Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menopausal Junk

February 28th, 2013 by Heather Dillaway

In response to my last blog entry about Helena Bonham Carter, Paula Derry commented that we treat menopause as a “junk category,” tossing in any symptom we can’t explain or don’t want to attribute to anything else. So true. In fact, Anne Fausto-Sterling said this long ago about menopause – that tons of symptoms were attributed to menopause when in fact only hot flashes really had a link to this life stage. BUT, we keep on attributing anything and everything to menopause.

    Photo by Flickr user Caterina // Creative Commons 2.0

  • Gaining weight at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Sad or angry at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Hairy at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Dry at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Blurry eyes at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Headaches at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Big boobs at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Constipated at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Have a symptom you can’t explain at midlife? Must be menopause.
  • Turned 50? Must be menopause. (Yes, see, it’s ridiculous.)

And the list goes on. And on. And on.

Okay, so, yes, menopause is a junk category because symptoms (junk) are just thrown in and declared “menopausal” (“perimenopausal”) at every turn. Just like when women go to the doctor and are given pregnancy tests no matter what their symptoms (“must be pregnant”). Ah, the fun of the reproductive life course.

BUT, I would say that there is another kind of “junk” that I see at menopause. I’ve interviewed menopausal women for 12 years now, and one of the hardest things is separating out menopause from all the other things (junk) going on in women’s lives as they make this transition. It is so hard to figure out what menopause really is and what it really means for women because it is surrounded by so much other “junk” at midlife. When you ask women about how they feel about menopause, they tell you but they also contextualize how they feel by telling you about:

  • their kids (the kids that live with them and the ones that have left)
  • their partners (current ones, ex-partners, and ones they wish they had)
  • their jobs (the ones they hate and the ones they care about)
  • their friends (the ones who support them and the ones who don’t)
  • their aging parents (and how hard it is to take care of them)
  • their worries about future aging
  • their doctors (good and bad)
  • their youth
  • their aches and pains
  • their bodies (the parts they like and don’t like)
  • their history of menstruation and other reproductive experiences…

You get the picture.
You have to wade through all of this to understand menopause. Sometimes it feels like junk clogging up their lives and clogging up the path to figuring out what menopause is really like. At the end of the day menopause is such a narrow part of most middle-aged women’s lives, but it is tied in with so much other midlife stuff that it’s hard to separate out. When you ask women about menopause, it’s sort of like asking someone, “How are you?”, on one of their busiest days. The answer you get back is surrounded and dictated by the junk in their lives and, unless you understand that going in, it might seem like menopause itself is a junk-filled process. But maybe it’s not. Despite all the news articles that predict new symptoms and conditions at menopause, and despite all of the midlife contexts that surround menopause, maybe menopause itself is very simple if we can weed out everything that’s not really menopause… What do YOU think?

4 responses to “Menopausal Junk”

  1. Similarly PMS is also a medical diagnostic junk category.

  2. HeatherD says:

    Yes, makes sense. So menopause, pregnancy, PMS….I guess this probably applies to most of women’s reproductive health. I guess we can chalk this up to a general lack of understanding of these “female” things? What do you think?

  3. I agree with both of you. There is a general lack of knowledge/education about the neuro-endo-immune system connection. NeuroScience Inc. has coined this the NEI Super System:

    For far too long the focus has been on reproductive health – a very social/political topic at best. What we have neglected is menstrual/endocrine health. This lack of education is what keeps women victimized by their own bodies and prey to the never-ending drug and synthetic hormone therapies so generously offered by the pharmaceutical companies.

  4. Robin Karr says:

    Great post and a really an important topic! Any woman who has undergone ovary removal quickly learns the endocrine connection. I had a pituitary tumor when I was a teen so my endocrine system was already compromised. After my healthy ovaries were removed in 2007 without my consent, I was thrown into a kind of hormone hell I can’t fully explain. My health and my life fell apart immediately!

    I agree that there’s been way too much focus on reproductive health. Women are taught to think of their SEX organs as their reproductive organs so they will assume it’s okay to have them removed once they’ve finished reproducing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I don’t believe over 600,000 women each year would so readily agree to hysterectomy if they realized that their reproductive organs are also their sex organs and that they are part of their endocrine system.

    The sad reality is that women must take charge of their own health. We simply can’t relay on doctors to do what is best for us. Research in women’s health issues remains inconsistent, incomplete and often slipshod. Knowledge is power. If a doctor tells you it’s time to have a hysterectomy, it’s time to take antidepressants for real physical symptoms, etc., then it’s time to walk away from that doctor.

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