It all started with a very full bladder and lots of time spent peeing. I’d pee, then pee again. And then the bloating, as if I was morphing into a giant inflatable float for lazy days in summer swimming pools. And then the rapid weight gain — smack on the belly. I’m an apple. A pancake. This isn’t how I get fat.
The belly had me so baffled I actually had to ask a man if his 20-year vasectomy was still valid. “These things don’t usually reverse themselves,” he responded. Funny how when it comes to men’s health, it seems to be so clear cut. And understood. And well researched. And sufficiently funded. Was I missing something here?!
And then I took this dilemma to the doctors. It was met with some chin-scratching. And poking around. And blood tests. And ultrasounds. And especially that pesky pelvic ultrasound where you need to drink until you’re going to burst, only to have that little scanny thing push down very uncomfortably on all the parts that make you want to pee right there on the examination table.
And more tests. Trial and error. Wait — was I the first woman in human history to go through peri-menopause? Near-sorta-pause? Pseudo-pause? WTF-opause?! What-alien-has-hijacked-my-body-opause?!
My theory is that once you’re in or near menopause, suddenly you’re “done” and not of interest to (male) doctors or scientists because you’re no longer able to reproduce. What’s worse, you’re no longer deemed “fuckable” so no one has an interest in what happens to you. In effect, you’ve expired.
I’m not making this up. Too many cultures relegate old women to their huts and knitting. Fables and children’s stories reinforce this. That witch in Hansel and Gretel. The old woman in the shoe. We have all heard where society puts older women. (Subject for another blog one day!)
Even current “tools” to assess women’s health — that boob-squeezing mammogram monster, the evil pap-smear speculum, and much more — none of that was designed with women’s comfort in mind.
Why was this process so clumsy? I decided to poke women in my virtual world — my MenoPosse, if you will — to see what their experience has been.
Women! I wrote into the void.
I am writing my next blog on (older)women’s health and why we are never taught anything about menopause or prepared for the changes and so often misdiagnosed or gaslit by doctors. I’m hearing this from every woman my age — and my own experience as well — so can’t stay silent. Fire away!
And the literal/figurative floodgates opened. Nearly 100 comments and messages within the first 24 hours. Damn.
What follows is a compilation of this feedback. There’s a lot to learn from the experiences of women. Especially when it comes to our own bodies. It’s about time we listen.
Firstly — what’s menopause? I’m not a doctor (or, not that kind of doctor) so I won’t go into detail. There’s google for that.
Instead, let’s start with Kathryn Baecht’s piece, packing power and punch because in humor lies truth. She tells us that “the word “menopause” comes from the Latin combination of meno (meaning “menses”) and pause (meaning, “the joy of no longer giving a fuck”).” Precisely.
Apparently this was a curse “originally inflicted on women by an angry god as punishment for eating apples or being witches or some other bullshit excuse.” Perfect.
She identifies two key menopausal milestones: “if a woman has been paid less than a man for doing the same job for at least twenty years OR cleaned up the equivalent of a fifty-gallon barrel of her family’s bodily fluids including any combination of snot, spit, vomit, blood, pus, urine, and poop (including both the diarrhea and non-diarrhea type).”
You get the point. It’s coming for all of us. So, shouldn’t we have a little more info about it?! We’d never even been told what to expect. Instead we’re forced to fumble around in the dark, while this ages-old rite of passage is seldom discussed in professional and medical circles. As a result we’re all ill-prepared, resorting to our own research — and conferring with friends to figure out WTF is going on?!
For some, it is actually an agenda item for weekly get-togethers — an ongoing discussion on the “latest things going on with our bodies that may be related to menopause.”
Meanwhile, modern medicine evolves. We’ve got tests for things like predisposition to Alzheimer’s or blood tests to determine hair loss, one said, but “there’s no test to determine if a woman is in menopause! Why do we have to guess based on multiple symptoms?”
At the same time, all we really hear about is hot flashes — primarily because they are a subject of mockery. But that is often the extent of information on menopause. And “hot flashes” are the replacement clap-back for snide PMS commentary (gotta write a blog about that too!). There’s a way to dismiss women’s opinions at every stage of our lives, it seems.
Granted, women experience menopause differently, but there’s still so much about it that is not addressed. Women on my Facebook post highlighted mood swings, hair loss, joint pain, weight fluctuations, hormone changes, vaginal atrophy, and many other mental and physical health issues.
And loss of sex drive. Somehow no one talks about this for women. (I can say a lot about why this is hardly ever discussed!). Meanwhile for men, we all know the amount of funding that has gone into Viagra — and the amount of revenue it generates. It’s practically a household staple. Covered by insurance.
Erections aside, let’s also address the psychological impact of menopause. It’s hard enough to explain what’s going on in your body to a doctor — and harder still when it is met with misdiagnoses and gaslighting.
One woman shared this:
I had no idea of the extent of emotional swings including crying jags, brain fog and other impacts hormonal changes would bring. It also happened much earlier than I thought it would for me. It took me some time and doing a lot of reading on my own to realize what was happening to my body. When I went to the doctor, she thought it might be depression rather than hormone fluctuation. It sometimes feels like (western) society just sweeps aging, no longer fecund, women into a closet where we are supposed to quietly bid our time and not make waves. Why is there still so little information out there when every biological woman who has her ovaries will go through this?
