by Jessie Stainton
Menopause is most often seen as a caricature of an irritable middle-aged woman experiencing hot flashes and a dry vagina. It seems to be framed as the end; the final throw of fertility before you are sexually dormant and fully cast into old-womanhood. Much like the common narrative of chocking up a woman’s actions to PMS, the common perceptions of menopause probably don’t paint an accurate picture, either. Given that roughly 50 percent of the population will go through menopause, and because there’s such a dearth of positive menopause stories, I thought I’d spend some time exploring what exactly menopause is and why it’s portrayed so negatively in our society.
The word menopause means “the end of monthly cycles”—from the Greek word pausis (“pause”) and mēn (“month”)—which is fitting, as it is the final stage of the fertility cycle. Menopause is broken into three stages: Perimenopause, Menopause and Postmenopause. Most people associate menopause with the cessation of monthly periods and while that is technically correct, the symptoms and side effects that we all know are present in all three stages.
The first stage known as Perimenopause is roughly a 3-5 year transition where estrogen and hormone levels begin to drop. This is where all the glamorous (read: dramatic) side effects we hear so much about kick in. The most common sides effects include, but are not limited to, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, the night sweats, elevated heart rate, mood changes and vaginal dryness or discomfort during sexual intercourse. It is important to keep in mind that all women experience side effects differently and that they range in severity and length. (Now that I’ve gotten the side effects out of the way I don’t want to list them again but they can continue to occur throughout Menopause and Postmenopause.)
Once you have missed your period for 12 straight months you are in the heart of menopause, which is why it is known as the official Menopause stage. The same symptoms from Perimenopause can continue into this stage, but again, it varies from woman to woman.
The important thing to remember is that every woman is different.
Things such as diet, exercise, smoking habits and use of Hormone Replacement Therapies can change the nature of side effects.
Fast forward to one year after your menstrual cycle stops and you are in Postmenopause. The irregular periods and heavy bleeding often associated with the first two stages of menopause are done! There is no more uncertainty as to whether menopause is here allowing you to fully commit to enjoying the final stage of the fertility cycle.
There is a lot of negativity associated with menopause due to the side effects. And it’s true; hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood swings aren’t exactly the epitome of sexy. However, the issue is that we are situated in a culture where menopause is viewed only within the context of its side effects—which are perceived as negative. Lara Owen has great insight on the cultural construction of menopause stemming from an inherently sexist portrayal of the female body in the western world. Comparing views of menopause in the West to menopause in China where it is viewed as a second birth and elderly people are generally valued more, it becomes evident that our negative view of menopause is cultural. Menopause should be viewed as an individualized journey encompassing biological and psychosocial factors. With Hormone Replacement Therapy being the only medical “solution” combined with a lack of medical research, it is easy to feel as though we are sort of stuck in this current culture of negativity.
So why does all of this matter? You’re in your 20s, your 30s and/or your menstrual cycle is on like clockwork. Menopause is way off in the distant future, when you’re old and gray, right? Well, perhaps not; a common misconception of menopause is linking it tightly to age. Just as any other part of the fertility cycle, a range of biological and sociocultural factors influences the onset of menopause.
Furthermore, linking menopause to age means that health-related research on menopause is restricted and only gets a fraction of the “lived experiences” of menopause. Each of these factors contributes to a negative cultural framework of menopause, which is probably why we consistently see the irritable middle-aged woman as the familiar symbol. What I took away from my research on menopause is basically that it doesn’t have to be this brutal experience, and with more research being dedicated to understanding the actual lived experiences of peri-, post- and menopause, the better the experience will become! Our culture may want to belittle it, or sweep it under the rug, but by acknowledging and learning more about menopause as part of our fertility cycle, we can honor it, and ourselves.
Jessie Stainton is menstrual, sexual health and animal rights advocate. She is passionate about empowering women to make informed and autonomous choices about their body! Find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as a member of @bloodcyclecommunity
Photo by Julien Laurent