Farewell to menopause myths: the rebellion of the mature woman

Stripped of their reproductive role and armed with the wisdom of experience, more and more women are facing the ‘change of life’ without giving up either their position or their desires

Menopausia mujer
Eva Vázquez
Milagros Pérez Oliva

After a relentless struggle, most of the time working double shifts, managing a challenging professional life, and a home life with a significant dose of guilt for not having it all, women enter their fifties, and everything seems to blow up. Age affects everyone, but men do not have the figurative countdown clock that is the ending of the menstrual cycle, and since women’s social identity has been built over millennia around fertility, when fertility declines, it seems that everything collapses. Suddenly, the ladder that was going up begins to go down. Even women who have already secured a room of their own, as Virginia Wolf claimed, are invited to withdraw.

But many of these women, leaders of the greatest revolution in history, have not resigned themselves to fitting the stereotype of fading looks and diminishing ability, and the unstated norms of ageism that subtly tells them to get out. They did not fight for every scrap of real and symbolic ground in the public arena to accept becoming invisible without a struggle. Armed with the knowledge and experience they have accumulated over the years, more and more women are facing this new stage without giving up either their position or their desire. It is a middle age rebellion.

Hopefully, by the time she stops having periods, a healthy woman has as much life still left to live as she has already lived. Why should she accept the path of invisibility? In 2019, five women, all of them very active professionals — María Rosa Benedicto, Sara Berbel, Maribel Cárdenas, Estrella Montolío and Ester Pujol — wanted to get out in front of what was coming their way with a book entitled Imbatibles: La edad de las mujeres [The unbeatables: The age of women]. Its purpose was to launch a counter-narrative about the of coming-of-(middle)age and to call on women to challenge “the association between age and defeat” wherever they are. Of course, they were going to address the physical changes that menopause brings (although not always): hot flashes, loss of sexual desire, vaginal dryness, weight gain, and heightened emotions. But they would also cover what they feared most about this new stage: “The lack of respect, credibility, the fear of being thrown onto the figurative scrapheap.”

They believed that women of their age needed a guide to women’s health like the 1970s publication Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, who in 1971 invited their contemporaries to challenge the lack of control over their bodies and reclaim their own sexuality and their own desire. That revolution changed the lives of young women. Work still needs to be done to break the narrative that the menopause is the starting point of a woman’s decline. Neither helpless grannies nor bitter witches; they simply want to be women who are aging joyfully, as full and attractive as before and proud of their experience and their wrinkles.

“Female identity is still measured by the male gaze.”
Maribel Cárdenas, politician

The unbeatables soon realized that they were in trouble because, as several of them were authors who had published before, with this book they had to go on a pilgrimage to find a publisher. “The concept seemed too disruptive to them. They didn’t know where to put it,” recalls Estrella Montolío, professor of language and researcher on communication at the University of Barcelona. Of course, the text did not fit the hackneyed self-help label that sells so well. Four years later, Sara Berbel, who had just left her post as manager of the Barcelona City Council, believes that it is still a rather silent rebellion, but it will grow. “The issue is in the public conversation and has served to put the spotlight on the problem of ageism, a form of discrimination that all middle aged people suffer from, but especially women.”

This is also the opinion of Maribel Cárdenas, director of La Ciba in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, one of the most important specialist centers of resources for women, innovation and feminist economy in Spain. She is also director of Equality Policies in that city. Cárdenas believes that there is a need to redefine how people move towards old age. “Female identity is still mediated by the male gaze. When you don’t fit into the ideology of that look, you lose all value and respect. The sum of ageism and sexism is one more expression of inequality in something as irreversible as the passage of time.”

ideas 07/23/23 COVER
Eva Vázquez

This pressure is especially hard on female managers. “At 28 you’re getting ready to conquer the world, and you know they will exact a high price. At 58 they tell you that what you’ve achieved doesn’t matter. After so many years of effort to reach outstanding positions, you have to fight again not to lose value and respect.” This is the opinion of Esther Nin, Director of the International Legal Department of Banco de Sabadell. She believes that at 50 women are at the peak of their abilities. They have reached these positions despite having suffered double the pressure, in the professional field and in the field of desire, of attractiveness, and just when they are in a position to reap the the benefits, when they finally have more bandwidth, because they no longer have so many obligations, a new invisible barrier rises: their age. “Suddenly, merit disappears from the equation and you have to rediscipline yourself, not to become someone new, but to not disappear.” It is not only unfair, but illogical that in the performance society all the immense knoweldge accumulated by women is wasted.

