Christoph Hetzmannseder / Getty

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, a young woman on a train becomes disturbed by the sudden disappearance of a kindly older woman, a governess and music teacher. The latter, a spinster, is introduced to the viewer when she writes the letters of her name in the condensation on one of the train’s glass windowpanes, only to have them evaporate almost instantly. Within minutes, she is gone, and the other passengers, steward, and conductor claim to have never seen her. Asked to describe her, the young woman can only say she was “middle-aged and ordinary,” before admitting, “I can’t remember.” Later in the film, the older woman is reduced to “a hallucination, a subjective image, a character in a novel subconsciously remembered,” and even “nothing but lumps of raw flesh,” all before she is revealed as a British spy, the movie’s ultimate heroine in the final scene.

Today, women appear—or disappear—in any manner of guises. In the photographer Patty Carroll’s series Anonymous Women, it is household artifacts and traditions—upholstery fabric, curtains, telephones, slabs of bacon, leaves of lettuce, a braided loaf of bread, rolls of wallpaper, pillows, and plates—into which each model disappears, swallowed whole by the python of domesticity. In Whitney Otto’s novel Now You See Her, the vanishing woman works in an office, present but unseen. Her cat is indifferent when she trips over it, and when she presses her palm to her forehead, it is “only to notice her hand fading away with the motion, from fingertips to forearm.” In the more recent film Hello, My Name Is Doris, Sally Field plays an older woman who develops a crush on a younger man with whom she shares an office; at the beginning of the story, he adjusts her crooked glasses. As the film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times, the young man’s spontaneous gesture of kindness is transformative: Wrinkles, apparently, “have a way of making women disappear one crease at a time,” and when she is noticed momentarily by a younger man, such recognition evidently “makes her visible, most importantly to herself.”

The invisible woman might be the actor no longer offered roles after her 40th birthday, the 50-year-old woman who can’t land a job interview, or the widow who finds her dinner invitations declining with the absence of her husband. She is the woman who finds that she is no longer the object of the male gaze—youth faded, childbearing years behind her, social value diminished. Referring to her anticipated disappearance on her upcoming 50th birthday, the writer Ayelet Waldman said to an interviewer, “I have a big personality, and I have a certain level of professional competence, and I’m used to being taken seriously professionally. And suddenly, it’s like I just vanished from the room. And I have to yell so much louder to be seen. … I just want to walk down the street and have someone notice that I exist.”

(Penguin Press)

Her words evoke another woman walking, unseen, down the street nearly a century ago. As Clarissa Dalloway shops in London for flowers on a June morning, Virginia Woolf speculates about her protagonist’s transitory identity. Mrs. Dalloway, considering her place among the people she knows, finds that “often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown.” She recalls that she is known now simply by her husband’s name, and a few sentences later, she considers how sometimes it is simply by their gloves and shoes that women are identified. She knows nothing, she thinks, no language, no history, and hardly reads books except memoirs. She realizes then that “her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct.”

One’s identity, Woolf seems to say, is transient, and perhaps all the more so with age. As women become older, they entertain a wider set of choices about when and how they are seen. This vanishing can occur more rapidly or be felt more acutely. Clarissa Dalloway’s sense of fleeting self was described more explicitly decades later by the writer Francine du Plessix Gray in her essay “The Third Age.” If the gaze of others wanes, Gray suggests, one might choose to “acquire instead a deepened inward gaze, or intensify our observation of others, or evolve alternative means of attention-getting which transcend sexuality and depend, as the mentors of my youth taught me, upon presence, authority, and voice.”

Gray may be talking about the difference between being a subject and an object. It is a cliché to point out that ours is a culture in which men routinely objectify women, but according to Alison Carper, a psychologist who practices in New York, if a woman is complicit in this practice—that is, in viewing herself as an object—she cannot help but be acutely aware when that object loses its desirability. “As humans, we all need to be recognized,” Carper adds, “but as we grow older, the manner of recognition we search for can change. A subject is someone who experiences her own agency, who is aware of how she can and does have an impact on others and how she is, ultimately, the author of her own life. She is aware of the responsibility this carries.” A woman without fully developed interiority might continue to objectify herself.

Clarissa Dalloway is clearly a subject. She realizes that her body is simply something that she wears, and then, a sentence later, finds that it is really nothing, nothing at all. Woolf suggests a correlation between invisibility and the ability to know people by instinct when she identifies both these qualities in Clarissa within a single paragraph. Since she published Mrs. Dalloway in the mid-1920s, more prosaic studies of human nature have come to similar conclusions. A reduced sense of visibility does not necessarily constrain experience. Associated with greater empathy and compassion, invisibility directs us toward a more humanitarian view of the larger world. This diminished status can, in fact, sustain and inform—rather than limit—our lives. Going unrecognized can, paradoxically, help us recognize our place in the larger scheme of things.

It is a theme Woolf returns to again and again, as when Clarissa Dalloway considers the “odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter—even trees, or barns.” Clarissa recognizes that our lives can be measured by what we have done to touch the lives of others; she is attuned to how human associations can be formed with complete strangers. And to the enduring value—indeed, power—of such alliances.

Mystique, in a still from X-Men: Dark Phoenix. (Doane Gregory / 20th Century Fox)

Her modern counterpart might be Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant from the X-Men series, played most recently by Jennifer Lawrence. She has no physical self beyond her blue body and instead morphs into the forms of others, among them an assassin, a German secret agent, a professor, a young girl, a senator’s wife, a fashion model, and a member of the U.S. Department of Defense. Her power is her indistinct appearance; it is what enables her to assume other identities.

But another likely counterpart to Clarissa Dalloway might be the famous 1960s model Vera Lehndorff, popularly known then as Veruschka. Toward the conclusion of her career, she collaborated with the German artist Holger Trülzsch, painting her body in patterns, colors, and textures to match different backgrounds. “When I started to paint myself,” Lehndorff writes,

Veruschka, in a film by Franco Rubartelli (Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty)

the color and I were one: there was no “between.” … This experience of coherence between us and the world around us is one of well-being; it produces a sense of affinity with whatever it is with which we come into contact.

There is Lehndorff, lying on gray sand or receding into a dark doorway or leaning against a white wall. In the last, her body has been stippled white up to her shoulders, but her head seems to have been dyed a bright azure to match the sky behind it. It is an image of the female body going from object to air, from material to immaterial, from thing to nothing. It is camouflage that has nothing to do with escaping prey, avoiding danger, or finding food or a mate, and everything to do with finding a coherence.

All this may speak to a revised etiquette of invisibility. Opacity itself can work as a connective tissue. If humans do leave a mark, it is just some quick and temporary elusive imprint, nothing more than a fugitive logo or insignia. And it’s probably not the worst thing for any of us to imagine identity as an arrangement of letters written for a few moments on the clouded window of a train that is speeding out of view.


This article has been adapted from Akiko Busch’s book, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.