Are we there yet? The menopause and older women’s lives.

// 20 October 2011

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red hot flush.jpg

When it comes to the menopause, women need to be in control of their own bodies and their own choices. Although for some women the menopause, which literally means the cessation of menses, occurs earlier, the average statistical age for the menopause is fifty two. Symptoms can start ten – or more – years before a woman’s periods stop.

Research up to the 1960’s suggested that menopausal symptoms were produced internally only, by fluctuations in hormones. This helped to drive the stereotyping of menopausal woman as solely responsible for their own ‘condition’. However, later research, notably by Margeret Lock in 1998, began to look at the cultural and nutritional aspects of the menopause. A study of older women in Japan showed that there was no word for menopause in the Japanese language. Rather than a word that describes the cessation of a physical characteristic, the Japanese word ‘konenki’ describes a transition time in terms of lived experience. Additionally, there was no word for ‘hot flush’ as this hardly ever occurred in Japanese menopausal women.

This revelation led to much theorizing and speculation as to why the Japanese menopause is so different, with a raft of soya remedies to mimic the Japanese diet flooding the market. Another theory is the cultural differences of how older women are treated in the Western world. Older Japanese women are respected for their wisdom; age is seen as beneficial experience and valued.

In Western culture older women are often shunned and disappear from the media gaze as they age, as Western worth focuses on appearance and values youthfulness. A tabloid newspaper article speculated about a ‘menopause test’ and women’s activities showed graphs that measured the ages of women only up to 50; the implication was that when women’s fertility reduces they lose their entire worth and disappear. The obsession with youth and slenderness in the media is at odds with the menopause, where, in order to compensate for falling estrogen levels, the body develops fatty estrogen-emitting deposits. The danger is that should estrogen fall too low, osteoporosis and other serious symptoms can develop. So, as well as damaging the self-esteem of older women, the constant pressure to lose body fat can be physically damaging for menopausal women.

In order to combat this negative perception of ageing, women often turn to synthetic hormones in the form of hormone replacement therapy. Whilst these may help some women’s symptoms temporarily, the risk attached to HRT, and its side effects, remains a serious concern. There are many over the counter remedies that help symptoms for some women, unfortunately these have often never been formally medically tested and can have side effects. Instead of focusing solely on the physical aspect of menopause, maybe there is something we can learn from in Japanese culture.

Perhaps the negatively loaded words used to describe older women such as ‘hag, crone, moody, angry, unpredictable, monster, twisted and witch’ could be reworked back to pre-patriarchal society constructions of older women such as ‘oracle, healer, wise woman, kind, and strong’. Until this happens, the menopausal woman embodies the repressed, unacknowledged and feared parts of personal identity and societies.

Thanks to the internet, we are able to read many men and women’s stories of how the menopause has affected their lives. Whilst this in itself is positive and empowering, it is still bound up in the patriarchal system of medicine and commercialism, where, rather than allowing a woman to pass through a natural transition, she is pathologised and made to feel that she needs to ‘do something about it’ to fit into ‘normal being’ – when the menopause is an entirely natural event.

The choice lies with the individual woman as to whether they try to alleviate their own symptoms, whether they visit their GP for synthetic hormones. However, struggling free of cultural and societal attitudes to older women may be more difficult, and is a worthy project for the feminist collective. After all, there’s no escaping the natural infradian rhythms of life, be it periods or menopause. Equality means that women, even older women, should be able to shape their own lives to provide a cushion for their changing lived experience journey without oppression. We’re clearly not there yet.

(Please note that ‘menopausal experience’ in this article includes any person who experiences menopausal symptoms personally or vicariously.)

Image by flickr user Steve-h shows two red flowers, species name ‘red hot flush’. Used under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

samanthajankis // Posted 22 October 2011 at 2:09 am

Thank you for this article. You say, “Perhaps the negatively loaded words used to describe older women such as ‘hag, crone, moody, angry, unpredictable, monster, twisted and witch’ could be reworked back to pre-patriarchal society constructions of older women such as ‘oracle, healer, wise woman, kind, and strong’.”

