This morning I watched the menopause be discussed on BBC Breakfast. I also listened to Zoe Ball chat about it on Radio 2 with Andrea Mclean. Two events that would have been unheard of for our mothers generation when the topic was so taboo!
Despite this, it can be easy to get despondent about the menopause and the lack of support there is for women as they go through this transition. The average age of female suicide in the UK is 51-55 – the same as the average age of menopause. I doubt that is a co-incidence.
But we are so much luckier than the generations who have gone before us. In their day, the menopause was known as the ‘gateway to death’. Not any more – we can often have a third, maybe even half our lives left when it is over. To be fair we will spend it fat, knackered, a bit bald, hairy faced and highly irritable! But it’s still better than the alternative.
It was Aristotle who first mentioned the menopause. And this was about 300BC. Maybe he should have spent as much time looking at this than he did teaching Alexander the Great and we may have been so much further forward in terms of treatment. But he couldn’t really be bothered so limited his work on the menopause to declaring it a time when women got ‘colder and drier’. Hmmm – Aristotle had clearly never lay in bed with a woman having a hot flush otherwise he would have been more likely to have declared something along the lines of ‘for goodness sake – you are literally melting my skin’ which is a regular declaration from my bed partner while rolling to the furthest end of the bed and dramatically fanning the covers for air. Sometimes I really do prefer my dog who doesn’t mind at all and clambers merrily onto my tummy when it happens – think she sees it as a massive hot water bed to have fun on.
But after Aristotle, no-one really bothered about the menopause much til the mid 1800’s. Possibly because not many women lived much past 40 for much of the intervening years. So if you did – it was probably like winning the lottery.
It was 1823 when a French physician coined the phrase ‘menopause’ meaning ceasing of the month. The first medications were not quite the plethora we have on offer now. In the 1800s cannabis was prescribed. This would have been a preferred option given some of the alternatives – douche of lead, morphine and chloroform anyone? What about testicular juice? Or the filtered juice of a guinea pigs ovaries. I may send these examples in to Ant and Dec for the food challenges in the next I’m a Celeb! Or what about a clitoridectomy (yes that is what you think it is) as recommended by influential surgeon Baker Brown. Or blood letting (some doctors felt it was because women no longer passing blood that triggered the symptoms – so if they took blood out regularly it would ‘fix’ them) Leeches were attached often to genitalia to assist with such treatment (in those days Doctors were nearly all men -I’ll say no more….)
In 1855 Lawson Tait, who was an influential physician, considered menopausal women to be in grave danger of mental derangement and incurable dementia. I can’t blame him – I thought the same when the symptoms started, and so did many people who know me. But his treatment which was simply to lock them up in asylums seems a little extreme. The guy also believed Jack the Ripper was a woman…so perhaps his theories should have been discounted then….
The Purity Movement Writers declared a bad experience of the menopause to be a sign of sin – and said that it showed the woman had been badly behaved when young. Yes- maybe – but I have some great memories to look back on during my sleepless nights – none of them involving working out at the gym with some tofu and sparkling water for dinner!
Moving on through the years it didn’t get much better. When first mentioned on radio in 1948, there was a massive outcry – ‘lowering of broadcasting standards’ and ‘acutely embarrassing’ were two of the many complaints.
In 1966, Dr Robert Wilson declared us all ‘galloping catastrophes’. It was meant in a derogatory way – I’m a feminist but have to be honest and say I love the thought of being a ‘galloping catastrophe’
The topic is no longer taboo – and we have much more information, support and choice of treatment than so many of our female ancestors. I think laughing at yourself and with others on some of the more ridiculous symptoms with a bottle or three of wine is something our grannies and probably our mothers would never have done. And were probably the worse for it.