Susan Sontag warned in 1972 in The Double Standard of Aging that after 50, men seem to mature while women age. Lucid and rebellious even to the point of death, Sontang called for women to disobey the convention that growing older empowers men while gradually destroying women. But to break this convention and to be able to age assertively, it is necessary to face the transition to 50 well. Anna Freixas calls the menopause “the age of renewal.” She has written Sin reglas [Without rules/periods] — a play on words as “regla” means not only “rule” but also “period”), about the liberation that comes with leaving behind the age of fertility, and Tan frescas [So Fresh], with a foreword by Rosa Regàs, about how a new generation of older women, “the daughters of rock and roll and feminism,” were breaking molds and stereotypes. In 2021 with Yo, vieja [I, old woman], she took a new battering ram to conventions in which, at 75 years of age and with a long career as professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Cordoba, she reclaims the right of women to a free, comfortable, and affirmative old age, which does not hide or ask for forgiveness for being there. She considers it the punk version of Tan frescas, published in 2010, and what has surprised her most is that “it interests older women, but especially women in their 50s and many women in their 40s.” Telling the truth with humor gets through better. It has also brought her pleasant surprises, like the middle-aged couple she crossed paths with on Ancha street in Cádiz. The woman was slightly taller than the man and had her arm over his shoulder. As they passed, the woman gave her a wink: “Thanks for the book.” Like the authors of Imbatibles, there are many women who, in this new revolution, want to have the men they love by their side. Cooperative men who love and value mature women, so different from those who only love and value young women. And who they support.

“There is an internalized and accepted pressure with dyeing, thinning, and waxing.”
Ester Nin, lawyer

The fascination with youth and the imperative of beauty at any price are the two great corsets that sexism has imposed on women.­ This narrative leads many women to make titanic efforts to look younger than they are through the gym, draconian diets, and/or cosmetic surgery. For Esther Nin: “We must also fight against the other invisibility, the consented invisibility, because patriarchy is an anonymous society in which we all have shares, including women. There is a patriarchy of coercion, which subdues with the burqa, and a patriarchy of consent, that of thinness, dyeing, and depilation, which is an internalized and accepted pressure.” The more marked and single-voiced the ideal of beauty is, the more women who do not fit the model suffer from being left out. In Spain it must be very strong because the country has become the first country in the EU and the fourth in the world in which more cosmetic surgery is practiced — 8% of all the surgical interventions that are registered. That way of fighting the passage of time is torture and in the end is destined to fail, because the ideal may be eternal, but the body is not. “We cannot (and should not) wish to have the same body at 50 that we had at 20,” says Dr. Maria Rosa Benedicto, co-author of Imbatibles and a specialist in Family and Community Medicine.

The menopause involves physical changes and may entail slight gain in weight. It is advisable to do sports and follow a healthy diet at any age, and especially during menopause, not to comply with external pressure, but to feel good and protect your health. That is the objective women should pursue. So, rather than turning the four extra kilos (8.8 pounds) into an obsession, it is better to show them off. The same goes for wrinkles. Or gray hair. This is another sign of growing rebellion. More and more women are stopping dyeing their hair and showing off their white hair as if it were a banner: “Here I am. That’s how I look.” The very fact of presenting symptoms is no longer perceived as shameful: “Is it just me or is it hot?” To deal with hot flashes, break out the fans! Photographer Montse Roura often recalls that she was struck by menopause because she had the full range of symptoms. That was in 2010 and she had the idea of creating a website where she could share information, experiences, and concerns with other women. Ella y el abanico [Her and her fan] now has 12 million followers.

For vaginal dryness, as for hot flashes, there are remedies. What there is none for is the myth of eternal youth. It was a great feminist, Germaine Greer, who in the 1990s railed against the pharmaceutical industry’s attempt to “sell” hormone replacement therapy as the magic potion for staying young. It is a treatment that combines estrogens and progesterone to compensate for the physiological loss of these hormones, so that the body reacts as if it were still having its period. It was even recommended to be prescribed preventively to all women for at least 15 years after the age of 50. Although it came to be prescribed on a massive scale in the United States, fortunately prudence prevailed, because it was later shown that it also had significant risks. It is now presecribed to treat symptoms, but only when strictly necessary. Science is there to help us live better, but we must be careful with the medicalization of menopause if this involves risks and contributes to denying it as a natural part of life or to presenting it as an undesirable stage that we must go through with guilt and in hiding.

