Published Wednesday, 12th October 2022
By Helen Aitchison
Image credit: Endocrine Society
I have always struggled to accept my body and I always will. But over the last few years, for a number of reasons, I have begun to care a little less. Not diminishing responsibility for my own health and wellbeing, more that I have begun to care less about the all-consuming worry of how I look and what people think. Don't get me wrong, it will always take up space in my brain, a larger piece than I would like but we are all works in progress and caring less has been liberating.
Contentment, love, gratitude, age and covid all helped me to digest that I won't ever look a certain way and perfection isn't obtainable. Instead I opted for the trickle of acceptance to start flowing, mixed with a kick up the behind and a head wobble, to acknowledge I should be super thankful to reach an age denied for so many and to have a functioning, able body and mind.
Like many women, I've spent my life not talking in any depth about certain body related topics; my weight, my body image, what my breasts look like, smear tests, my periods. All of which are crucial to our wellbeing, physically and psychologically. And it's not just me, we all silence ourselves (regardless of gender identity). There is a shame around talking about certain topics and the menopause is another to add to that list. Well not in my world!
When I began to notice symptoms of perimenopause, I promised myself I wouldn't silence myself. That I wouldn't shy away, allowing the taboo to grow bigger. That I wouldn't allow shame to silence me and stigma to stop my voice. How can we ever make health issues easier for people if we don't talk, discuss and support one another? If we don't share knowledge, ask for help and empower one another? We continue to struggle in silence, internally trying to process something that is such a monumental change.
Over the last few months I have raised the topic of menopause and peri-menopause, becoming more aware of my own bodily changes. In as many situations as possible I have mentioned peri-menopause in front of a range of people, from younger people to 80 year old men!
And you know what? People have talked back (maybe not the 80 year old men). Women have commented, men have asked questions. It's like a door into the changes that will impact all women has been pushed open, welcoming all in (including men). The last week alone, I've had three amazing conversations with people about the menopause and the dialogue has felt essential, from all perspectives. Even talking hormones and wellbeing, not specifically the menopause but how our monthly cycle impacts on us.
We are programmed to hide our bodies and their functions, clothes becoming our silencers. There are some amazing campaigns on women's health, endorsed by people who have been affected by illness, encouraged by celebrities, but it is still something we don't talk about enough.
As well as World Menopause Day on 18th October. This month is breast cancer awareness month. How many conversations have you had in the first third of this month about either topics? Very few I suspect.
This year has been the start of my peri-menopausal symptoms. They are creeping in like the dark nights. I turned 41 years old in the spring and perhaps there were tiny signs there, but the last few months, I have become more aware and research has consolidated my thinking.
I couldn't blame scoffing too much tiger bread on the stubborn 'loaf' that is now permanently baked around my stomach. There are enough long, brown hairs shed around my house to make hair extensions on a weekly basis and my periods have decided to start to play a game of knocky-door-danger, giving me the sign they are on the way, then running off for a few weeks. They have begun bringing an army of pain with them and for the first time in almost 30 years, I missed my first period last month.
My symptoms aren't the more 'common' ones, although I am sure they will show up in time, with bells and sirens. The hot flushes, the anxiety, the severe brain fog (I have sprinkling of this from time to time), the none existing libido.
Instead, I have experienced some symptoms which separately may be related to lifestyle, weather and illnesses, but together make sense of my body's hormonal changes. Sore fingers! The bones in my fingers felt sore, achy and tired in August, for around three weeks. I thought perhaps it was too much typing at work, so I eased off where I could. The discomfort however, did not. After researching I discovered that small joints and bones can start to hurt sporadically due to the estrogen beginning to deplete in the body.
Next up on the list of annoying, unwelcome body guests is eczema. I have suffered from light eczema in the past, during the coldest months of the year on my knuckles. Nothing plenty of hand cream and gloves didn't prevent. However, this is something else. I have transformed into, at first glance, an Annie Lennox 1980's make up copycat with salmon pink to magenta being my angry shades of eczema. Lathering it in cream appears to calm it for a day or two only to erupt again, sometimes accompanied by an unnerving swelling on my eyelids, making me look like I have been retching all night or have had a fight with a patch of nettles and lost!
Then there's the vagina issues (okay, let's not hide from that as of 49% of the world have one - women and girls make up 49.59 % of the world population in 2021 (tradingeconomics.com). My vagina is not happy. She's become the diva of vaginas; high maintenance! No longer will she tolerate shower gel or any perfumed wash or she is angrier than football fan on the losing team. And some days it feels like I'm wearing a cactus in my underwear!
I've always been a bit of a softy but able to manage my emotions and be resilient and robust, especially when supporting others. Lately, I've felt like I could cry at cartoons. I've recently been interviewing veterans for a book and I've mentioned the menopause on several occasions in conversation. Not to the detail of my cactus crotch, but I've commented on being peri-menopausal as a reason why I've been emotional with all the stories (partly true, partly using it to maintain that I'm a hard Northern lass - I don't think anyone is buying this!) Perhaps an 80 year old man doesn't need to know I'm an emotional wreck because my hormones are playing pinball. But I also don't want to keep quiet about this, like I feel I have for 20+ years about my body.
During teaching and talking about prompt writing, I've gave the example of a tip I shared for temperature changes in the menopause. No one died with shock or ran away in disgust and I belief if I've made someone feel uncomfortable, it's likely them with the problem and not me. That's not blaming people, but the more we shy away, the more we are silenced (about anything, not just menopause).
I may be peri-menopausal but for the first time in my life I don't worry about what people think, nor do I care very much. Because I've become happy to express my true self, in as far as I can. And that even as my hair sheds and I'm seething that I can't lose the 10lbs I want to, really it's things we must talk about and need to understand, regardless of our gender and age.
If we make the uncomfortable comfortable, not only are we raising awareness on the topic, but we are beginning the conversations that people have wanted to have for years. We are challenging the shame and stigma and we are normalising the normal, natural and inevitable bodily function that impacts on women and any relationships they have with men or women. Unmuting the menopause is about discussions that benefit everyone, regardless of gender.
So talk about menopause with your partner, family, friends and work colleagues. It's world menopause day on 18th October. Make it a day and the start of conversations about our body and our reproductive changes.
Image Credit: Good Housekeeping
For resources and information about the menopause check out the following websites:
Locally, there are a number of events happening this month around World Menopause Day: