What Cultures Actually Celebrate Menopause?
Joy Hui Lin | June 03 , 2019
Hint: We should start acting like whales.
We have coming-of-age rituals for young girls becoming women like Jewish bat mitzvahs, and the Japanese seijin shiki ceremonies with special kimonos, and we have many global rituals around weddings and motherhood, but where are the celebrations for transitioning to the next stage of life when menopause arrives?
Only a few of my friends on the cusp of perimenopause or menopause told me that their mothers had even discussed the transition with them openly. A Jamaican-American friend, who had explicit conversations about menopause with her mother while her mother went through it herself, remarked that her parents were pretty transparent. This is contrary to their cultural norms. Her Jamaican background has traditionally thrown a cloaked silence around women’s intimate lives. She added that a popular curse word in Jamaica is “bloodcloth” and how she won’t even say the term.
Women, their bodies, and their sexuality, have been shamed, dismissed, ill-treated, and controlled throughout the ages. Only now when women have more egalitarian standing in society that we’re able to talk openly about our bodies, what our bodies go through, and what we need to thrive. “Menopause was bigger [than silence]” wrote another friend from a white Oregonian background. Despite her mother feeling pressure to stay silent about “women’s issues” the physical effects of menopause caused her to open up to her daughter.
Some of the women I asked to talk to me about menopause were taken aback – I had named a state they feared and dreaded. I haven’t reached menopause, but I have dealt with perimenopause and amenorrhea, and I realize that I, too, pause before saying the terms out loud. I think collectively we’re worried about losing our sexual desirability.
Menopause and being “shriveled up” is one of the foremost jokes and insults around aging women. But it’s so important to unlearn those negative connotations because studies show the way a culture perceives menopause affects how women in that culture experience menopause. Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a professor specializing in gynecological health at Yale Medical School, found that “In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome.”
Minkin writes, “Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.” The same study finds that in countries where aging for women wasn’t seen as negative like Sweden and Italy, that women report fewer physical symptoms. The often negative physical state of menopause is paired with an odd absence of celebration of this new chapter in women’s lives.
I had to turn to TV for an open conversation on menopause. In Fleabag, an Amazon series, a female exec, played by a smoldering Kristin Scott Thomas, tells a wide-eyed Fleabag, “Don’t worry, it does get better.” And that, “Menopause is … wonderful!” The scene then unspools one of the only unvarnished positive discussions of the experiences of womanhood and menopause I’ve witnessed on or offscreen.
The embrace of menopause and the next stage of life has inspired some modern American women to make up their own rituals in lieu of historical ones to honor the past stages of their lives, and to honor what lies ahead. A Unitarian church calls it a “Croning/Saging” ritual which reclaims the identity of crone, which is historically seen as an unflattering term, and celebrates the wisdom of being an elder woman.
Both women’s hormonal make-up and society encourage women to see themselves in the web of human relations – often in the nurturing and caregiving role, but menopause spurs women to define themselves not as mothers, or wives, but as people who are responsible to themselves. A focus group of Mohawk women in Quebec viewed menopause as part of the continuum of life, and that it was a time to shift their priorities from family to self. They approached this stage of their lives with a desire to spend the time meaningfully.
In The Cut’s discussion on menopause, I found the most joyous reason to look forward to it. In many species there’s a preference for matriarchal societies, with elder females leading in both elephant herds and whale pods. In the study cited by Current Biology, they find that elder females are storehouses of crucial knowledge and theorize that women developed menopause for the same reasons as female orcas: when reproduction stops, women are then free to lead -- which is ample cause for celebration.