and posed for a photo.

The author photo was necessary, but I think you’ll find the novel is sufficient without it. Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles will be available September 1 from online and physical booksellers.

In the end, I realized my angst about the author photo was mostly a coping mechanism. It was about acting as if—as if things that mattered before COVID-19 still matter, and will matter after COVID-19.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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