Bodies Menopause Is More Than Just a Punchline
Menopause is still treated more like a throwaway joke than an experience that deserves to be explored with any kind of artistic or emotional depth.
On my best days, when I think I have this menopause thing licked, I am Kristin Scott Thomas in her scene-stealing bit as Belinda on the BBC comedy Fleabag . I envision myself timelessly elegant in dove-gray silk and sipping a second martini at the bar, regaling an enamored younger woman with my hard-earned truths about Kegel exercises. Like a good cocktail, Belinda’s monologue is dry and a touch salty.
Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years. And then, just when you feel you’re making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes!
Despite the fact that your “pelvic floor crumbles,” Belinda’s voice creeps with anticipation as she describes the experience: “It is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world . . . It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent.”
On my worst days, I’m not leaving the apartment, let alone out in the world offering advice. I can’t imagine wearing silk because I’m a sweat machine; also none of my cute vintage blouses fit anymore without strangling my breasts and upper arms. I’m probably wearing a loose T-shirt with the image of a band who gets regular rotation on oldies radio stations, working on yet another freelance assignment because I fear that because of middle age, my earning potential will dry up in tandem with my vagina.
Scrolling though Instagram on one of those days, I stumbled across a photo of the British actor Naomi Watts announcing she is the founder and chief creative officer of Stripes, a new company focused on holistic solutions for perimenopause and menopause. For those who aren’t familiar with perimenopause (and you may be going through it now without knowing), it is the purgatorial time before menopause—a term that is marked by twelve consecutive months without a menstrual cycle. For some people, perimenopause can last up to fifteen years, rearing up as early as your midthirties. It’s a fun house of hot flashes, emotional instability, insomnia, brain fog, hair thinning, incontinence, weight gain, and erratic periods. Carol King , TikTok’s perimenopause warrior, has clocked a list of more than eighty symptoms.
Essentially your body is playing Freaky Friday, and much of the hormonal volatility you experienced as a teen returns in new, gory ways guaranteed to stain a couple sets of nice sheets.
Stripes is a partnership with Amyris, a California-based company that manufactures consumer products using sustainable ingredients and synthetic biology. I don’t understand what that means, but if I was at Sephora, seeing those credentials on a face cream would probably make me add it to my basket. Stripes offers creams, oils, and supplements designed to sooth consumers from “scalp to vag.” Despite a deep love of puns, I can’t imagine reaching into the bedside table for the sexy-time hydrating gel “Vag of Honor” or the cutesy “Oh My Glide,” a play oil for lubrication. (That pelvic-floor crumble that Belinda warns Fleabag about? Yeah, it’s a thing.)
Essentially your body is playing Freaky Friday, and much of the hormonal volatility you experienced as a teen returns in new, gory ways.
To be fair, I like Naomi and she’s never let me down as an actor, especially in horror movies. The girl knows how to scream. I even stuck through to the confusing end of her new Netflix thriller, The Watcher , because I was concerned for her family’s safety. Heck, I’d love to go out for a martini and share hot-flash tales if our paths ever crossed. Moreover, Watts’s company is far from the worst offender in the capitalist self-care industry. Stripes doesn’t promote anti-aging cures, and the website offers helpful guides on related topics like speaking to your doctor about your menopausal symptoms.
But there is something too calculatedly cheerful, too packaged about Stripes’s Insta feed—I can imagine the slide deck accompanied by a giant Pantone color wheel splayed on the boardroom table as the executive team decides which vibrant yet earthy tones and fonts will get aging ladies to buy lubricants. I would have loved to have been there for the discussions that led to the inspirational quote “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” Huh?
As an adult Gen Xer who owned a crimping iron as a teen and fell firmly on the Ally Sheedy side of The Breakfast Club , inspirational marketing makes my cynicism roil. I don’t want the joys of a changing body sold to me. We do need more forums for people to share stories and to find community, but this rallying falls as flat as white-lady wine-o’clock jokes.
On the days when my alarm feels most relentless, I don’t want to turn to my phone to see a spokesperson like Naomi Watts looking super cute in an oversized magenta sweater, riding a bicycle with her bare legs outstretched in joy—unless she reveals that she peed a little getting off the seat, or that she isn’t wearing pants because they no longer fit. I can’t take any of this marketing seriously until I see a video of a gorgeous star checking for errant chin hairs before they hit the red carpet.
I want someone with real star power to affirm that, sure, this is a time for renewal and celebrating one’s wisdom, but it is also ugly, confusing, and sometimes devastating. A few makeup–free selfies won’t transform how the world views aging. We don’t need a cheerleading reel suggesting we’re all in this together and that we’re more than our symptoms as we flop around in bed every night with insomnia like one of those vintage Fortune Teller Miracle Fish, all curled up, worried about what the morning will bring.
