Menopause: The Taboo Topic We Need To Talk About

Between sexism and ageism, menopause gives rise to many stereotypes that have consequences for women's private and professional lives.
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About half of French women do not discuss menopause with their partner. That may be because 40% of women in the country consider it a “difficult” topic “which they don’t want to think about” themselves, according to a survey released late last year.

While the perception of menstruation is changing and the topic is becoming increasingly less of a taboo, it’s clear that the same cannot be said about menopause — which is not a disease, but a natural phenomenon when a woman’s period stops, generally around 50 years old. And menopause continues to contribute to women’s inequality.

Perceptions Of Femininity And Fertility

Although it’s a normal stage in women’s lives, menopause is rarely talked about in many circles and stigmatized when it is. It’s often associated with “a negative image, that of aging and the loss of ovarian functions, which affects femininity and fertility,” gynecologist and endocrinologist Anne Gompel told the news agency Agence France-Presse.

Women are frequently defined by their ability to have children, and menopause marks the end of their reproductive years ― in some people’s eyes, therefore, the end of them being women. This view is sexist since, obviously, women are much more than their reproductive abilities.

“As soon as women reach the ‘fatal’ milestone of the menopause, they leave the group of procreative women,” philosopher and feminist Camille Froidevaux-Metterie said in an interview with French outlet Terrafemina. “As a result, they lose what has always been considered their main social function ... [and] they disappear as subjects.”

Ageism And Women’s ‘Shelf Life’

Along with this sexism, there is also pronounced ageism.

Menopause introduces “the idea of aging ... being worse for women than it is for men,” Cécile Charlap, a sociologist who wrote a thesis on the social construction of menopause, said in an interview published by the National Center for Scientific Research. Men’s graying hair is valued, she said, but women’s bodies are “thought of from the point of view of fertility and highly valued aesthetic attributes.”

“Growing old means losing social value for women,” she added.

Historically, menopausal women have been stigmatized and even excluded from certain circles because of their age and the end of their fertility.

“Postmenopausal women, whose behavior and speech were sometimes freer than before, became a scourge that had to be gotten rid of,” Mona Chollet wrote in her book “Witches, the Undefeated Power of Women.” She said there’s an “obsession with ‘shelf life’ which affects the whole existence of women” but not men.

Inequality At Work

Because of various stereotypes, women are perceived differently by society — including in the workplace.

“At 20, they are judged on their sexual and reproductive availability. Between 30 and 40, motherhood is perceived as a risk: Either they are not hired, or they encounter the first salary differences that they will never make up,” Marie Allibert, coordinator at Jump, an association campaigning for gender equality at work, told Madame Figaro magazine. “And at 50 — the so-called menopausal age — they are seen as unstable or argumentative either because they have pursued a career at the expense of their personal life or because, on the contrary, they were never promoted.”

Some women say their careers suffer as they go through menopause. Several women told The Guardian last year that they experienced anxiety, confusion or loss of confidence, which sometimes meant they needed to take time off from work or start working part time. Others said they were subjected to disciplinary measures after symptoms such as memory loss or lack of concentration affected their work performance.

About 94% of women surveyed by the English clinic Newson Health last year said their work had suffered as a result of their menopausal symptoms. More than half had to take sick leave.

Hot flashes, fatigue and irritability are among the many symptoms of menopause. It can also increase the risk of developing certain conditions such as osteoporosis or cardiovascular diseases.

Rachel Maclean, a member of British Parliament, said women in every company should be able to arrange their work hours to accommodate their symptoms.

“Employers need to do more. It is not well understood,” she told The Guardian. “Employees are not getting the support they need. It’s often very difficult for working women. My central message is: Menopause is the last taboo, because it is always hidden and only affects women, and it only affects older women. It’s ageism and sexism all rolled into one.”