Let’s stop whispering about menopause and reclaim ownership of our bodies | Sisonke Msimang

For too long women’s bodies have been shrouded in mystery and shame

Yes, there are hot flashes and mood swings, and yes, there are night sweats and bloating and chin hairs and vaginal dryness, but somehow, like everything else to do with women’s bodies, conversations about menopause are never just about our bodies.

Instead, talking about what my mother’s generation called “The Change” becomes a way of discussing ageing, reproduction, relevance and attractiveness – all of it shrouded in mystery and shame.

In a conversation with a friend in her mid-50s, I described what I’m going through as I hit my late-40s – so far just night sweats and chin hairs – and she smiled as if to say, “Oh, you’re still in the toddler stages of menopause”. Then she leaned in to tell me about her experiences, lowering her voice as she described what she had gone through before her period finally stopped.

There was nothing on her list that I hadn’t heard of before, but I was fascinated that we’d instinctively slipped into whispering.

There is an unwritten code that says the details about women’s bodies can only be discussed by women. This is changing, of course, but my friend and I were whispering because both of us learned early in life that we should spare men the details of how our bodies work.

For many heterosexual women of my generation, the less men knew about us growing up, the more they liked us. This was especially true of menstruation and reproduction, but was also the case about our sexual desires and our personal ambitions.

‘There is an unwritten code that says the details about women’s bodies can only be discussed by women’ …Sisonke Msimang.
‘There is an unwritten code that says the details about women’s bodies can only be discussed by women’ … Sisonke Msimang. Photograph: Frances Andrijich/The Guardian

There is no biological corollary for men. Their reproductive lives are seldom discussed, and certainly don’t evoke the kind of collective anxiety that accompanies the onset of girl’s reproductive capacities and then trail the end of women’s childbearing years.

To be sure, teenage boys get embarrassed about their wet dreams and changing bodies, but the processes related to male reproduction are not seen as fundamentally shameful and dirty. By the same token lots of men spend too much money on trying to regrow hair that will never come back, but there isn’t a stage of life when men collectively fall off the cliff of desirability in the same way.

As I have gotten older I’ve recognised the correlation between men’s discomfort with how women’s bodies work (rather than how they look) and their discomfort with women being actual humans. It is difficult to objectify someone whose mind and body refuse to conform to stereotypes about femininity. In other words, the more we talk about what is happening to us, in ways that are real, and not bound up in secrecy and shame, the closer we get to creating men who see women more fully.

As others have pointed out, historically the medical profession – which is where so many women turn to for information and advice on menopause – has “at best sought to make menopause invisible. At worst, it presented it as a female problem that could be solved by male medical intervention.”

‘The changes that are beginning to occur in my body and in my life more broadly represent both losses and gains.’
‘The changes that are beginning to occur in my body and in my life more broadly represent both losses and gains.’ Photograph: Frances Andrijich/The Guardian

A recent acquaintance put it best when she described how, for her, menopause coincided with a series of significant professional accomplishments.

She said she had never felt more confident in her life. Menopause didn’t cause that confidence, of course – a lifetime of hard work and experience in academia while facing constant doubts about her capacities as a black woman did that. But listening as she spoke, it struck me that her experience of the change was holistic. The body changes were one aspect – and they were real – but they were no more real than the other changes that were happening in her life that were also a consequence of this particular stage of getting older.

I’m still in the early stages of my menopause journey but it’s already clear that the changes that are beginning to occur in my body and in my life more broadly represent both losses and gains. It’s important to recognise what is lost as we get older, but the wider western culture does a great job of helping us all do that. Far more necessary is a reclaiming of what is gained.

There can be no overestimating what it means to develop a measure of personal power and self-belief at precisely the same moment that you are released from the pressure of the male gaze.

As my accomplished friend said, “Really, it’s wonderful to just not give a shit what people think.”

• Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

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