The way a society deals with aging women, varies from place to place, and this implicitly changes the experiences, side-effects and treatments that are reported in health registries, which can influence the way people see their status and self-worth. Take menopause, for example. I’ve seen colleagues smoothly manage this transition, but I have also seen people continue to struggle with symptoms for years on end - and I have recently started reading about people who lobby hard to create a more informed culture on menopause. Older women might have a more positive experience of aging these days. However, the assumption about menopause, in many people’s minds, remains tied to cliches about domineering, irrational, or ‘unfeminine’ caricatures. This is unfair because it turns something inevitable into an embarrassment.
We’re not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as being a caricature. We don’t think that if we live in a particular demographic, it can impact generations in terms of behaviour and health. But studies have shown this to be true – and research on women from more traditional ‘…reproductive and domestic functions’ often show deep-rooted inequalities in health and wellbeing. Why is it that social class and status lead to differences in self-reported symptoms? We know that poorly managed menopause symptoms are more likely to result in job losses. We know that these impacts will be more profound among lower income brackets. These stresses can erode people’s wellbeing, confidence and security, putting women under considerable stress, making them more likely to feel labelled.
Understanding people’s background in terms of lived experiences, social circumstances, and family history can be an eye-opener, So - as if this weren’t already obvious - areas of high deprivation place menopause low in their hierarchy of needs. Personally, I have prioritised menopause as an important health concern, but I have the space and resources to do this, not just the motivation based on personal experience. This makes me lucky because I have access to a good support network, but still - as a UK citizen - my experience of menopause is likely to poor in comparison to others.
Menopause happens, inevitably, to women in all walks of life, even though it is little discussed. You expect that, over time, hormone production will dwindle – but it isn’t as simple as this. Often, it’s assumed that menopausal experiences are quite homogeneous. You may presume - like me - that hormonal changes are predictable and that symptoms must be similar for all women the world over. So why is it that UK, US, French and Canadian women appear to have significantly more symptoms than their Scandinavian and Italian contemporaries? How did differences in medical reporting, social expectations, geography, diet, and socioeconomic status lead to variations in how people experience symptoms? The answer is something that epidemiologists are interested in finding out. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy reading about epidemiology….
…epidemiology is often observational. There often isn't a cast iron solution to a particular health concern. So, just as some out-dated medical guides suggest that women should ‘…keep [themselves] busy so [they] haven't time to dwell on [their] own symptoms and feel sorry for [themselves].’, some sociologists suggest that gendered beauty ideals encourage women to solely link changes in their physical appearance to menopause - and that these changes are linked to diminished self-worth.
When you look at women’s experiences across the world, you’ll begin to see that different nationalities experience menopause as something negative, or positive, or less than significant. And as you read more about different experiences, you'll see that other ways to experience menopause do exist. Take the Mayan women of Yucatan, Mexico – on the hand, they reported experiencing a greater number of symptoms than their Mexican counterparts, but on the other hand they look forward to the newfound freedom and status menopause affords them. This is as much about diet and economic status, as it is about a cultures acceptance of aging. Often it seems that the more accepting a culture is of aging, the fewer negative symptoms women experience. There remains little research on this issue at a global level, but the research out there certainly offers food for thought.
There’s nothing that will make me - or anybody - want to fast forward to an aging body, which is what you feel like after medically induced menopause and cancer. But there are different ways of looking at this, which are always worth bearing in mind – particularly when in the grips of anxiety and depression about a steadily aging appearance.