How did you celebrate World Menopause Day, on October 18? I spent it wading through emails and posts from what I can describe only as “menopause influencers.” The British broadcaster Mariella Frostrup wanted to talk about urinary incontinence. On LinkedIn, senior female executives posted about hot flashes and fuzzy brains, and an executive coach who identifies herself as the “Founder & CEO at Life Begins at Menopause™” announced that she was “proud to be waving the flag.” In March, the British government appointed a “menopause employment champion,” and last year, a book called Menopausing became a best seller. Over at The New York Times, the advice columnist Philip Galanes recently heard from a woman whose male colleagues refused to believe that her verbal slips were the result of hormonal shifts.
These attempts to Make Menopause Happen are largely positive; the subject has always been taboo, because it is that lethal combination of having to do with women’s bodies (ugh) and with aging (ugh). Everyone who starts having periods will one day stop having them, and that transition involves a drastic change in hormone levels that can affect the entire body: night sweats, tinnitus, joint stiffness, hair loss, heart palpitations, brain fog. Managing these symptoms alongside unexpected—and unexpectedly heavy—periods is a huge challenge for working women. Like pregnancy, menopause is not an illness. But that doesn’t mean it is easy, so good employers should make accommodations for it.
What concerns me is the likely outcome of all the recent awareness raising: stealth marketing in lieu of actual help. Capitalism has gotten its hooks into menopause and wants to shake it until money falls out. To take one example: Is Gwyneth Paltrow selling menopause supplements that have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease? You bet your Madame Ovary pills she is!
In reality, scientists don’t know enough about what the symptoms of menopause are, or the best way to treat them: Hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) was welcomed, and then demonized—for its association with higher rates of breast cancer—and is now inching back into favor again. A more open discussion of the subject benefits the millions of women who have been disbelieved by their doctors or bosses. “Imagine that some significant portion of the male population started regularly waking in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, a problem that endured for several years,” Susan Dominus of The New York Times wrote earlier this year, also mentioning memory lapses, painful sex, and exhaustion. “Imagine that many of their doctors had received little to no training on how to manage these symptoms—and when the subject arose, sometimes reassured their patients that this process was natural, as if that should be consolation enough.” In the use of that weasel word natural, you can find an echo of traditional discussions around childbirth: The female body is beset by painful, mysterious tides, reflecting women’s subordinate position in the world, and that’s just how it is.
The dismissal of “women’s problems” by doctors has preoccupied feminists for decades, as have the stereotypes used to diminish women because of their biology. Alongside its focus on employment and sexual violence, the second wave of feminism aimed to make women more visible by noticing their absence, writing them back into history, and celebrating their achievements. Subsequent generations of feminists have observed the particular prejudice against older women, an “active ignoring” that “is not the same as the end of objectification,” as the British author Victoria Smith writes in the recent book Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women: “You are still an object; you’ve just changed in status from painting or sculpture, to say, hat stand.” This strikes many women as especially unfair, as a series of events—their children growing older, perhaps, or more seniority at work, or just the general DGAF-ness of middle age—leaves them feeling that they have more to say, if only anyone would listen. “Autumn can be long, golden, milder and warmer than summer, and is the most productive season of the year,” Germaine Greer wrote in her 1991 book, The Change: Women, Aging, and the Menopause. But even a feminist as titanic as Greer had no luck rebranding menopause. She suggested the word climacteric, from the Greek for “critical event,” but it never caught on—possibly because she also declared that the climacteric was “the entry into the antechamber of death.”
Where Greer failed, though, a thousand HR consultants and career coaches are now determined to succeed. The cold economic argument is that we are losing women from the workforce, and measures as simple as opening the office windows can provide some relief. (A small but growing number of companies are offering paid time off for women experiencing symptoms.) That corporate officers, rather than feminist authors, are beginning to dominate the discussion doesn’t surprise me. Linking biology to womanhood seems problematic to some progressives, because not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman. Also, menopause involves older women, and everyone knows they are witches—sorry, Karens. So student feminists are unlikely to take up the cause of their midlife sisters. Menopause is tough to make edgy. Beyoncé, who has been known to perform in front of a screen bearing the word FEMINIST, will probably not appear in front of a glowing banner that reads SWEATY AND TIRED.
Outside the intersectional left, meanwhile, initiatives such as “menopause leave,” or adding menopause to the list of protected characteristics covered by employment legislation, have been slow to gain purchase, despite recent progress. Why? Because this is a demand for equity rather than equality. Women are not asking to be treated the same as men, as they did in getting the vote or entering professions. In this case, they want special treatment.
For that reason, if the ideas of menopause leave or accommodations gain currency, expect the promotion of “male menopause” or “andropause” to drill into this new seam of sympathy. (As Britain’s National Health Service guidance explains, the male reduction in testosterone is much slower and steadier than menopause, although it can still cause symptoms such as mood swings and muscle loss.) Others object to menopause activism as the pathologization of human aging in the service of marketing. After a high-profile menopause documentary aired in the U.K. last year, demand for HRT soared, for example, and finding trustworthy advice on the long-term safety of hormone treatments is complicated by the multibillion-dollar profits involved. Mariella Frostrup’s campaign to talk about bladder leakage was sponsored by Always Discreet, a brand of incontinence underwear—and therefore a company with a direct financial interest in women not doing the pelvic-floor exercises that Frostrup recommended. Call me a cynic, but for every Kegel a woman does, a sanitary pad loses its wings.
But this is exactly why feminists need to keep writing and thinking independently about menopause, and not hand it over to the marketeers of World Menopause Day. We need the awkward questions they can ask and the independent conclusions they can draw. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that outsourcing activism to corporations tends to benefit the corporations more than the cause. What women need is more Jen Gunter—a medical doctor and author of The Menopause Manifesto—and less Gwyneth Paltrow.
“It is quite impossible to explain to younger women that this new invisibility, like calm and indifference, is a desirable condition,” Greer wrote in The Change. She didn’t stay invisible, did she? And neither should any other woman. Resist the lure of Big Menopause. Talk about the climacteric on your own terms.