Not Yo Mama's Menopause
“From Menarche to Menopause”
“Something is happening in my panties” were the words on the note I passed to my best friend Sandra in Mr. Barne’s math class. What was “happening” had started earlier that morning before I left for school, as cramping and malaise that I could not identify. I had been feeling crampy and crappy for days, and while my mother suggested it might be my “not yet manifest menstrual cycle,” I was unsure because I didn’t know how to interpret the new messages my body was giving me. As the day progressed, so did the symptoms of menarche, my first period, and then I felt a new sensation release, a tangible message from my body that I was about to embark on a journey that would change my relationship with my body, my family, my friends and the world around me. As Sandie and I made our way to the nurse's office with a pass from Mr. Barnes, I was letting my mind wrap around the fact that I had started my period.
My mother, a registered nurse, had shared with me and my younger sister, Georgette, that her menstruation journey had begun when she was 14. She filled our home with books, zines, and resources that would help us prepare for our first periods' impending arrival. In very 1970s language, she also reminded us that our bodies belonged to us and us alone and that she would always be open and available for us to talk to. We believed her, and she kept her word.
"What is Menopause anyway?"
If you Google menopause, you will likely learn that the average age when many individuals experience menopause is around 51 years old. What this online search doesn’t break down is that menopause is a life transition that presents itself on a spectrum beginning with a pre-game called “perimenopause,” lasting 5-7 years. What is considered “typical” depends on the individual experience. During the perimenopause phase, it is common for people to encounter symptoms such as irregular periods, hot flashes, chills, and night sweats. Perimenopause can commence as early as the 30s for some individuals, accompanied by additional symptoms like depression, anxiety, mood swings, and weight gain. Technically, Menopause, marks the anniversary of not experiencing a menstrual cycle for one FULL calendar year: no short cycles, spotting, or sightings. If a person goes period-free for 11 months and 29 days but wakes up on day 30 with a message from Aunt Flo, they start the clock again.
The term "menopause" was introduced around 1821 by the French physician Charles Pierre Louis De Gardanne, who wrote one of the earliest articles on the subject titled "De la ménépausie, ou de l’âge critique des femmes" (Menopause: The Critical Age of Women). The male-centric naming and understanding of menopause, a phenomenon historically associated with women, marked the beginning of a problematic journey in women's health. Dr. De Gardanne's explanations of hormonal changes experienced by individuals with uteruses and ovaries reflected the prevailing pseudoscience of the early 19th century. Menopause, fraught with stereotypes and tropes, became another means for mainstream culture to oppress women and those identifying with womanhood through the growing field of gynecology. As a result, menopause has been pathologized and problematized.
By 2025, the global population of women experiencing menopause is projected to exceed one billion, approximately 12% of the world population. These numbers will likely be even higher if we consider individuals who will undergo menopause but do not identify as women or are gender non-binary. It is worth noting that how society and culture perceive aging and revere our elders can reflect our attitudes towards aging and mortality. Menopause is not seen as a positive transformation with various stages and manifestations but as a fearful ending.
Five things I wish I had known at the beginning of my menopause journey but am grateful to share through the platform we’ve created at the Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause include:
Menopause is a highly individualized physical, cultural, and political experience.
Menopause doesn’t always happen in your 40s and 50s. Many people experience menopause in their 20s and 30 for various medical reasons, and their experiences are often rendered invisible.
Menopause affects individuals who do not identify as women, including those with gender identities outside the traditional female and male binary.
Menopause is experienced by individuals who are not heterosexual, encompassing a diverse range of sexual orientations.
There is no “one size fits all” menopause experience, and the diversity of Individual menopause experiences are impacted by our families of origin, culture, environment, and systems of oppression.
How do we break the taboos that often perpetuate a sense of shame, silence, or even dismissal when discussing and addressing the experiences and needs of menopausal individuals? Society's failure to openly acknowledge and support individuals during this natural life transition can lead to feelings of isolation, diminished self-esteem, and a lack of access to appropriate resources and care. One of the ways we neutralize this dynamic is to engage in intentional intergenerational healing and culture shift work about how we understand our relationship with our bodies throughout our lifetime. An alternative and potentially more impactful perspective on the experience of menopause is to view it as a rite of passage that acknowledges its liminal nature.
Menopause represents a transformation into a new version of oneself. We should recognize individuals navigating their highly personal journey through menopause with care and support from those around them.
We need to remember that menopause is not a spontaneous event. While it marks an ending, it also designates a transition and a new beginning. I used to tell people that my menopause story began in my early 40s, but my menopause journey began the day I started my period, and that journey lasted for 34 years. Embracing the dynamism and uniqueness of each menopausal experience would reinforce the truths of our humanity rather than the false narratives built on stereotypes or tropes. When we embrace our transitions through life, we give ourselves permission just to be— no more, no less.
Omisade Burney-Scott is the Creator and Chief Menopause Cartographer for The Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause, a multidisciplinary platform engaged in culture and narrative shift work through the centering the menopause stories from Black women, femmes, trans and gender-expansive people.
For educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding your health.