All posts by Debbie

Messages from the Menopausal Multiverse

We support a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza

A younger Black woman and an older one surrounded by flowering vines, with a vagina (also surrounded by the vines) between them.
Illustration by Barbara Seese for YES! Media

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were really lucky to come across two very different, very good articles about menopause–a subject which so often gets overlooked, dismissed, and trivialized. Yes! Magazine’s “Menopause Matters” is by Omisade Burney-Scott. Burney-Scott’s credentials are extraordinary: she is the founder of Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause, has been a social justice and reproductive justice advocate for over a quarter century, and she coined the term “Menopausal Multiverse,” which we gratefully borrowed for the title of this post.  Although it is from 2021, Anna North’s “Menopause Is Having a Moment,” published at Vox, covers some of the same territory from a different perspective (and features Burney-Scott as one of the quoted experts).

Burney-Scott, appropriately, focuses on the systemically racist treatment of menopause in popular culture:

Unfortunately, the menopausal experience isn’t often depicted or celebrated as a positive life transition with various stages and expressions; instead, it’s frequently portrayed as a fearful conclusion of menstruation. In mainstream culture, especially in media, people going through menopause are often white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-aged, and middle-class individuals depicted as hot, sweaty, confused, and angry. Consequently, the expanding landscape of support, services, education, and advocacy lacks intentional representation of the unique menopausal experiences, needs, and struggles faced by those marginalized along lines of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, and socioeconomic status.

Implicit in this characterization is that the “hot, sweaty, confused and angry” white women aren’t getting a reasonable image of themselves either, though as a group they certainly have more access to medical care and options. It’s the “intentional representation” Burney-Scott calls out that is lacking throughout, and — as always — lacking more for the marginalized.

Here’s the one and only Jen Gunter, author of The Menopause Manifesto, quoted in North’s article:

“I hear so many stories from women who’ve been dismissed by doctors,” Gunter said.

The result is that menopausal people often suffer in silence — and the stigma can affect every aspect of their lives. “You hear from women that they’re going to leave the workforce because they can’t handle their menopausal symptoms,” Gunter said. Indeed, in one 2013 survey conducted in the UK, nearly 40 percent of women said menopause symptoms had negatively affected their work, but a majority had never discussed the symptoms with their manager, often because they were embarrassed or because their manager was a man.

“You’re this person who has been incredibly productive and contributed your whole life. And now,” Gunter said, “because of this, you’re sidelined.”

North also quotes Pauline Maki, a professor of psychiatry, psychology, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Take, for example, vaginal dryness. It’s not talked about much — in part because the whole idea of older women having sex is considered taboo, Maki says. But treatment is crucial to help patients lead healthy, pain-free lives, including having sex, regardless of their age. “I see this as a woman’s right,” Maki said.

Hot flashes, meanwhile, are often treated as a mere annoyance. But emerging research shows they disrupt people’s sleep, which can increase the risk of cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease, Maki said. “We need to have enough education for women about what safe treatment options they have.”

The North article is practical, useful, feminist, and compassionate. Nonetheless, Burney-Scott goes far deeper. She draws the very rarely centered connection between general denial of body autonomy and the specifics of menopause:

Across generations, Black, Indigenous, and women of color, as well as those who identify as transgender or have expansive gender identities, have grappled with the profound challenge of asserting agency over their own bodies. Historical injustices, such as the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement and racial violence endured by individuals of African descent, have hindered bodily autonomy. These obstacles find their origins in the socially constructed concept of race, where whiteness has been artificially elevated as the societal standard. Consequently, experiences outside of this norm consistently face othering, marginalization, and dehumanization.

[J. Marion] Sims, [known as the “father of gynecology”], honed his newly developing gynecological techniques in the 19th century by practicing on enslaved Black women—including Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and others named in the book—without anesthesia. Over the course of four years, Anarcha endured a total of 30 experimental surgeries, while all the women faced the pathologization of their gender and race, reflecting the historical trend of stigmatizing and medicalizing women’s health. 

