Ahead of the Christmas retail bunfight, Kim Knight tests the theory that middle-aged women don't matter. She hits the shops with a stopwatch - and a colleague half her age.
Recently a nice woman sold me a bra extender.
This small strip of elasticised fabric adds inches to your lingerie and it comes in beige or black, with three hooks or four. It is not in the least bit sexy but it is useful. As you age, your boobs don't so much shrink, as migrate. If you are wondering where the years went, at least some of them may have settled as back fat.
I was thinking about all of this as I got dressed a few Wednesday mornings ago. Black bra, black undies, black pants, black shirt and black bra extender. Fade to black. Later, I set fire to myself in a shopping mall shoe shop and nobody noticed.
You've read this story before. Woman turns 50 and, also, invisible. She traverses the indignities of old age (bra strap extender, etc). She reveals she is ignored by her children, taken for granted by her partner and - in the most disturbing versions of this narrative - laments that nobody leers at her on public transport.
Tragic, I think. Bullshit, I think. Who is Phoebe Waller Bridge, I think. If that last sentence didn't make sense, you should have seen me trying to buy a Google Chromecast.
I love television but I prefer to watch it on an actual television. Unfortunately, since I turned almost 50, I have been unable to attract the attention of an electronics salesperson. I have not seen a single episode of Fleabag and I only know Jon Snow died because it was on The News.
This state of affairs is weird because I am neither a small nor quiet person. Physically, I am quite hard to miss. When I enter a shop I know I've been seen - what I don't understand is why I am being ignored.
Fortunately, one of my core journalistic skills is the ability to take an excruciating personal aspect of my own life and turn it into a story idea that leads to profound conversations about the wider human condition (and/or free food samples). My pitch was strong: The Invisible Woman Goes Shopping. A fortnight later, I was in Ponsonby, Auckland, with a stopwatch and a colleague exactly half my age.
Black bra, black undies, black pants, black shirt. Same-same-but-different. Annabel's jewellery, for example, was vintage by choice. We both wore cool-toned red lipstick but hers was M.A.C's Ruby Woo, which is very matte, costs $35 a tube and requires a definitive lip line. I am old enough to put any amount of money where my mouth is but I am no longer certain where my mouth ends. I require constant moisturising. Honestly? It had not occurred to me until that moment that a little bit of my self-worth might be tied to the scrutiny of strangers. I took a deep breath - and felt a little sad when my bra breathed with me.
According to NZ Stats income tables for people living in the Auckland region, the average weekly earning of a woman aged 50-54 is $1290. This is less than her male counterpart ($1595) and a whole lot more than women aged 20-24, whose income is an average $853 a week. Women aged 25-29 earn an average $975, compared to $1074 for women aged 55-59. In the United States, woman over 50 have been dubbed "super consumers" - last year, their combined purchasing power was reported at $15 trillion.
How many zeros in one trillion? If it's hard to imagine that kind of cash, imagine being the kind of retailer who is happy to ignore it? In brief: It may literally pay to be nice to old ladies.
Back in Ponsonby, the plan is that Annabel and I will enter the same shops, dressed in the same manner and time how long it takes for someone to say hello. After any initial greeting, we'll browse until a sales assistant makes like their job title and assists.
Our first stop is Superette. Its ethos is the creation of "a culturally relevant experience influenced by the flow of the zeitgeist and trends of the fashion industry". Annabel and I chase the zeitgeist around and around and around. She is eventually served first but the experiment is inconclusive, because my phone begins ringing with calls from Bosnia and Herzegovina and I accidentally disable the stopwatch in a fit of crazed jabbing (it's possible I wouldn't have approached me either).
Adorno and Moochi are smaller fashion boutiques. Greetings and follow-up questions are instantaneous. How are you? How's your day going? "Fine thanks," I reply, because that is the rule. Christmas is in three weeks and no pay days and your work Secret Santa just gave you another f***ing gratitude diary but, you know, FINE THANKS.
Lululemon is pronounced like the singer and the citrus fruit (you're welcome). It sells athleisurewear for people who like to be comfortable and yoga-ready on the long drive to high-decile school drop-offs. In 2013, the company recalled a yoga pant after complaints the fabric was too thin and see-through. Co-founder Chip Wilson stated the issue was "more about rubbing through the thighs and how much you're using it". The leggings, he said, "don't work for certain women's bodies". Cue howls of fat-shamed outrage. Follow-up stories included former employees claiming the company actively discriminated against larger women.
Curious, I jumped online and filtered the 277-item "women's bottoms" collection by the largest sizes available (14 and XL). Product availability shrunk to 15 items. The entire website was populated by women approximately 200 years away from their first hot flush and I conceded these were probably not my people. But anyone can fit a scrunchy, right? (Lululemon's range includes one labelled "skinny").
