We need to speak about menopause

Movements are emerging to help rebrand midlife for women

21 February 2024 - 09:18
By Mathahle Stofile
Menopause is not a dirty word.
Image: @123rf Menopause is not a dirty word.

While talking to my high school friend the other day, she happily declared: “I’ve stopped drinking. I feel amazing and I am almost the same weight I was in high school.”

We are 43, turning 44 this year.

“Sleep is still a problem though, so I take half a THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] gummie every night,” she said. 

In the four years since the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve reconnected and have got to know each other better as grown women. It has been a pleasure sharing deep, dark thoughts and anxieties as well as sparks of joy and delight almost weekly with a childhood friend.

We have both been relieved to find out we are going through similar struggles physically, professionally, spiritually and mentally. I, too, have been annoyed about the random weight gain, though I do not wish to go back to my high school size. I would take my high school bones, though.

First there was the knee injury that should have been minor but lasted for months and is still fragile. Next, there was the out-of-the-blue painful shoulder that lasted a week. More consistently, I’ve been moaning about interrupted sleep every night. Suddenly I’m in a routine I didn’t agree to — up just before 2am, fight to keep my eyes closed, get up for some water, fight the urge to grab a sweet snack, lose, feel like a loser, become anxious, crawl back under covers with a serving of a sugary snack laced with a dose of anxiety. There is also the brain fog, the drastic mood swings, hair loss, heart palpitations and some bowel movement issues. It turns out my friend and I are right in the middle of perimenopause — a term we both had never heard of until a year ago. We are less than a decade away from menopause.

Obstetrician-gynaecologist and women’s wellness activist Dr Mary Claire Haver.
Image: maryclairewellness.com Obstetrician-gynaecologist and women’s wellness activist Dr Mary Claire Haver.

I always thought menopause meant hot flushes, no more periods, some mood swings and maybe dryness everywhere.

“No-one’s talking about the multi-organ system failure that a lot of women are going through, suffering in silence because physicians aren’t helping, we’re not trained,” said Dr Mary Claire Haver, American obstetrician-gynaecologist and women’s wellness activist. She has made it her mission to become a source of menopause information on social media, building a large community of women who have found resonance and affirmation in her content.

In an interview with Steven Bartlett on his The Diary of a CEO podcast, she gives good reasons why everyone, not only women, should know more about menopause. You can listen to it here. 

It’s incredible how much we are taught about menstruation and pregnancy, yet we are not well versed in menopause even though none of us get to opt out of it.

Most enlightening to me have been the links made between menopause and mental wellness (new onset or worsening cases of depression/bipolar/anxiety/ADHD), bone fractures (osteoporosis), and increased risk of kidney and cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. There is also an increase in divorce numbers.

A 2021 survey by UK family law firm Stowe revealed 68% of divorces involving women were initiated by wives during their menopausal years due to communication breakdowns between partners. Yet only 10.5% of the 85% of women complaining about menopausal symptoms are receiving effective treatment. As women live longer, the number of women in post-menopause keeps growing. In 2011 women aged 50+ accounted for 22% of all females globally. In 2021, this number was up again. In South Africa it went from 18% to 21% in the same period, according to research and consulting firm Ipsos.

Actress Naomi Watts is founder of Stripes, a wellness and beauty brand for menopause health.
Image: Getty images for Stripes Actress Naomi Watts is founder of Stripes, a wellness and beauty brand for menopause health.

Thankfully, with the rapid growth in women’s wellness as a movement, more information and products directed at educating us and normalising, if not minimising, unpleasant symptoms have become available.

In an article titled “Rebranding Midlife” in 2022, the New York Times’ culture website The Cut wrote about an event called New Pause. Described as a “menopause symposium”, it was hosted by actress Naomi Watts, who is fast becoming the face of menopause and is also the founder of Stripes, “a brand promising menopause solutions from scalp to vag”.

Companies such as Stripes, Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Kiko Vitals (Kerri-Lee Taylor) are on a mission to rebrand midlife for women with products and events that address intimate topics including painful intercourse due to vaginal dryness, chronic urinary tract infections and general hormone imbalance.

I, too, have jumped on the oral supplement bandwagon and am religious about my daily dose of Kiko Vitals Hormone Balance capsules packed with magnesium and ashwagandha. I’m trying to pack more fibre into my diet, do some weight resistance training and somatic workouts, all in the hope that the vertigo, the rage and the sleepless nights finally take it easy on me. Fingers crossed.