To be fair, celebrity opportunism related to menopause could be more easily ignored if these wide ranges of experience were represented, including on-screen and in our social media algorithms, as a natural phase of life. We have come a long way since the 1996 Golden Girls episode where Blanche thought she was pregnant, but it turned out to be “the change.” Or the classic 2001 Ab Fab scene where horrified Edina and Patsy join a menopause support group in a ghoulish circle prayer to “embrace the dryness!”
In the past few years, I have observed more laughs coming from inside the house. Aging itself is less the joke than it is menopausal women trying to navigate an ignorant world. The brash brilliant women in the Canadian comedy group Baroness Von Sketch get my vote for the Hot Flash Hall of Fame. Their groundbreaking sketch, “Perimenopause,” and the much-repeated punchline—“It isn’t perimenopause . . . Is it? Is it ?”—made me wonder whether they had bugged my apartment. Pamela Adlon, the patron saint of middle-aged angst and joy, made menopause a running plot in her autofictional Better Things , one of the only TV shows to date that regularly features its female lead on the toilet. Wanda Sykes has a great stand-up bit on estrogen and hormones , and even interrupted an interview to seek comfort from a sudden hot flash .
It isn’t just funny women of a certain age that acknowledge how the world responds to middle-age hormonal changes. In the third-season finale of Broad City , millennial queens Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abrams give a sly nod to show they’re paying attention to what’s to come.
Our Lucy and Ethel thirty-somethings are flying to Israel when Abbi suddenly gets her period on the plane. As Ilana tries to rig a tampon for her BFF out of pita and elastic bands, Abbi asks an older woman if she has any to spare.
Oh my goodness, no. I’m flattered you asked, even though many women my age do experience spotting.
Oh, I totally forgot about menopause!
Menopause isn’t represented in mainstream media . . .
Middle-Aged Woman turns to face Abbi, who has already vanished.
Although comedic acknowledgement is growing on-screen, a real reckoning with this phase of life still feels very far away. Watts is considered brave for even mentioning the M-word. And we’re expected to bask in the glow of Gwyneth Paltrow, who celebrated her fiftieth birthday with photos of her lithe nude body painted shimmery gold. For a while I half joked that until perimenopause got Goopified by Gwyneth Paltrow, we would all continue to suffer in silence and confusion. Paltrow first came clean about her perimenopause symptoms in 2018 on a Goop podcast, when she revealed that she is so tired she can only do three Tracy Williams workouts a week. She has been as open about her health concerns as her desire to change perceptions: “I think menopause gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of rebranding,” she said in a Goop video chat.
While I admire Paltrow’s ability to monetize her life experiences, I don’t see how menopause can be repackaged like Dunkin’ Donuts or the ill-fated Coke Zero, as if it can be bottled up in well-designed containers and resold to suffering women, most of whom can’t afford an eighty-eight-dollar product to deal with hair loss. Especially when it arrives in the same old white package.
C’mon, Naomi, show us the real horror!
My perimenopause surprises began about seven years ago while on a solo vacation in Paris.
Wandering through the Centre Pompidou, I felt a familiar tug in my lower abdomen. My period had finished only a week before I left, but there was no mistaking the urgency. After years of suffering through massive fibroids and undiagnosed endometriosis resulting in an invasive surgery that had me off work for six weeks, I knew I was racing against a bloody mess.
I bolted from the surrealists in desperate search of a pharmacie. Not the sophisticated boutique shops where each bottle of sunscreen is displayed like a l’objet d’art––I wanted the comfort and discretion of an ugly North American fluorescent-lit chain store.
Although the rest of the trip was glorious, panic loomed. After a decade of cautionary internal examinations without any concrete diagnoses, I was sure this was some form of cancer. I made a doctor’s appointment as soon as I returned home, praying this surprise period was caused by a screwy body clock. Perhaps it was too much cheese, one bottle of Bordeaux too many. While scheduling blood tests, my patient doctor gently suggested that perhaps this was the beginning of perimenopause. Ever the journalist, that was the day I set up my first medical Google alert—a practice I recommend to no one who enjoys their sanity.
Even with amazing medical and personal supports, I felt like I was on a solo journey. I was recently divorced and dating a wonderful person, but perimenopause felt all too fresh and embarrassing to reveal, and I really didn’t know what to say, anyway. Most of my friends weren’t dealing with symptoms yet, and if they were, they certainly weren’t offering them up in conversation at dinner parties. That has changed in the subsequent years. I have found myself engaging in some of the most honest conversations of my life with women, including my mom, who has been a great source of comfort and information. Some friends don’t waste any time revealing their symptoms after the small talk, looking for reassurance they’re not alone. Others who I’ve gently tried to confide to in the past are now approaching me directly, clearly at their wits’ end dealing with hot flashes, irritability, insomnia, and gruesomely heavy periods. I’ve contemplated wearing a button that says, “Ask me about perimenopause!” or setting up a five-cent booth like Lucy in Peanuts .
Often, we come together because we share a common anger and desperation at how few other places we have to turn. When Michelle Obama recently spoke out about the sparse information available to her as she began showing symptoms, and how she now struggles to keep up the muscular form on those famous arms, it’s reassuring, but what hope is there for the rest of us?