I love this point, but I also love the way that Mary Daly reclaims the words “hag”, “crone” and “witch”. These words don’t hurt me anymore, because I realize they are meant to demean me, instead of honor.

Just like everything in life, the cessation of menses is just one more path that all aging women must take.

Rose // Posted 24 October 2011 at 5:31 pm

Okay, I’m a little shocked by your choice of insulting terms.

Calling a woman a ‘witch’ is akin to calling her a ‘jew’, or a ‘christian’. If used to insult it is religious persecution/ blind intolerance. It comes from old english, much like hag. Christians used the word as hate speech against people loyal to traditional faiths, (and layed it on others to excuse abuse by association). (Also, ‘witch’ does not specify gender).

A hag is an old woman, added adjectives are not intrinsic.

Crone?! What is it about practicing herbal medicine or being a sage that is supposed to insult? Again, this is religious persecution – in that if I ‘accused’ you of being a bishop, society wouldn’t consider you shamed or humiliated. I can’t think of a greater compliment to pay an older woman, than to refer to her as a crone.

Your second list didn’t seem to help much, it doubled up the meaning of a word from the first list, and seemed to suggest that all old women are doctors and diviners. Simply not true. Older women, in my opinion, don’t need false statements to validate them. (Are all women, ‘by gender’ kind?)

If someone uses these words intending to shame or insult – they are showing anti-pagan sentiment. I personally found it offensive that you mixed ‘crone’ up with ‘moody, angry, and

twisted’.

I would have thought that the menopause would be best dealt with by open understanding, respect and honesty. Why would casting out a old (more maternal) faith’s terminology help?

anywavewilldo // Posted 25 October 2011 at 1:01 pm

Great blog … just one thing: I would beware of lauding Japan as a country where older women have more status than Britain, and in making too-simplistic comparisons between various patriarchies. I do think all women have much to learn from comparing life experiences globally but it’s a complex task.

I was also discussing menopause with some of my feminist activist friends [now the youngest Greenham generation is starting ‘the change’] one commented that as feminists we still know little about menopause. I think we-feminist-&-womanist-activists have not done enough to deal with our own status as aging women – even though it’s been a core women’s movement topic since the second wave.

I think as women’s movement activists age, we loose status with noticable chunks of our movements. e.g. I’ve found the DIY feminist scene to have become much more age segregated over time.

If we want a place for ourselves that accepts and ‘reclaims’ menopause and aging we need to love the crones, hags and harpies in our own scenes; we need to deal with illness and impairment that come more often as we age; we need to deal with our own issues with sexuality and body; we need to deal with friendship and support ‘forever’ [pretty much everyone is planning to grow old eventually]

We can look to Japan, but we can also look inside…

xxx Rachel Feminista

Lynne Miles // Posted 25 October 2011 at 10:24 pm

Rose, Jacqui has asked me to reply with the following:

“Thanks for pointing this out. To clarify, these are not my own insulting terms, these are words that various researchers have observed as connected with ageing and menopausal women by those intent on misogynistic labeling. I completely agree with your point that ‘If used to insult it is religious persecution/ blind intolerance’ which pretty much sums up how many people use these words as insults. I also find it offensive that parts of society mix the words ‘crone’ with ‘moody, angry and twisted’.

“Unfortunately, however you and I celebrate these words, which, as you point out, cannot be generalized as individual meaning varies, there are those who do not see them as respectful and use them in anger, making them negatively loaded, and the point of my showing these words in a negative context and other examples in a positive context was to point this out and the narrow thinking involved in generalizing, not to endorse it. I would never suggest that any words were cast out, better used in the positive context you suggest, which I what I meant by ‘reworked back…’. I apologize if this did not come across clearly in this post.”

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