By Rachel Lankester, Editor

I interviewed the award-winning writer Stella Duffy on the Magnificent Midlife podcast. Stella’s written 17 novels, over 70 short stories, and 15 plays. She recently completed a doctorate in existential psychotherapy, focusing on the embodied experience of post-menopause, a phase she entered in her mid-30s due to breast cancer chemotherapy. She’s also active in equality and diversity in the arts, LGBTQ+ communities, and is a practicing Buddhist. This was a fascinating conversation about life for older women, and how we need to re-evaluate menopause and female ageing.

Stella Duffy postmenopause

Stella Duffy

Early menopause and infertility

We started talking about how, in spite of its challenges, menopause doesn’t mark the end of a meaningful life, but rather the beginning of a new chapter. Stella shared her experience of early menopause brought on by chemotherapy in her mid-30s. The use of Zoladex injections to protect ovarian function resulted in 40 immediate hot flushes.

Stella described the emotional toll of losing all five of her embryos and navigating the complexities of childlessness and infertility. Despite the intense difficulties of her menopause, she contextualizes it within the broader challenges of facing mortality at 36 and the abrupt end to her dreams of motherhood.

Stella is concerned about the prevailing negative cultural narrative surrounding menopause, contributing to anxiety and dread for younger women before even reaching perimenopause. She highlighted the impact of societal ageism, misogyny, and our Western society’s disdain for older women.

Different experiences of menopause

Women all have very different experiences of menopause and we don’t need to accept one kind of experience as the norm. Stella’s research revealed, for example, that women from working-class and disabled backgrounds, and women of color, often tend to downplay menopausal struggles, due to grappling with other equally or more severe issues. They acknowledge that there were other things going on, not just menopause.

While acknowledging the validity of focusing on the hardships of menopause, Stella advocates for perspective, suggesting that understanding the broader context can provide a nuanced understanding. We need to challenge and reshape cultural attitudes toward menopause, fostering a more balanced and supportive narrative for women experiencing this life transition.

Menopause, white feminism and inclusion

Stella talked about the intersectionality of menopause, highlighting how it’s perceived differently across cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. She expressed concern that menopause discussions in the UK often appear as a white middle-class issue, noting a flaw in white feminism that prioritizes fixing problems rather than understanding and learning from them.

Drawing from her upbringing in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where Maori and Polynesian cultures revere older women, she contrasts that with the ageism prevalent in white feminism. She emphasizes the need to broaden menopause research beyond the white middle-class demographic, where most women are mothers, addressing the upcoming reality that a significant proportion of women won’t be mothers. 

Stella connects menopausal challenges to broader societal issues such as ageism, misogyny, capitalism, and the patriarchy. We also need a holistic approach instead of women often having to rely on private services, available only for those who can afford them. She asserts that addressing menopause issues is a collective responsibility and shouldn’t be limited to personal solutions. Instead it must encompass systemic change that benefits everyone, irrespective of socioeconomic status.

Stella challenges the prevailing narrative, urging a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of menopause and postmenopause in the broader context of societal challenges. She advocates for a broader approach, acknowledging the absence of queer women in traditional menopause research. We need collective change, ensuring that advancements benefit everyone, including those from working-class backgrounds and the queer community. 

Menopause narratives worldwide

Stella went on to question the perspective of menopause as an estrogen deficiency disease, drawing parallels with other life stages like puberty or estrogen hormone receptor breast cancer, and whether those can be considered in similar terms of estrogen deficiency or excess. These narratives drive the monetization of menopause, unscored by capitalism’s need to create and then solve perceived problems.

Stella emphasized the global diversity in menopausal experiences and how in some cultures, symptomology is welcomed. She cites Highland Mayan Guatemalan women who welcome symptoms as an initiation into a new life phase. They view hot flushes as the rising of the animal spirit.