The persistent impact of structural racism, which involves unequal access to resources, services, and opportunities based on race, significantly contributes to the health disparities observed between Black and white women during midlife. Black women often experience systemic barriers to accessing quality health care, educational opportunities, economic stability, and suitable housing. These disparities can lead to higher levels of stress, limited health care choices, and reduced preventive care. … A 2023 survey from The Menopause Society found that “only 31.3% of responding obstetrics and gynecology program directors reported menopause education was included in their residents’ training,” while a 2019 study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that less than 10% of OB-GYNs felt adequately trained to support menopausal people in their practices.

Having fully acknowledged the seriousness of the situation (with much more detail than we are quoting here), Burney-Scott (as you would expect from her experience and expertise) goes on to look for — and at — solutions:

Addressing these disparities requires a multifaceted approach. It involves promoting inclusivity in research, health care policies, and education. Health care providers need to be culturally sensitive, acknowledging the unique experiences and challenges that marginalized individuals face during menopause. By addressing these disparities and providing equitable health care access, we can work toward a more just and supportive menopausal experience for all.

I believe that Black people are the experts of our own bodies. Owning our stories is vital to having agency over our experiences, relationships, and liberation. By integrating reproductive justice, radical Black feminism, and gender liberation, BGG2SM normalizes menopause by centering first-person narratives of those who exist at the margins of the growing menopause landscape. We nurture a community that includes all voices and lived experiences: cis, trans, intersex, queer, straight, affluent, low-wealth, activists, and creatives.

We are committed to a time-bending, expansive, culturally, politically, and spiritually grounded space for all stories and truths to be shared, accessed, and elevated. These principles require us to identify the pathways to new ways of thinking and talking about menopause, grounded in the historical, cultural, and political understanding of the lived experiences, truths, and realities of Black women and people who have a uterus and ovaries. In that sense, we have become cartographers of what I call the “Menopausal Multiverse,” and we are consistently alchemizing what we learn about the “who” inside the menopause and aging landscape.

And she offers several quotations from experts who have thought about this deeply. Here’s our favorite:

In an interview on the [Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause] podcast, Syd Yang, ordained Buddhist minister, movement chaplain, and founder of Blue Jaguar Healing Arts, summarizes this: “As challenging, frustrating, and confounding as perimenopause and menopause may feel—what if this is your body and your sacred center saying ‘I love you, let’s get to know each other better?’”

Read both articles if you can. But if you can only read one, read Burney-Scott.

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Debbie has deleted her Twitter account. Follow her on Mastodon.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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Body Impolitic’s 2023 Guide to Sane(r) Holidays

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve been putting up versions of this post since 2006. As we have said for the last three years, there is nothing sane about pandemic life, and this weird sort-of-post-pandemic life is at least equally crazy-making. All of us are experiencing pandemic fatigue, pandemic brain, and the never-ending uncertainty roller-coaster. Many are experiencing worse. Denying that to ourselves just makes things even rougher.

The suggestions here are (mostly) for folks who are planning to celebrate the upcoming holidays in some way, and are fortunate enough to have people and resources to celebrate with. If that’s not you, skip to the bottom. If that is you, then even if your family are your favorite people and you look forward all year to the holidays, you still may find useful hints here.

We hope most of you are staying safe, however you define that. Both of us have traveled in 2023, so we know how stressful traveling can be. If you are traveling or socializing locally, please be cautious and thoughtful, to protect your own health (including your mental health) and that of others.

IF YOU ARE SPENDING TIME WITH PEOPLE YOU DON’T SEE ALL THE TIME:

1 – You have a right to set your own boundaries around health protections, including COVID, flu, and everything else. That includes telling your family (chosen and blood) you can’t see them if they don’t respect your protocols. It also includes deciding that for your own mental health you need to see your closest people even if you don’t agree with their pandemic decisions. Do what is right for you and trust your gut.

2 – You have a right to enjoy things in your own way. To the extent possible, do as much or as little holiday stuff as you want; it’s supposed to be a celebration, not an obligation.

