Menopause Stigma Is Real — A Gynecologist Shares Her Expert Tips for Fighting It
Hot flashes, mood changes, vaginal dryness... menopause can be a difficult time. But the shame surrounding the transition often makes it worse. For the most part, menopause is publicly perceived as a negative, ominously positioned as “the change” — and as a result, many women are kept in the dark about the nuances of what we will all, inevitably, experience. The National Institute on Aging reports that while more than one million US women experience menopause each year, it remains shrouded in mystery. So, how can we break the cycle and eliminate menopause stigma?
Look to the experts: California-based gynecologist Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, author of the book Menopause Bootcamp: Optimize Your Health, Empower Your Self, and Flourish as You Age (Buy from Amazon, $22.49), is on a mission to remove the menopause taboo and improve women's self-perception as they go through it. “There’s been so much progress around how we talk about body size, periods, sexuality, pregnancy, and the different ways that vulvas look,” she says. “As a gynecologist, I’ve watched that evolution over the last 20 years I've been in practice. The one area that I do not see that happening with is aging.”
Dr. Gilberg-Lenz notes that society's tendency to treat menopause as something shameful is a symptom of deep-rooted sexism and ageism. But she also believes that we can find ways to embrace the change and educate each other. Here are her tips for reframing how you look at this phase of life.
Tip #1: Be open about what you’re going through.
Although menopause affects roughly half the global population, medical professionals often don’t know how to treat symptoms properly, and many dismiss women's very real concerns. AARP notes that in a survey of over 400 women in their 50s, three out of four women who sought help for their menopause symptoms did not receive it — and only one in five were referred to a menopause specialist. Considering that 84 percent of the women surveyed said their symptoms interfered with their lives, it's imperative for the medical industry to do a better job of meeting these unique needs. That said, this change can start with us. Dr. Gilberg-Lenz thinks that merely talking about menopause is a way of starting to destigmatize it. “[Menopause] is not a medical problem,” she says. “This is a developmental phase.”
The more we talk about menopause, even with our friends or family, the more likely we are to feel comfortable advocating for ourselves in a doctor's office. “We need to talk about this loudly enough that younger people are aware of it,” Dr. Gilberg-Lenz emphasizes. “It's not inherently bad, you don't need to fear it, you just need to prepare for it just like you would with puberty. Let’s just treat it like the puberty of midlife.” She points out that we no longer send children into puberty without support — there are sex-ed courses in school, and a canon of movies and books that present this time of change in an accessible way. Perhaps the fact that puberty is experienced by both girls and boys makes it easier to normalize — but just because menopause is a feminine issue doesn't mean it should not be held to the same standards of knowledge and care.
To quote psychoanalyst Ruth Lax, who was included in a Contemporary Psychotherapy article addressing menopause stigma, “the significance of this event has a profound impact on the woman’s inner world" — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps exposing our inner worlds to the outer world can help take away some stigma.
Tip #2: Look to representation in the media.
While there's still much progress to be made, the conversation surrounding menopause is slowly but surely getting louder. The New York Times Magazine recently published a cover story called “Women Have Been Misled About Menopause,” which examined the pros and cons of hormone therapy and lamented the fact that so few women know about this potential treatment option. Many public figures have also spoken out about menopause, including actresses like Naomi Watts, who talked candidly about her challenging experience with early menopause, and recently started a menopause lifestyle brand called Stripes; as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, who has said "menopause needs a rebranding" and often features menopause-related articles and branded supplements on her health and wellness site Goop.
While celebrities have privileges with regard to menopausal care that most of us do not, Dr. Gilberg-Lenz thinks it’s valuable for any woman to be open about her menopause journey — noting that more celebrity representation could help eliminate stigma. Dr. Gilberg-Lenz has frequently appeared on The Drew Barrymore Show, and points out, “Drew Barrymore has millions of eyeballs on her every single day. When she talks openly about her struggles with perimenopause, that's helping people.”
Tip #3: Shine a more positive light on your story.
Dr. Gilberg-Lenz practices what she preaches, and is open about her own menopausal experience. “I'm just turning 57, and I'm actually not done with my transition yet," she shares. "The narrative out there about menopause [ending at a certain age and feeling a certain way] is not my story.” While she acknowledges the discomforts of this time, she says the visceral disgust people often express about menopause — or the disdain they harbor for menopausal women — is a symptom of “trying to manage and control women who are extraordinarily powerful.” Hear, hear!
In retaliation, we can seek to find the joy and beauty inherent in this phase of life. “I'm becoming more and more myself,” Dr. Gilberg-Lenz says of the aging process. After all, there’s power in having experienced this stage of life: Not only are you done dealing with periods and worrying about potential pregnancy, but you also have more wisdom about your own mind and body. “A wise woman is an awesome thing,” Dr. Gilberg-Lenz notes.
Tip #4: Take good care of yourself.
Menopause can impact both our physical and mental health. But instead of beating yourself up for struggling, Dr. Gilberg-Lenz urges you to be kind to your brain and body. In addition to seeking community with other women, try to maintain a daily movement practice and take quiet time for yourself every day. Psychotherapist Carmel Shealy has observed that menopause “can leave a lot of women feeling like they are failing because they’re not able to do all the things they once could do anymore — multi-tasking, juggling lots of demands, managing their work-life balance." This may be a result of symptoms like depression, fatigue, or discomfort that so often accompany menopause. So, slowing down and practicing self-care is vital.
Dr. Gilberg-Lenz is quick to note that self-care isn’t just about buying fancy products. “Self-care can be very basic stuff. It’s self-preservation,” she says. The Five S’s of Self-Care, as the gynecologist calls them, are: sex, sleep, sustenance, social connection, and spirituality. You don’t necessarily have to practice all of these — and each one may look different for different people — but they can be grounding and fulfilling during a confusing time.
Menopause isn’t easy, but treating it as a time for fostering self-knowledge and self-love may help lighten the burden. The more we talk about it, the more menopause stigma will become a thing of the past.
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This article originally appeared on our sister site, First for Women.