In reality, no two menopauses are alike and most are bearable. After the age of 45, ovarian activity decreases and estrogen and progesterone production begins to decline until menstruation ceases. This occurs between the ages of 50 and 55, although stress and pollution are causing more and more cases of early menopause. These hormonal changes obviously have consequences. Carmen Sánchez Martín has turned 55 and is just at that point where she will be able to put the knowledge acquired in 30 years of experience as a sexologist to use with her own experiences. When she started working at a family planning center, she began treating menopausal women twice her age. As she explains in her book El sexo que queremos las mujeres [The sex we women want], the drop in estrogen and progesterone influences sexual desire, but biology is not everything. “We are biopsychosocial beings,” she says. “If you have lived well and are in relatively good health, ceasing to be fertile need not mean ceasing to have desire.”

Carmen Sanchez’s experience is that every woman experiences menopause and her sexuality differently. For some it is a tragedy, for others a liberation. It all depends on how they have lived before and the socioeconomic context to which they belong, as well as the health they have and their ability to take care of themselves. There are women who are very focused on motherhood who suffer from empty nest syndrome and at that age, they sometimes have a crisis that also affects their relationship with their partner. But others experience their own sexuality more intensely and the couple’s relationship is strengthened. If there is a breakdown in their loving relationship, when they get back together, the desire returns. And if they are alone, they discover the power of self-satisfaction. Some have even experienced sex with another woman for the first time.

One of the aspects of this rebellion is, in Sara Berbel’s opinion, that more and more mature women are starting to have sex with other women. “The fact that men are no longer so interested in them makes them focus on relationships with other women, and from that the opportunity for unexpected love relationships sometimes arises, which they had never considered before.” Maribel Cárdenas agrees and points out that in these cases the experiences are very different: the central element is not usually sex, but the bond. Feelings such as admiration, rapport, and cooperation are more important.

“A myth has been created that after menopause women lack desire.”
Carmen Sánchez, sexologist

They all point out that the menopause is an excellent time to clean out the attic of everything that is no longer useful to you. To be selective, to let go of baggage and find a new freedom, including other experiences of love. “A myth has been created that, after menopause, women are not only undesirable, they lack desire. Neither object nor subject of desire,” recalls Carmen Sanchez. But for many women it means being able to start living the way they want to live. Stop worrying so much about being desired and desire them more, as in the movie Good Luck, Big Leo, in which a magnificent Emma Thompson plays a middle-aged woman who dares to experience sex as she has never done before.

Because neither life nor sexuality are interrupted when the periods end, but language and discourse on the menopause are not neutral, as Estrella Montolío knows well, hence the importance of taking hold of the words and making the mature female voice heard. “At the social level something very important is happening: the recovery of desire. After menopause, women feel as alive and as powerful as before, and they want to stay that way. What changes is the gaze of others.” That is why she considers it so important to have strong role models in the media. Those writers, sportswomen, artists, journalists, researchers, trade unionists of mature age who are not willing to give an inch. As TV presenter June Sarpong described in The Power of Women, appointed in 2019 as the BBC U.K.’s Commissioner for Creative Diversity, having female role models is essential to empowering women, especially in the showcase that is the media, from which they often disappear by the time they reach 50. “The more women are empowered, the more men are freed from the bondage of the patriarchy they themselves have created.”

The rebellion is underway, but Maribel Cárdenas sees a risk of reverse evolution. “It is the power relationship that brings women back to look at themselves. We older women must continue not only to fight for ourselves, but also for the young women. How they see themselves in the mirror matters; in a hypersexualized society, young women are internalizing that their value is more than ever based on their physical appearance, in a very dangerous discourse that causes them to have a problematic relationship with their bodies. They learn that getting older is the worst thing that can happen to you. But it is not an individual process, but a collective one. This distorting mirror must be changed and this can only be done from a collective point of view. Standing up.” The age of menopause is not, as Germaine Greer wrote in 1991 in The Change: Women, Old Age and Menopause, “a stage that should be lived in haste, trying to leave it behind as soon as possible, and even less should it be hidden or denied. The rest of your life depends on these years, a life perhaps as long as the one you have already had.”

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