: Why are celebrities speaking about menopause? As soon as taboo, the subject strikes into mainstream dialog.
With public figures such as Michelle Obama and A-list celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts all talking about menopause, the once-unmentionable topic seems to be on everyone’s lips.
Obama spoke on her podcast about having a hot flash aboard the Marine One airplane before an event and thinking, “This is crazy, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t do this.”
Winfrey said that during menopause, she suffered from heart palpitations, listlessness and an inability to focus long enough to read a book, one factor that led her to end Oprah’s Book Club.
Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress and the creator of the wellness site Goop, said menopause “gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of a rebranding.”
Meanwhile, Watts has launched a brand called Stripes that sells products for menopausal women, “because while menopause may be part of midlife, midlife is a lot more than just menopause,” according to the website.
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All this is a major leap from 1966, when Robert A. Wilson, author of a book titled “Feminine Forever,” called menopause “a natural plague” and menopausal women “crippled castrates.”
“It’s part of a very long-term shift in women’s willingness to talk about things. It’s less of a taboo subject,” said Deborah Merrill, professor of sociology at Clark University and author of “Mastering Menopause: Women’s Voices on Taking Charge of the Change.”
“It’s a shifting,” she said, “but it’s part of a very long and slow-moving trend.”
The term menopause — which technically begins one year after a woman’s last menstrual period — was coined by a French doctor, Charles de Gardanne, in 1821, but it’s taken roughly 200 years for people to talk about it without denigrating women. Menopause has been blamed for everything from kleptomania to nymphomania to hysteria.
“Menopause has become normalized,” Merrill said. “It’s a natural part of a life course rather than some horrible thing that happens to you. Women are more willing to discuss it and less fearful of it as a result. It’s part of an overall trend towards openness rather than some tragedy.”
The conversation around menopause is similar to what happened when former first lady Betty Ford spoke about alcoholism: Talking openly about taboo topics can give people a greater understanding of an issue, help them relate and put a trusted face on a topic that might be hard to address, Merrill said.
“When you spotlight uncomfortable conversations, they get easier,” Watts wrote in an Instagram post about menopause. “Progress is made. Why has this particular one taken so long?”
Stephanie Faubion, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Women’s Health, said that as new generations approach menopause, the conversation continues to change for the better.
“Women who are savvier with social media are directing the conversation. Women in the past found themselves in a vacuum. There’s much more conversation now and it’s now more socially acceptable than even 10 years ago,” Faubion said. “People were hesitant in the past to talk about it or mention it, especially in the workplace — there was a bit of ageism associated with it, too.”
The open discussion of menopause helps women “recognize that menopause is not a disease or a condition that must be cured,” said Susan Wood, professor of health policy and management at George Washington University.
Menopause first started to be spoken about publicly when researchers at the ongoing Women’s Health Initiative study wrote in a controversial 2002 report that the use of estrogen plus progestin therapy after menopause increased the risk for heart disease, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer and dementia, Wood said.
“Before the WHI study, menopause wasn’t discussed. Women were described as ill and undesirable. Pretty shocking stuff was said back then,” she said.
Subsequent studies have found that younger women and those close to menopause had a beneficial risk-to-benefit ratio for the use of hormones. The North American Menopause Society says that hormone therapy continues to have a role in the short-term management of menopausal symptoms but should not be used over the long term to try to prevent chronic disease.
“Staying in shape after menopause takes a lot of frickin’ work,” model and actress Paulina Porizkova wrote on Instagram. “I may not be as strong or as supple or as smooth as in my youth, but I am comfortable with my vulnerabilities, conscious of my weaknesses, proud of my strengths.”
Today’s more open dialogue about menopause can help women by providing more information, making them more comfortable in addressing their questions openly with their doctors and emboldening them to advocate for their own health, experts say.
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“This is not a disability, but it does affect half the population. It’s good that people like Michelle Obama are talking about it and normalizing it. Now you may be more comfortable asking questions of your doctor,” said Monica Christmas, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago.
Open conversations arm women with more courage to demand better care, Faubion said.
“More and more, women are not willing to suffer. Some women have no symptoms. But most women will have some symptoms, and some are really suffering,” Faubion said.
“Women assume there’s nothing that can be done. And there’s a lot of suffering. Women are missing a lot of work, not taking a promotion, retiring early — it’s costing billions of dollars in lost productivity by not treating women properly,” Faubion said.
“It’s a good thing that celebrities are talking about it. Women see they’re not the only ones suffering,” she added.
Still, Christmas cautioned that while celebrity conversations might be a good way to jump-start discussion, they shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all for knowledge about menopause.
“Patients end up getting information from the internet or getting information from a celebrity. That should not replace talking to your doctor and getting trusted information,” Christmas said.