In-store, it took around one minute for Annabel to receive an offer of help. I stopped by the scrunchies and stared like a stalker at a staff member folding clothes. Nothing. It was almost two-and-a-half minutes before a different assistant smiled broadly and said: "Let me know if you need any help with sizes." FINE THANKS, I said and hoped with all my heart that her bra was uncomfortable.
The invisible woman hypothesis held in the designer clothing store Gregory, where Annabel got a cheery greeting and I got a resting sales assistant grimace. At Mecca, Annabel got, "I like your lipstick," as I walked around smelling candles, waiting for absolutely anyone to notice absolutely anything about me.
MacPac staff greeted us equitably; Karen Walker staff ignored us equitably. I managed to make brief contact at around one-and-a-half minutes; but if anyone said hello to Annabel, she didn't hear them. The store is small, and there were two staff on duty but they appeared to be busy with courier packaging and computers. Perhaps online shoppers were taking priority? Is this the modern version of a sales assistant giving a phone call precedence over an actual customer? I think Julia Roberts probably said it best in Pretty Woman: "BIG mistake."
Karen Walker returned my email promptly and efficiently. "We're very disappointed to hear about your experience ... The experience you had is not in line with our standards and training ..."
The original invisible person was a man. Imagined by H.G. Wells in 1897, he arrives from the Bramblehurst railway station, muffled and bandaged, carrying a black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. Eventually, the villagers kill him. This doesn't stop future scriptwriters producing more than 20 film and television adaptations, but it is 1940 before anyone thinks to make the lead a woman and when they do, it's pitched as a comedy.
Invisibility. It's a funny old thing. The more you have it, the less you want it (witness all real celebrity) and the less you have it, the more you want it (witness all reality television celebrity).
Recently, on Twitter, a younger female colleague reported harassment from random male strangers.
"The nice thing about getting old is it happens less (although it still comes as a surprise when it does)," wrote one person in response. Women in Urbanism Aotearoa posted: "You don't get the harassment, but [you] become 'invisible' in public life."
Women in Urbanism is an organisation that works to "transform our towns and cities into more beautiful, inspiring and inclusive places for everyone. We do this by amplifying the voices and actions of all self-identifying wāhine, girls and non-binary people."
It was co-founded by Emma McInnes, 27. Over the phone, we talked about the need for "human-scale" street lighting designed for pedestrians as well as cars; about making public transport pram friendly and the cycleway that is so secluded it offered protection to a man who recently urinated on a woman minding her own cycling business.
McInnes says safe physical spaces are crucial to building strong communities, but so is kindness and "just being a bit more humane". Ignoring shoppers because of their age (or any other reason) does not, she says, build community.
For the next fortnight, one of the least kind environments in the first world will be a shopping mall. It is December, and people are tired, stressed and broke. The ratio of carparks to Toyota RAV4s is suboptimal and there is no one to look after your children who suddenly have more holidays than you've had weekends for the entire year so far. The exhaustion is real and so is this headline from the United Kingdom: "Attacks on shop workers rise 40 per cent in two years."
In December 2017, Canvas reported from the shop floor of The Warehouse and Smith & Caughey's, trying to understand the festive season from the other side of the retail counter. First Union, which represented around 12,000 of the country's retail workers, told us personal safety concerns were an issue for members, and the introduction of 24-hour shopping had increased the probability workers would encounter drunk customers. One anonymous staffer said, simply: "People can be horrible." I re-read this story to remind myself: There are two sides to every Christmas shopping story.
We hit Westfield St Lukes Shopping Mall just after 3pm. It is all tinsel and teenagers; bright lights and weird sexy Santa lingerie outfits on sale. I shop at this mall frequently and, for the record, I've previously had great customer service at shoe store, Mi Piaci. Today, I circle a stand of summer sandals like a bored caged animal. I hear the slap of a new heel hitting the ground. Annabel has started trying on shoes in a bid for attention. At 2.54 minutes, she clocks an offer of assistance and leaves the store. Now, it is just me and two workers. My stopwatch reads 4.08 minutes when one of them glances from the counter and says, "I'm pretty sure we have all the sale stock in your size."
Maybe, I say to Annabel, it was because I was wearing Skechers? But we went to that shoe store too - and she clocked attention at 24 seconds, compared to my 2.20 min.
Sarah Bartholomew, senior marketing manager at Overland Footwear, said she was disappointed to hear about my Mi Piaci experience because female empowerment was a brand pillar and its strongest customer segment was actually aged 39-years, smack in the middle of our experiment's variables.
"There is of course a youthful, on-trend focus to our collections but we are not targeting the younger demographic. The premium nature and thus price point of our product is not typically aligned to that age group."
Bartholomew says retailers have a responsibility to devise appropriate "customer journey models" for their key consumer segments: "We specifically design our experience to consider the needs of women in a variety of life stages, including the more sophisticated shopper."
I was tired and thirsty. My feet were hurting and so was my sophisticated pride. We entered Noel Leeming and, lo, a Christmas miracle! I received an offer of assistance 57 seconds ahead of Annabel. I wondered if she was available to come home and tune my telly.