Menopause is not experienced the same way everywhere in the world, and in fact the differences are stark. Only in the Western industrially-developed world has menopause become highly symptomatic and culturally problematic. I talked about some of the factors involved in this a couple of posts ago seven-reasons-why-menopause-is-such-a-problem-today so do read that first if you haven’t already. Here I look at how menopause experience is culturally constructed, and how we can learn from other cultures and begin to positively reframe our experience.
- The Cultural Framework Culture is such a big word, and we could get into all kinds of discussions about what it is and is not. But with reference to being in a female body, in a broad and not particularly nuanced stroke, let’s say that our cultural framework is an aggregate of what we see in and absorb from the world around us, through media, art, politics, power/wealth structures, and medical treatment, for example. This cultural material is a significant factor in some types of physical and mental disease/dis-ease creation. Received culturally-derived ideas shape our beliefs and attitudes, which in turn shape our behaviours, which in turn influence our health. But it’s not only because of habits, practices and knowledge (like sanitation and diet, for example) that health is culturally dependent, but also because there’s plenty of evidence now that our thoughts have a direct impact on our physiology, upon how our bodies work.
- How is Menopause Culturally Constructed? The negative cultural construction of menopause begins to influence us long before we know anything about the realities of being physically female. Some of us are lucky enough to grown up in enlightened families, but even then, we unconsciously absorb messages from the culture around us that we have too consciously unpack later in life. It starts with everyday sexism, which children start absorbing very early on by watching their parents and then their playmates and society. It gets a big piece of its frame from how we learn from our peers, families, books and tv that one day we will bleed (ugh, gross, scary, painful), and this framework gets more powerfully constructed when we have our first period, at which point most of us experience a dizzying confusion of signals from the world around us of congratulations mixed with commiserations, excitement blended with fear. From then on, every major experience we have as a fertile woman informs what we are being set up for at menopause, and often with highly negative messaging (here in italics). How to deal with menstrual blood: message: stick these poisonous things in your vagina and pay for them too. Give birth with multiple medical interventions: message: you can’t do being a woman properly without a lot of complicated help in which you will most likely lose significant levels of autonomy and dignity. Have a miscarriage, or an abortion: you’re a failure at being a real woman/responsible adult, and no one wants to hear you weeping about it. Be sexually harassed or otherwise sexually abused: as a woman, you don’t deserve respect or consideration, and your body is not yours, it’s there for the taking. Have the requirement for female attractiveness constantly reinforced: as a woman, your prime value lies in being a commodity. Listen to “jokes” about how hard it is for a woman over 40 to get married: as a woman, you don’t have status unless it’s from being legally linked to a man, and anyway, you’re fundamentally dependent and weak. And on and on. Negative messaging about menopause is just the icing on the sexist cake.
- How Other Cultures Frame Menopause While sexism is a major factor, it’s not the only one. In some cultures that also have pervasive sexism, the female body is not culturally constructed as weak and “wrong” in the ways it is in the West, and consequently menopause is not seen as negatively. In China menopause is called the “Second Spring” and is perceived as a rebirth. In both traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, menopause is seen as protective (by stopping the energy drain of fertility) and as the enabler of healthy old age for women, and thus is considered to be a contributing factor to women’s longer life span. For even though these Asian cultures have plenty of sexism, they also have long unbroken histories of traditional medicine. This medicine was developed thousands of years before the introduction of capitalism and has managed to sustain its cultural impact. It’s only in the Western world that traditional (herbal) medicine was almost entirely crushed by the onset of capitalism, and along with the knowledge of women herbalists (erroneously called witches) we lost a worldview in which the female body was awarded more respect. (A brilliant analysis of the relationship between sexism, medicine, and capitalism can be found in the book “Caliban and the Witch” by Silvia Federici).
- The Remedy Making a positive reframe is not as simple as just trying your best to be positive all the time, because a) none of us can be relentlessly positive and shouldn’t even try because evidence shows this backfires, and b) being realistic is also important. But education is powerful, and understanding why you think the way you do is a major part of starting to change that thinking, and taking in positive reframes from other cultures can be really helpful. Neurological work (such as neuro-kinesiology and new forms of neurological pathway retraining psychotherapies) to clear shame-based thinking can also be effective. But what is most helpful is to be KIND to yourself. To listen to your body, and to treat it with ever-deepening respect. There are some simple things we can do that might sound ridiculous or trivial, but believe me, they work. The colour pink is a powerful transformer in menopause, opening the heart and preempting bitterness; lavender oil (in the bath, in a diffuser) softens the inner critic, while frankincense supports the development of centred wisdom; being in nature is the best balm ever for an overloaded nervous system.
- But the truth that rarely gets expressed is that on the other side of the menopause transition, there is indeed a rebirth. One of the most empowered and interesting times of being a woman awaits!