3 – If you are spending time with people, try to choose some who know how awesome you are. If you have to be with toxic people, remind yourself three times (out loud) in your last alone moments before seeing them that they are toxic. As soon as you can get away from them, do something really nice for yourself.

4 – Eat what you enjoy. Corollary: don’t eat what you don’t enjoy. Desserts are not sinful, they’re just desserts. Making people feel bad about themselves is sinful. Relatives who push you to eat (or not to eat) may want to be in charge of your choices, but you don’t have to let them take over. If you currently struggle with eating disorders, or have a history with them, we hope this helps.

5 – Wear what you think you look terrific in; if you don’t think you ever look terrific (we disagree) wear something that makes you feel comfortable, with colors or textures you like. Accept compliments and ignore digs about your clothes.

6 – Plan your responses to inevitable comments beforehand. Think about topics that you can’t tolerate discussing with your companions, and be prepared to walk out, either with a pretext or just saying, “Sorry, I can’t be here for this conversation.” If you have family members who don’t share your politics, you do not have to put up with hateful comments, whether they are anti-science, anti-democratic, anti-trans, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or in other ways repulsive. Make a plan in advance: if you want to actively disagree with them, have your facts ready. If you want to cut off the conversation, just leave (see the second sentence in this paragraph). Or keep all options in your toolbox and use the one that feels best in the moment. Make a promise to yourself in advance that you’ll engage or not engage on your terms. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much energy on those ideas or the people who express them.

7 – Not spending too much energy applies to the personal digs too. For example, if you know that your uncle is going to tell you, “for your own good,” what he thinks of your appearance or recent life decisions, practice saying, “I appreciate your concern. Excuse me, I really want to catch up with my niece.”

8 – You might be expecting to see people with disabilities — or you might be disabled. Take a look at Kelly Dawson’s “5 Disabled Folks on How to Welcome Everyone During the Holidays.” Dawson relates her own relationship with her thoughtful family, and asks five friends for tips.  You can use these tips yourself, or share them with family members and hosts before the event if they appeal to you. Here’s one of our favorites, from Fin Leary:

… try not to make assumptions in conversation. Work is often a topic of small talk, although I wish it weren’t. I currently work, but I’ve felt alienated in the past when I wasn’t working because of my disability and everyone else was talking about their jobs. It’s great (for all party guests!) when conversations aren’t focused on very singular ideas of social success. That being said, if you’re in the practice of asking people about work, don’t go out of your way to not ask a disabled guest the same question. It’s hard to be singled out, so if you genuinely want to know if everyone in the room is working, or dating, or so on, then we should be part of that awkward social pressure, just like everyone else.

9 – If you enjoy time with kids, they can be a great way to escape from the adult toxicity. If kids drive you crazy, keep your distance when you can, and try to keep your patience otherwise: they didn’t overstimulate themselves with sugar and toys.

10 – Be effusive about every gift you get; then be discreetly rude about the awful ones later to your friends. If they’re really awful, throw them off a bridge in the middle of the night.

11 – If you hate the holidays, or they make you sad, you are not the least bit alone. Participate as little as possible. They’ll be over soon. If you’re wishing you had someone (someone particular or folks in general) to spend the holidays with, treat yourself with special care. If you’re a volunteering type, safe and protected volunteering can work, and so can staying at home and taking a long hot bubble bath.

IF YOU ARE STAYING HOME AND MIGHT FEEL LONELY

If you have enough (time and/or money) to give to someone who has less, doing that often really helps when you’re feeling attacked. If you know someone who is having a crappy holiday, even — maybe especially — if you are too, consider taking a moment to do something for them (a quick text, a social media hello) that they will appreciate.

If you love and miss your family, this is a hard time to be away from people you care about. Stay in touch by phone and internet, make little rituals with each other to minimize the distance, and look forward to better holidays someday.

If your family is difficult for whatever reason, connect with people who help you feel comfortable, and enjoy the break!

We will see you in January 2024. No one knows what is coming; we will get through it together.

Stay safe and well!

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Debbie has deleted her Twitter account. Follow her on Mastodon.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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