“You know that’s a menopause symptom, don’t you,” asked the beautiful grey-haired woman selling jewelry at the farmers’ market. “Ummmm…no,” I replied, “I assumed it was just allergies.” We had been talking about how bad the pollen in Chattanooga is right now and I mentioned that I am constantly itchy.
While I still think I’m just dealing with an allergic reaction to some variety of pollen, I did make a mental note and add “itchiness” to the lengthy list of perimenopausal symptoms I’ve been keeping up with for about a decade now. It’s a list I share with women whenever I get a chance, much like my farmers’ market friend did with me.
Honestly, when it comes to understanding perimenopause – the transitional period of time when a woman’s body begins to produce fewer reproductive hormones – and menopause, it feels like most information is shared by a secretive underground network of sage women, wanting to support their sisters.
For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve mostly heard it referenced in passing, a lame joke about hot flashes, a mom losing her temper, or a depiction of a woman going from attractive to matronly overnight in some misogynistic sit-com.
Why is our culture so uncomfortable talking about this transitional phase of life?
Could it be because, like so many other topics related to the feminine body that are perfectly natural and beautiful aspects of being a female human – like periods or breastfeeding – that our culture wants to make women feel ashamed of our bodies?
The first time I ever heard the word “perimenopause” my 38-year old friend told me her doctor said she was in “early perimenopause.” She was gutted because the doctor had basically made it sound like a death sentence…not an actually end of life, but the end of womanhood. Thirty-year old me was shocked and sad and scared of what lay ahead. But now, I just wonder why we want to define womanhood by the ability to give birth? That, however is a question for another time. Right now, I want to get to the heart of why no one prepared us for this stage of life and why Gen X women are once again breaking taboos, casting off the cloak of shame surrounding our very existence, and talking more openly about this transition.
From talking openly about periods to helping erase the stigma around postpartum depression, Gen X women have broken ground on many of the verboten topics our more genteel mothers danced around.
While some of us may have had progressive mothers preparing us for changes along the course of life, some of us would have had no education on what to expect when our periods came were it not for Judy Blume and sisters or girlfriends who got their periods before we did. And so, it remains as we enter the new terrain of perimenopause and menopause.
From anxiety so severe it can require medication to insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, heavy periods, irregular periods, fatigue, joint pain and body aches, fevers, acne, dry skin, sudden weight gain, a fluctuating sex drive, brain fog, breast swelling and tenderness to rival that of pregnancy, bone loss, and a host of other issues that range from annoying to embarrassing, the list of perimenopause symptoms is long. You may get some. You may get them all in a random and confusing order that makes you think you’re losing your mind and control of your body. And unless your doctor is particularly interested and educated on the topic, or you have friends who openly share their experiences with you, you might have no idea that any of this is coming or that it’s perfectly normal when you experience it.
After recognizing a pattern and tracking my symptoms for nearly a full year, I asked my doctor why I felt like I had the flu beginning 7-10 days before my period…every month. His answer? I’ve never heard of anything like that but you’re not as young as you used to be…we all get achy as we age. It was only when I talked to two friends who, not only had begun this transition a few years before me, but who have taken the time to read and educate themselves on the topic because their doctors proved less than knowledgeable on the issues surrounding perimenopause, that I learned what I was experiencing was pretty typical. Relieved to know I wasn’t dying, I was suddenly just angry that there’s not a widespread conversation around the issue…and yet…I found myself embarrassed to talk more frankly and openly about it.
To talk about it would mean admitting I’m getting old, and, as renowned gynecologist (and Gen X Queen) Jen Gunter puts it in her 2021 release The Menopause Manifesto, “losing our attractiveness to men and relevance to society.” Who wants to do that?
Historically, that has been the perception of women entering this phase of life when ovulation slows down and then ceases. It’s certainly a message driven home by a youth-obsessed culture and a patriarchal society that wants women to feel less than. What better way to do that than to reinforce the notion that women are solely good for the purpose of bearing children and become completely irrelevant once their ability to bear children fades. By failing to own my truth and talk openly about my experience of perimenopause, which has been brutal at times, I am simply buying into and reinforcing the false narrative society imposes on women as we level up. It is not, however, a narrative I truly believe about myself or the strong, dynamic women of my generation. I think I can speak for at least a few of my friends when I say we have never felt as strong, authentic, confident, or powerful as we do now.