Why You Should Be Very Afraid of Menopausal Women

By Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz | Posted May 28, 2024

When we’re no longer viewed as having to attract a mate, reproduce, and raise kids, we step into our true power. Watch out.

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Twenty years ago, one of my mentors began referring young breast cancer survivors to me, and I was forced to start learning about menopause. Menopause affects 51 percent of the population and represents at least one-third to one-half of our lives, but is famously not emphasized during our medical education. At the time, I treated it as a niche within my general ob-gyn practice. Word grew that I was not only interested in but adept at helping patients manage their menopause transition, and so did this “niche” of my practice. Five years ago, I created a Menopause Bootcamp experience in Southern California in response to the utter lack of education, support, and resources for my midlife patients. I wrote and published an eponymous book in 2022 and completed my own menopause on my daughter’s 23rd birthday six months ago. My point is, I spend a lot of time thinking, speaking, writing about, and treating menopause.

I have referred to the Big M variously as the puberty of midlife, the wayward stepchild of misogyny and ageism, and the opportunity of a lifetime. Folks have chuckled at these characterizations, wept at finally being addressed, and balked at my invitation to “enjoy the journey.” My view is that the transformation into our most evolved and mature selves is indeed a cause for celebration. Menopause represents not an ending but a new beginning—the culmination of a lifetime of experiences and hard knocks, revelations and epiphanies—with the benefit of detachment from the decades-long cycle of menstrual hormones and their attendant concerns and bothers and complications.

Despite claims that menopause is an evolutionary glitch or mistake, it seems that evolutionary biology has another story to tell. Only a few species outlive their reproductive capacity, and the grandmother hypothesis states that this is by design. There is a distinct survival advantage to those who have older women in the pod or tribe, as the case may be. These women can support the efforts of their group, and in fact preserve and amplify the gene pool by gathering resources, attending to the safety of younger members, and relieving the reproductive-age females of duties not directly required for reproduction, birth, and child rearing. In the Hadza tribe of Northern Tanzania, studied by Kristen Hawkes, PhD, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, the menopausal females are known to serve as the elders, holding and transmitting the accumulated wisdom in their communities because their value is recognized and leveraged for the good of everyone.

Decoupled from one of the most obvious attributes of youth—our ability to reproduce—we are no longer slaves to this biological capacity. The timeline to our freedom, though, is not our own; it’s up to nature. Whether we have chosen not to reproduce, or it’s unfinished business, or we feel we’ve completed it to our satisfaction, for most of us, there’s a programmed ending. One of the consequences of living within this biological reality for a huge chunk of our adult lives is that many of us feel as if we are our menstrual cycle, or at least that we’re forever at its mercy. And when our period comes to an end, many of us experience contradictory states of relief— from no longer bleeding and feeling the mental, physical, and even spiritual toll every month for decades—and grief over the loss of a certain version of ourselves.

Some of us find freedom in being released from societal expectations of youthful beauty and stereotypical sexual appeal, in being invisible. Many of us, though, are left untethered and drifting, anxious about who and what and why we are. But for as many of us who fight the aging process tooth and nail, there may be even more of us who just start to be. The stir around Pamela Anderson’s recent makeup-less appearances says a lot about our cultural response to a woman who dares to just be.

A woman uncoupled from overt sexual objectification, who owns her space and experience and opinions and knows her power, a woman with agency that she has developed over the course of her lifetime, is the most dangerous woman of all to a patriarchal hierarchy that depends on her for reproduction and housework. A woman with an opinion who is no longer yoked to a system that determines her value does not require the approval or support of the patriarchy and its ideals.

This current menopause moment evolved in the wake of #MeToo. Midlife women’s experiences of trauma, then validation, unfolded on a massive, public scale. Shortly thereafter, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns rendered us homebound, frightened, and lonely. The internet brought my fellow Gen Xers together in new ways. Like so many others, I found community and engaged with experts and regular folks in unprecedented ways. The scale of impact and engagement over the past several years—and the amplification of these messages over social media—cannot be overstated. We saw and heard our stories over and over in both the most intimate and public settings. We finally felt seen and understood.

The politicization of reproductive coercion is a violation of human rights and, by definition, affects all humans. For older women, the relative lack of research around specific health concerns and rampant misinformation around interventions like hormone replacement therapy trace their roots to a systemic medical misogyny: Consider the fact that until recently, medical studies for women excluded female participants, collecting data from men that was then generalized to women. But grief and its transformative effects also create the cracks that joy can seep into. Once we experience the creativity and liberation that menopause can give us, we have so much to offer. Is it possible that continuing to push a narrative that menopause equals death is designed to keep us under control, when in fact we have become ungovernable?

Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, MD, is leading a workshop, A Lifetime of Women’s Wellness: Thriving Through Transitions, at MEA’s Santa Fe campus from June 24 through June 29. Enroll here.

 This article was first published on The Oprah Daily website and was reproduced with the permission of the author.