We discussed the concept of menopause within the broader context of life, challenging the negative narratives surrounding it. Menopause can be thought to come in the middle of one’s adult life or to herald the last third of our full life.  It can be viewed as reverse puberty and it helps to remember and apply lessons learned from previous major life transitions. She encourages a more nuanced perspective, acknowledging the difficulties of these life transitions, while seeking the value and meaning within them. 

Stella challenges the ageist perceptions of menopause, arguing that it should be seen as a continuation of life rather than a decline. She stressed the importance of recognizing menopause as a global phenomenon happening around the age of 48, urging a shift away from the Western perspective that tends to stigmatize it. She suggests reframing menopause discussions to incorporate the experiences of women in their 40s, dispelling the notion that perimenopause at this age is unusual.

Stella also highlighted the need for cultural sensitivity, referencing a study on older Iranian Muslim women’s experiences of sex and sexuality. Some women in these cultures find relief from the freedom of pregnancy postmenopause and experience better sexual relationships without the pressure of procreation. Menopause is not solely a biomedical experience but a complex interplay of biomedical, psychosocial, and spiritual factors. Sociocultural aspects need to be integrated into the discourse, recognizing that every individual is shaped by their society and culture.  

Menopause and future health

We discussed the current Western pressure to medicate menopause to prevent future health issues, which Stella sees as a flawed narrative. She challenges the notion that menopause inevitably leads to osteoporosis, broken bones, dementia, and other health problems, dismissing it as a misleading story. Stella discussed the problematic aspect of portraying aging and hormonal changes as issues that must be medicated, rather than a natural aspect of human life.

She acknowledges the importance of individual choice in using hormone therapy, but criticizes the broader narrative insisting it’s universally beneficial. There is also so much confusing and conflicting advice, particularly for those with a history of breast cancer.

She quoted a study by Beyene and Martin in 2001, which compared menopausal experiences and bone density in Mayan women from Yucatan, Mexico, and U.S. women. Both groups showed osteoporosis, but the Mayan women displayed no fractures, attributed to a lifetime of physical activity, two miles of daily walking, and a nutritious diet from childhood.

Societal expectations and challenges related to female aging

Stella suggests a shift in approach, encouraging us to bask in the glory of our experiences, embracing the aging process and valuing ourselves as we grow older postmenopause. She shared personal examples of finding fulfillment in her 60s, celebrating the new possibilities and opportunities that come with the menopausal transition. Stella emphasized the need for those enjoying their current stage of life to be vocal, acting as beacons to challenge societal norms and celebrate the richness of life beyond menopause. 

She wants us to harness emotions such as anger, which she considers the flip side of passion. Drawing parallels with historical movements like the end of apartheid, Stella suggested that acknowledging and channeling anger can lead to justice. She challenges cultural norms around emotions, advocating for embracing jealousy, regret, anxiety, and depression as valuable indicators of desires, creativity, and exhaustion.

Stella urges us to question societal norms around self-care, so we can focus on what we truly want and what excites us. We should be treating ourselves with the value we deserve, whether through a long holiday or a simple half-hour break.

Menopause has a role as a wake-up call to mortality and aging. We can frame it as a gift despite societal misconceptions. Stella referenced a study where mothers claimed to have spoken about it, but daughters were unwilling to listen in their 30s. She calls for openness and responsibility in discussing menopause with younger generations, ensuring that negative stereotypes aren’t perpetuated, and the experience is viewed as a valuable and transformative part of life.

There’s much more wisdom and inspiration to enjoy in the podcast recording of this conversation, including more about Stella’s research into the embodied experience of postmenopause. Click here to listen to that.

Why not explore more…

Is Menopause A Disability? What Women and Employers Need To Know

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Is HRT For Menopause The Miracle Cure Women Need?

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Bone Health And Menopause – Do We Need HRT?

Do we need HRT for our bone health in and after menopause? What else do we want to consider?

Last Updated on March 15, 2024 by Editorial Staff

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