The lowdown on perimenopause
As a social experiment, I say “menopause” at cocktail parties. I receive some weird, strange and uncomfortable reactions. Women will sometimes resist the topic by turning their hand into the shape of a stop sign, planting it firmly in front of my face and saying “Whoa, I’m not THERE yet!”
One woman told me she would never discuss menopause with her doctor because he was too good looking!
Last year, I surveyed women (aged 39 and up) and 70% said they didn’t have anyone to talk to about menopause OR, that they would never talk about menopause with anyone! This concerned me greatly and led to growing a very active Menopause Chicks Private Community on Facebook.
Menopause is one of the most natural transitions in life. Yet, it’s still one of the most taboo topics. And, menopause and its lesser-known predecessor, perimenopause, is often misunderstood by women, health care professionals and the media.
“Going through menopause” isn’t menopause at all
Menopause is one day. It is the 12-month anniversary of your (very last) period. The average age of menopause is 51.2.
Perimenopause is the phase of life leading up to that day. Every woman’s experience is unique, but perimenopause can be 5 to 15 years of hormone fluctuations, and you still have periods during perimenopause, although initial changes can be noticeable and sometimes inconvenient (irregular, heavier, disappear and then reappear without warning). In addition to period changes, women in perimenopause often notice other changes affecting their sleep, mood, libido, weight, breast tenderness and more.
If you were to draw this out on a timeline, it would look like this: Adolescence > Premenopause > Perimenopause > Menopause > Post Menopause.
· Adolescence is typically defined from your first period up to age 20.
· Premenopause (also called “reproductive years” although you are “reproductive” starting in adolescence through to menopause!) is typically from age 20 up to perimenopause.
· Perimenopause is the transition phase from your reproductive years to menopause. (Note: you are reproductive AND in perimenopause at the same time!) It can begin as early as 35 and as late as 59. This is often the phase where women experience changes ranging from mildly noticeable or inconvenient, to annoying and sometimes, for a few, perimenopause is extremely disruptive to quality of life. If you ever heard your mother or grandmother say “going through menopause,” she most likely meant “going through perimenopause.” The term perimenopause was only coined in the 1990s, which helps to explain the confusion. Many physicians were trained before this time and were taught that as long as you still have a period, it isn’t menopause (which is true), but they didn’t understand the impact that fluctuating hormones have during perimenopause. To this day, there is still little research on perimenopause but it is getting better.
· As mentioned, menopause is one day. It is the one-year anniversary date after your last period (although 12 months was decided upon arbitrarily). Women require birth control up to this one-year post-period mark. If you go eight months without a period and then it reappears, you start counting over again.
· Post-Menopause is everything after your “menopause anniversary party” described above.
It might help to draw your own timeline using these definitions. For example: I got my first period at 12, noticed the first sign of hormonal shift (boobs hurt, brain fog, period started to change) at 39, I decided to discuss with my doctor when I was 41 and I was told I was too young for menopause (again, true), thus beginning my research into perimenopause and the launch of MenopauseChicks.com. I had my last period at 48 (after one 10-month stint of “pause-and-restart”), and I reached (celebrated!) menopause at 49.
Now, I am 50 and happily in the post-menopause phase of my life.
Don’t be surprised when other women and professionals have varied definitions of perimenopause and menopause, or use some of the terms interchangeably. It is up to you to get informed and be your own best health advocate.
Time to redefine what perimenopause and menopause REALLY means
…and I don’t mean the textbook definitions mentioned above! I mean it’s time to redefine, reframe and reclaim menopause and its societal definitions.
You see, I believe the way we think about perimenopause and menopause is ruining our ability to enjoy it!
For decades now, we have been adopting the negative connotations passed on to us either through the media or generationally from our families and friends. We are now a whole generation who has bought into myths and misconceptions from media and advertisers who have convinced us that menopause is a medical condition that either needs fixing or curing.
At the beginning of this article, I described some of the strange reactions people have when I say the word “menopause.” Their first associations are often: “hot”, “old”, “tired” or “bitchy”. Rarely does anyone say “smart”, “confident” or “beautiful.” We are so conditioned to seeing the stereotypical image of a grey-haired, stressed-out lady holding a fan or suffering by holding her head in her hands. Many of us just assume that’s an accurate representation of menopause. And it’s one that we literally want to run away from, rather than embrace.
About six months ago, I picked up one of my favourite magazines in an airport. The cover story was titled “Hooray for Hormones!” and I was excited that finally, someone was writing a positive story about midlife transition. But once inside, the author told me decade-by-decade, what women can expect in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Much to my surprise, I learned that in our 30s we get fat, in our 40s we get hot and start to lose our minds and in our 50s, we lose control of our bladders.
I was enraged. I looked at the magazine photos and thought: are these the new profile pictures for menopause? Does the next generation want to accept these stereotypes? Do we? I’m not saying these experiences aren’t real or common. I speak with women every day who are dealing with weight fluctuations, brain fog, hot flashes/night sweats and urinary incontinence. I believe we can learn to navigate any challenges perimenopause may bring. But first, we must UNlearn all of the media innuendos, myths and misconceptions.
And, I’m not telling people to unsubscribe to this media — I’m saying speak up! I’m inviting everyone to call out magazines and media outlets whenever someone gets the menopause connotation wrong. This is important if we want to create a future where women no longer feel alone; where they feel comfortable talking about perimenopause and menopause, and confident in seeking the support they need.
This is important as it affects 100% of women.
About Menopause Chicks:
MenopauseChicks.com helps women navigate perimenopause and menopause with confidence and ease. Founder, Shirley Weir is on a mission to connect women to unbiased information, to midlife health professionals — and to each other, through her private online community. As a women’s health advocate, Shirley is reframing the menopause conversation from something that has been traditionally viewed as negative, into a milestone worthy of celebration. Shirley hosted the first-ever “menopause graduation party” in 2016 and was a speaker at TedXGastown Women. Shirley is a 2017 YWCA Women of Distinction award recipient.