Psychology
02 Nov 2018

Menopause -- society's last female taboo?

“How come, in the 21st Century, I’m surprised by changes in my body?” one woman asked herself as she entered middle age. And not long after, she discovered that many of her peers wanted to talk about aging too.

Wysokie Obcasy
Magda Działoszyńska Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Menopause -- society's last female taboo? - NewsMavens
Woman at beach, PixaBay

The following fragments from Magda Działoszyńska's article first appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in May 2018.

The first symptom -- an unexpected wake-up at 4 am and a few sleepless hours of staring at the ceiling. Initially harmless, it was then followed by strong feelings of anxiety, isolation and the fear of some unspecified but inevitable catastrophe. First one night, then another one, and then another. Next came the hot flashes -- even in the daytime, sweats, breathlessness, jugs of iced water, cold showers.

“At first I thought I was having a stroke” author Nina Lorez Collins wrote on her blog.

This happy, well educated and financially independent mother of four, living in New York, was shocked that all these symptoms took her by surprise. It was 2015 and she was 45.

What would Virginia Woolf do?

As befits someone living in the digital age, she looked for answers on the Internet and learned that apart from the more well-known inconveniences, there are about 35 other symptoms of menopause. Some of them she either hasn’t experienced yet or she never will; others might still appear. And fighteningly, each of them could provoke that one question: “Is it cancer?”

And before menstruation stops completely (officially indicated by 12 consecutive months without a cycle), the hormone swings can last up to 10 years.

Collins began to wonder how it was possible that none of her older female friends had ever mentioned it. “Or perhaps they did but I wasn’t quite ready?” -- she asks in her blog post titled “Confronting the Deep Middle”. 

Collins expressed all her doubts and queries in her Facebook post. The immediate and numerous feedback she received from female Internet users over 40 was a clear signal -- women were lacking the space to openly discuss their aging problems and this space needed to be created.

That’s why Collins started the group called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” (referring to a British writer and one of the most prominent modernist authors, who struggled with mental disorders and committed suicide by drowning in a river at the age of 59). This group was a place where women “of a certain age” would have a chance to share their experiences and talk about the difficulties they were facing -- from skin (or vaginal) dryness, through to marital issues,  troubles with their adolescent kids, and  their reflections on what Virginia Woolf's life.

No country for old women

The United States is a country with a relatively short history and a society that worships youth, vitality and self-sufficiency. Age and infirmity are denied, ignored or commonly sidelined: wrinkles are surgically smoothened, the elderly are placed in nursing homes and often excluded from social and family life.

And Hollywood -- responsible for the collective imagination of most American citizens -- seems to be the true hot bed of this modern cult of youthfulness.

In the 1990s, the anthropologist Margaret Lock proposed the theory that living in constant fear of aging can affect the way women in the US experience menopause. In her book “Encounters with Aging” she described the differences between the climacteric states experienced by women in North America and those in Japan. Her studies proved that Japanese women don’t pay great attention to their aging process.

For the vast majority of Japanese women, the only noticeable symptom of menopause is the end of their menstrual cycle.

Only 12 percent encountered hot flashes or arm and leg stiffness (by comparison -- similar symptoms were reported by 85 percent of Americans). The reason? According to Locke: genes, diet and most of all, a different cultural perspective. Japanese don’t treat old age as a shameful and undesired condition. This approach is closely intertwined with their characteristic  attitude to sex -- but that’s a topic for a separate article.

Aging without apology

After she started the “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” Facebook group, Nina Lorez Collins realized that the “market niche” was even bigger than she’d expected. The amount of new members was increasing rapidly: in its first year of existence, the group reached 1,300 members. A year later, when Donald Trump -- known for his sexist comments and lack of respect towards women, especially those advanced in years -- became President of United States, the group was joined by another thousand women. A “New York Times” article from March mentioned nearly 8,000 members. Today, it’s 23,000.

What do they do apart from belonging to the group? They meet up in real life, not only in New York but across the country; organize Scrabble tournaments, clothing swaps and group trips to sex shops. They exchange homes, raise money for pro-abortion organizations and environmental charities; they’ve even created a mentor programme for prisoners. They talk and argue about the same matters that every other socially diversified group would argue about: how to establish their priorities without excluding or offending any of the members. After a few serious fights, mainly on class and racial grounds, Woolfers introduced a system of moderation for their discussions and they divided themselves into subgroups according to shared interests and hobbies.

Collins doesn’t hide her satisfaction from the fact that due to her project, the subject of female aging is gaining more public attention.

Her personal perk of starting the group was finding the answer to a crucial existential question, closely associated with menopause: “How to redefine yourself halfway through your life?”

She used to work as a literary agent, today she’s an author herself. Nina’s first book “What Would Virginia Woolf Do? And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology”, was published in April. It discusses sex, fashion, marriage, divorces, money, health -- the kind of subjects relevant to middle age women like Collins and her (as of today) 23,000 sisters.

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