A real reckoning with this phase of life still feels very far away.
Although I have found a solution with my doctor that works for me—a low dose of antidepressants for hot flashes and brain zoomies; hormone replacement therapy (HRT) isn’t recommended because of a family history of breast cancer—it doesn’t change the reality that menopause is still treated more like a throwaway joke than an experience that deserves to be explored with any kind of artistic or emotional depth.
Pop culture’s fetishization of youth and overt disgust for aging women is well documented . Fashion trends are not made for us either; a middle-aged woman attempting last summer’s Coastal Grandmother look signals to the world that she’s just given up. We don’t live that far away from Sunset Boulevard , when Gloria Swanson, only fifty at the time, played her most famous and parodied turn as the washed-up movie star Norma Desmond. It wasn’t that long ago that Bette Davis starred in a new genre of biddy-hating hagsploitation films with 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
More recently, when the still-gorgeous sixty-four-year-old actor Kelly McGillis was asked why she wasn’t invited to reprise her role as Tom Cruise’s love interest in the Top Gun reboot, she didn’t mince words: “I’m old, and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is,” she said. “I’d much rather feel absolutely in my skin and who I am at my age as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.”
I wish I could keep my priorities and ego in check like Kelly McGillis, especially in the face of stupid questions with obvious answers. Yet each day I find myself reaching closer to her level of middle-finger raising.
Some days I feel enough confidence that I think I can pop onto my bike without bottoms like Naomi. But more often I find myself returning to the real world after Covid-19 hibernation, observing that quick flinch in people’s eyes when they see me for the first time in a couple years. I try to take a detached view when dissecting my new physical shape, imagining it as an abstract stack of wobbly cylinders squeezed tight in parts like a balloon animal. Sometimes I laugh standing in front of the mirror after a shower, holding my belly, thinking about the wonderful weirdo SNL comedian Sarah Sherman, who describes her stand-up as “body horror comedy.” While she’s referring to her fascination with buttholes, it’s an apt description for how I feel about the punchline of aging. When I saw photos of Heidi Klum’s bulbous worm Halloween costume and the fact that she was wearing a sparkly bodysuit under its slick, meaty skin, I wanted hard to believe that this was the former supermodel, now forty-nine, making a subversive statement about her life in perimenopause. But sometimes an invertebrate is just an invertebrate.
Out in the world and on-screen, I am acutely aware of physical bodies like never before, observing them with a Richard Attenborough–like keenness. Watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills , a reality show filled with fillers and blatant defiance against natural aging, I nod knowingly each time one of them complains subtly about the room temp. I was so shocked to learn that in the UK, there is an offshoot of the franchise, Real Housewives and the Menopause , that has a glam group of six women from Harry Styles’s hometown of Cheshire, just talking about their experiences. (Say what you want about British tabloids; they keep on top of their celebrity menopause news.) Imagine the Instagram comments or Andy Cohen’s smarmy questions if Lisa Rinna opened up about how she and Harry Hamlin deal with her vag dryness!
By the year 2025, the number of postmenopausal women is expected to rise to 1.1 billion worldwide, according to the North American Menopause Society . We are on a clock before the Kardashians discover this fact, though I bet they’re already at work in their laboratory concocting potions. With Gwyneth and Naomi dominating these conversations, we find ourselves following the same path once again when it comes to reproductive health, drowning out the experiences of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. Where are the voices of disabled people, trans men, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folk? Studies show that Black and Latinx women enter perimenopause earlier and suffer more severe symptoms, including one from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) that spans twenty-five years of data, directly connecting Black women’s menopausal transitions to the long-term effects of systematic racism. While both Stripes and Goop dedicate space on their feed to diverse voices, white women still control the conversation. I wish we’d clear more room for leaders like Omisade Burney-Scott , founder of the Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause, who takes a more holistic approach to her brand and the products she endorses.
In the introduction to her new book, Navigating the Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women , Canadian author Ann Douglas describes how a youth-worshipping culture encourages us “to deny the fact that we’re actually growing older until the fact of our aging becomes completely undeniable, at which point we’re encouraged to see it as either completely magical or totally miserable.”
I still struggle with that internal balance seven years after I found myself doubling up menstrual pads in the washroom of a Parisian café. At the time, I was naively hopeful that a few powerful voices would open up dialogue, but there are so many complex systems to dismantle that no one celebrity, product, or TV show is going to affect any real tangible change on its own. A new serum isn’t going to smooth away the shame or help us speak openly to our loved ones, our employers, and our doctors and expect empathy in return. “Vag of Honor” might extend physical pleasure, but no amount of celebrity lube will help on those not-great days when we are struggling to be kind to ourselves. If it did, I wouldn’t have fist-pumped with joy after discovering a TikTok with Courteney Cox recreating her old fresh-faced Tampax ad , exclaiming with refreshing candor: “Menopause will eat you alive. It’s terrible!”