Depression and anxiety is a common side effect, but this is also misdiagnosed. Some experience depression or anxiety because of menopause, others experience different symptoms but are told “it’s just depression”. The outcome? In both cases treatment is not meeting the needs of the patient. Even the challenges of these medical procedures and the treatment women receive could result in depression — where depression is actually an outcome of the misdiagnoses and gaslighting.
One woman was told that her hot flashes and sudden sweating episodes “might be psychological” and that she should see a therapist. Another was put on many different types of antidepressants rather than having doctors actually listen to her and address the real issue. Another woman explained that doctors did not believe her when she said that her hormone issues and symptoms were related to menopause and instead retorted with: “we should work on treating your anxiety.”
I asked if anyone had ever been misdiagnosed or medically gaslit by doctors when it came to reproductive health.
Spoiler: they had.
Too many in my MenoPosse responded saying they had tried to explain their symptoms but were dismissed at best and neglected at worst. We are told we are exaggerating or we are misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems instead of addressing the actual problem. And it gets worse for poor, non-white women too. If you need an overwhelming amount of evidence for this, check out Elinor Cleghorn’s Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-made World
In short, there’s a lot of work to do. And a lot of work the medical field needs to do to provide adequate information to women — and to listen to their needs. Through this process, I even learned that one friend of mine was a founder of her country’s Menopause Society because she felt it was so crucial to educate women and men on the experience of menopause.
Why do we have to take all this into our own hands? Why the continued ignorance? One reason is lack of funding. We know far more about the male body and male health because patriarchy dictates that their bodies are the default, and research and scientific bodies are still led by men. Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson is a good book on this, exploring the mistreatment and neglect women experience in a male-dominated medical industry.
One friend of mine argued that “we are brought up to cater, serve, and give our bodies to men. To give birth and keep silent! It’s global! Pharma took hundreds of millions to research fucking Viagra! But for women’s health? No budget! No interest! Especially for older women!”
Here’s another potential challenge: while women are increasingly joining the ranks of the world’s Obstetrician-Gynecologists, we still need more women in this field globally. There’s a deeper structural problem here, but the tide is slowly turning — based on patient demand. We know that it’s easier to explain symptoms to those who are undergoing a similar thing. And some of us might not even be comfortable discussing menopause with our male doctors. All of this came up in feedback.
“My OB is a male,” one friend said, “and he prepped me by saying he “heard” it is “like a living hell!” So I guess I have that to look forward to!”
Another theory is that conversations about older women’s health do not conform to contemporary beauty standards. We’re only just starting to see older women in advertising, while constantly being told to chase youth at all costs.
One friend of mine put it this way: “Menopause doesn’t fuel the money train of the vanity industry. Selling youth, having women doubt themselves at every twist and turn helps make the rich richer. Society needs to celebrate women and individualism at all stages of life…”
At the same time, she continued, when girls begin to menstruate, they are supposed to “magically” morph into women, which means they are inundated with messages screaming that we must hold onto our youth. Actually, “life doesn’t end with menopause,” she says, and “we are still of value and are beautiful when we get beyond child-bearing years.”
Doctors may “just see us as old,” one person said, but “menopause should be celebrated and discussed openly. I don’t hide it or allow embarrassment,” she continued. “Hot flashes still come, my son laughs at me, but like any other symptom, they’ll eventually disappear.”
Susan Mattern’s The Slow Moon Climbs: The History, Science, and Meaning of Menopause explains that culturally, we often tend to frame menopause as a deficiency, a hormonal failure.
Western medicine of the 19th and 20th centuries is responsible for that — and now it’s time for a reframe. Mattern’s Grandmother Theory argues that post-menopausal women were the leaders in their societies. I’d argue that she’s right.
So, now what? Clearly this is a conversation we all need to have. I’m excited by the resources we do have at our disposal. Deborah Copaken’s LadyParts is one excellent example as is Dr. Jen Gunther’s The Menopause Manifesto. Mona Eltahawy’s upcoming book Bloody Hell is undoubtedly going to be a menopause-masterpiece. Glennon Doyle addresses menopause in a podcast where she reframes the topic in a feminist mindset to challenge the patriarchal medical systems. And there’s the Facebook group Menopausing So Hard, run by menopause author and activist Amanda Thebe. We need to find — and create — the resources to get a grip on this. Clearly we’re not the only ones!
Had I not poked the MenoPosse about this, I’d be sitting on my own in the dark, wondering what alien had taken control of my body. Instead we’re here, together, in a far better place. Doctors are still prodding me, and I’m still peeing a river, but at least I know I’m not alone! The bottom line is that women’s health is insufficiently understood, poorly researched, and feebly funded. Rise up, MenoPosse, it’s time to change that story.
One friend put it this way: “Someone said to me: “you have the don’t give a f**k air of a peri-menopausal woman” and I thought that was the loveliest welcome to that mid-40s stage of life!”
To conclude, let’s go back to Kathryn Baecht’s work of wit and wisdom. “Are there any benefits to finally reaching menopause” she asks, rhetorically.
“Are you kidding? No more periods. No risk of unplanned pregnancies. No fucks left to give, and wisdom out the ass. Menopause is freaking awesome.