Many women know what it feels like to furtively hunt for a tampon in their desk and then shove it into a too-small pocket, hoping that none of their co-workers are paying attention. It’s one of the scads of tiny and giant ways that menstruation remains taboo in our culture — and that stigma goes way back.
Menstrual blood was once thought to be toxic, capable of killing plants and ruining mirrors. And even though modern medicine identified the biological elements of menstruation decades ago, we still often speak of it in hushed tones or euphemistically. Consider a drugstore aisle full of products for “feminine hygiene” instead of “tampons and pads.”
So it’s no surprise that when women begin experiencing the symptoms that accompany the end of menstruation — menopause — many of them don’t know what’s happening or what to do about it. Jen Gunter is hoping to change that. Gunter is an obstetrician and gynecologist in Northern California and a passionate advocate for women’s health. Her new book is titled “The Menopause Manifesto,” and she argues in a guest essay that women need to approach their menopause with feminism to ensure an informed and healthy experience. “A feminist menopause rejects the patriarchal notion that a woman’s worth is tied to her ovarian function and that the end of her reproductive life represents the end of her productive life,” she writes.
One challenge: A lot of people don’t even understand what, exactly, menopause is. The word is typically used to describe the end of menstruation, but rather than a single event in a woman’s life, menopause actually represents a yearslong hormonal transition that’s technically complete one year after the last menstrual period.
A woman may experience irregular periods, depression and hot flashes for several years before she scrounges around in her bag for a tampon one last time. And because women aren’t always taught what to expect when they’re no longer expecting a regular period, they may not discuss these symptoms with their doctors. And if they do? Oy. Gunter says that she’s heard women describe being dismissed or belittled with platitudes such as “It isn’t that bad” or “That’s just part of being a woman.”
And, as Gunter told me recently, “Wherever there are gaps and shame, that’s where misinformation comes in.” Hence the emergence of a market for menopause-related products — tests that purport to tell women where they are in their hormonal transition, supplements to treat hot flashes and sleep disturbances, for example — that may, or may not, deliver the results they promise.
That’s why we need to approach menopause from a feminist perspective, Gunter argues. “Women deserve to experience these changes in their bodies equipped with facts and free of fear, shame or secrecy.” And Western medicine already has a template for talking with people about hormone-led changes in their bodies: Consider the puberty discussions that happen with preteens regularly in school classrooms and pediatricians’ offices. Similar conversations with women could help demystify and destigmatize menopause, ensuring women get the medical
By Joanna Pearlstein