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Invisibility and the menopause

Author Helen Paris on why society must rid the cloak of invisibility during the menopause

It’s like you hit middle age and someone turns the light off.

Midlife invisibility is something so many women experience, the sense that people are suddenly looking through us rather than at us, interrupting or ignoring what we say, giving us the restaurant table at the back by the toilets instead of the one in the window.

Much of this feeling of invisibility is directly linked to the perimenopause and menopause, as if visibility is somehow connected with fertility.  Men, potentially always virile, remain ever visible. We might be able to take these daily slights on the chin, but things take a different turn when switch to the workplace and see how consistently middle aged and older women are looked over for promotion. 

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And if you have been out of the workplace for some reason – family, health, redundancy – as a middle-aged woman it is almost impossible get back in.  Men are often promoted on promise, a belief in what they can be, whereas women are promoted more on experience, so it becomes a Catch 22. There also seems to be a desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to sustain women’s midlife invisibility because it supports the status quo – leaves the high-status directorships for men who often don’t see a gender gap in the workplace because it has always been there.

Why language matters

Until recently so much language associated with women’s menstrual health has been cloaked in invisibility. For example, the secrecy around tampons and periods – the words themselves whispered in code, as if they are unmentionable.  Everything is couched in discretion.

Thankfully things have started to shift. This has seen World Cup football commentators discussing the importance of taking players menstrual cycles into consideration and Wimbledon finally relaxed its all-white dress code to ease the stress around periods. The menopause however remains the outlier, retaining its shroud of invisibility because, at the end of the day, it’s just not sexy. It is seen as the end of something, not the start. The word itself is kept at a distance, mouthed rather than spoken, ‘the change’ accompanied by the raise of a brow and a knowing nod. Or, when it is given voice, it is often to get a cheap laugh, the hilarity of a hot flush on par with the mother-in-law joke. 

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A further issue that compounds a woman’s sense of her invisibility is timing. When perimenopause happens, women are often sandwiched between caring for teenage kids, going through the angst of puberty, and looking after elderly parents often struggling with dementia or mobility problems.

Women putting themselves last

Women tend to prioritise the needs of their family over their own, which can exacerbate that sense of loss of self. Part of what is crucial is opening up intergeneration conversation. Looking back, I realised I never asked my mother about her own menopause, had no idea why for a couple of years she was so sad. But now I know why.  As well as feeling unseen I think women of a certain age feel unheard and unheeded. During perimenopause and beyond a lot of us feel frustration or even anger that can be hard to articulate.  Menopause can’t be a word we pincer in tweezers and hold at arms-length, we have to name it and we have to talk about it, because it affects all of us, those of us women going though it physically as well as our partners, families, employers and friends.

RELATED: Author Joanne Harris: ending the invisibility of menopausal women

When I was writing The Invisible Women’s Club, my novel about ageing and visibility, I was experiencing my own perimenopause, struggling with anxiety and seismic mood swings.  It was only when I found the Newson Clinic that I started to fully understand my symptoms and how to treat them. I don’t think I could have finished writing the book without the help and advice I received, alongside the hormones which finally made me feel like myself again.

I charged myself with writing relatable female characters who talk frankly about the menopause. One of my protagonists, Bev Bytheway, is a Scottish midwife struggling with the perimenopause and fighting for women’s health care. She is warm, upbeat and has a great sense of humour. I wanted to create an ally for my readers, a chum who was in it alongside them.  

Writing about the perimenopause

I think it is incredibly empowering to laugh, that humour is a revolutionary tool, one that can be so central to female friendship.  We laugh with Bev, not at her. In Bev I wanted to create a character who struggles to give voice to her frustration and rebels against a certain placatory or mystical language around the menopause.

Bridget Christie’s recent TV series The Change does so much work through deploying comedy to break taboos around the menopause and in Broken Light Joanne Harris fearlessly confronts the viscerality of the menopause. Sharing our experiences of the menopause with each other, in whatever ways we can is vital.

The more society renders us invisible the more opportunities we need to give each other to be seen and heard.

The Invisible Women’s Club by Helen Paris is published by Doubleday (£16.99).

Invisibility and the menopause

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