Menopause: the biggest elephant in the room
Talking about it will make us healthier
Let’s talk about elephants: elephants in the room, to be exact.
What is an elephant in the room?
It’s an enormous topic or issue that might be obvious, but no one wants to discuss.
It might be something that is uncomfortable or embarrassing or controversial.
The phrase itself is based on the idea that something as conspicuous as an elephant can often be overlooked—sometimes to the determent of the people doing the overlooking.
Hello. I’m Shirley, founder of Menopause Chicks.
I am 54 years old. I am a fierce women’s health advocate and I spend most of my time in an online community—MenopauseChicksCommunity.com—advocating for women who want to navigate perimenopause-to-menopause (& beyond!) with confidence and ease.
Because we deserve quality of life.
My own journey began in my early 40s when sleep deprivation, brain fog, depression and anxiety sent me looking for quality information, and despite a visit with my doctor and numerous searches with “Dr. Google,” I felt dismissed and disappointed.
In 2012, I believed the issue was that nobody was talking about menopause so I launched a blog to crack open the conversation.
Nine years later, Menopause Chicks is a recognized leader in the women’s health space, with a very active community of 35,000 members. Last year, our community received more than 2 million site visits and moderated 46,482 questions and comments.
That’s because we have questions about our midlife health. In fact, 77% of us don’t know where to turn with our health questions, 62% lack the time do the research, 31% don’t trust online information, 35% don’t trust our physicians and 70% of women don’t have anyone to talk to when it comes to perimenopause or menopause.
And last year’s InHerWords.ca research from BC Women’s Health Foundation revealed that over half of women leave their medical appointments feeling dismissed & disappointed. The majority of those visits are related to either menstruation or menopause.
The statistics are worse for Indigenous women and other marginalized groups.
I believe women can confidently navigate midlife health (& beyond) when they have access to quality information, experienced health experts to support their journey, and a community of other women who have their back.
Those three things have become the cornerstone of the Menopause Chicks mission.
Elephant #1: Menopause is not what we think it is.
I might say menopause and you might immediately have thoughts such as: hot, old, tired, bitchy or fat.
You might assume that perimenopause is a synonym for symptoms and suffering. You may have heard from your mother or grandmother that there is controversy or risk associated with hormone therapy and that you should avoid—even if it means a compromised quality of life. You may have seen an ad that left you believing older women don’t want to or can’t enjoy sex any more. You might assume that if you have issues or health concerns, your doctor will know what to do. You could believe that—somebody somewhere—has “the magic solution.”
And you may be reading this right now and thinking “thank goodness I don’t have to worry about this until I’m 50!” or “been there; done that.”
But what if I told you none of those assumptions are accurate?
Menopause is one day. It’s the 12-month anniversary of your final period.
There is no such thing as “menopause symptoms” because menopause, like puberty, is neither an ailment or a disease.
Yes, there are symptoms of hormone imbalance, thyroid imbalance, cortisol imbalance and burnout and even iron deficiency. And we need women to know how to find and treat the root cause of their health concerns because otherwise, there is a tendency to assume that any suffering is “just menopause,” “will get better with time,” or “is just part of being a woman.”
What will it it take to UN-learn the outdated language and images associated with menopause?
What will it take to re-frame the myths, misconceptions and media innuendo?
How can we support the very generation of women who are holding up the world right now?
How can we let them know they are not meant to suffer?
The second elephant in the room is that no one owns menopause—the brand.
Here’s what I mean: If you say “climate change,” I think of Al Gore. “Breast cancer” in Canada immediately leads me to The CIBC Run for the Cure. “Beauty” equals Dove, contraception in third world countries makes me think of Melinda Gates’ book “The Moment of Lift.”
Recently, I was telling my kids that in the early 1970s, we didn’t wear seatbelts.
They were shocked.
But the truth is, that until Volvo invested significantly in safety—until they “owned” safety in the marketplace, seatbelts were not a thing.
So who “owns” menopause?
Difficult to say. And it’s even harder to pinpoint who owns the complexity of women’s midlife health—which incudes the dismissal, the lack of quality information, the lack of experienced hormone balance experts—and the big elephant in the room: who owns the connection between women’s midlife health and eventual heart disease statistics, for example? Or Alzheimer’s disease? Or osteoporosis?
Sure, there are ample marketers peddling solutions for hot flashes, but there are few, like me, who advocate for women to invest in their midlife health as a way to turn down the dial on disease and turn up the dial on women’s quality of life in her sixth decade and beyond.
That’s because we mostly have a “cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best” mindset.
Elephant #3 is a sad truth—gleaned from thousands of conversations in the Menopause Chicks Community over the years: women continue to make health decisions based on headlines and hearsay.
There is rarely a day that goes by where there isn’t a headline about women’s health that blames, shames or misguides her health decisions.
Every day I am faced with more outdated information, misconstrued information (especially when it comes to hormone therapy), and what makes it even more challenging is when new articles come on the scene that have been fact-checked according to Google.
Also: our culture’s language is outdated and the imagery doesn’t represent.
Even though midlife women continue to hold the most influential positions in society and control the most consumer buying power, women’s health and women’s health research, and even the words used to describe our anatomy continue to be on the back burner.
The term “perimenopause,” the phase of life marked by hormone fluctuations leading up to menopause, was only coined in 1996.
In 2021, when you Google this word, the first images are sure to be pictures of gray-haired women holding fans—or holding their head in their hands to depict depression and defeat—or a photo of a woman on the side of a bed with her partner in the background saying “she doesn’t want to have sex anymore.”
Women are 35-55 when they are navigating perimenopause. These images misinform, are not aspirational and they keep important conversations about perimenopause and menopause in the closet.
True story: I was asked by the producers of a popular morning news show not to use the word “vagina” when talking about vaginal dryness—a common post-menopause experience that 80% of women experience yet less than 4% of women receive treatment for.
This is impacting women’s ability to sit comfortably, exercise, have sex comfortably, avoid UTIs, incontinence and in some cases, where jeans and pants comfortably.
But we can’t yet talk about it on national tv.
These are just a few of the questions that keep me awake at night.
They are big elephants.
And it can sound as if the system is too big to change.
But what if: we ARE the system?
What if change comes through more vulnerability, story-telling, curiosity or paradigm shifts?
That is what I am asking of you since you have read this far: What new way of thinking about menopause and women’s midlife health can you take away from this article—and then talk to a colleague or friend about in the coming days?
The Kavila tribe in Papua New Guinea uses the word “MOKITA” which means—the truth we all know but choose not to speak of—in other words, the elephant in the room.
And the Kavila tribe actually measures the health of their community by how many mokitas they have. It motivates them to put taboo subjects out into the open rather than to avoid important conversations.
What if we measured the health of our community based on how many MOKITAS we have?
I want to hear your thoughts. Please write to me at [email protected]