I would never have imagined this would be the most positive and empowering time in my life
Rachel Lankester, founder of Magnificent Midlife and of the e-mag The Mutton Club
I am deeply fond of all the conversations I’m having here. It’s as if every person I talk with leaves me with a pearl and I treasure them all. Sometimes, it happens that an idea sticks in my mind and that’s what happened with a sentence of Jane Evans, founder of the Uninvisibility Project: “There’s still massive discrimination against non-fertile women.” We know how deep the roots of our social conditioning go, so I followed the thread of my curiosity regarding the concept of menopause. Where does the name come from? What about its meaning?
It seems the copyright of the name goes to Charles Pierre Louis de Gardanne, a French doctor who minted the definition of “ménespausie” in 1816 and later changed it to “ménopause” because sounded better. In terms of branding, doctor Gardanne did more: he came up with the tag-line “Âge critique des femmes.” The critical age of women.
In London, Sir Henry Halford, physician to King George III, published an essay titled: “On the climacteric disease.” A double down on negativity. Climacteric is a word of Greek origin, partly infused with negative connotations because it refers to the rung of a ladder used to fix joint dislocations. More generally, it was used to define the critical points encountered on the ladder of life. For the Ancient Greeks, the climacteric moments were moments of change and there was particular concern for the years that are multiples of 7 or 9.
The concept of “climacteric disease” became part of the medical dictionary in 1833. At that time, the woman who would become the first female doctor in the West was only 12 years old. However paradoxical, it’s evident that the “history” of menopause was written by men. Fast forward to a clinical view of menopause in the 20th century, it was considered a condition characterized by a deficiency of estrogen and therefore “treated” with hormone replacement therapy. Doubts began to emerge in 1997 when The Lancet published an analysis that correlates HRT and cancer.
Only very recently, menopause came out from the cupboard under the stairs, thanks - at least in part - to a growing desire to own who we are the way we are, but also to some bold voices like the one of Rachel Lankester, founder of Magnificent Midlife and of the e-mag The Mutton Club, a tongue-in-a-cheek title that offers a new perspective on this time in our life.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you decided to create Magnificent Midlife?
I had several careers, including banking and PR and I was diagnosed with early menopause at the age of 41. This was my ticket for a journey to discover who I really was.
The first part of the journey made me realize how much I had bought into the negative narrative relating to menopause. It was a time of soul searching, I scratched my own itch and that’s why I created an online hub and community for women over 40: I wanted to give them what would have helped me during the midlife transition years.
Menopause might not be a taboo, but it's certainly a hushed topic. Why do you think it is so?
I think women haven’t liked to talk about it, because there’s a sense of shame around aging. I came to realize that we are taught to fear losing our fertility, to fear aging. We are taught to fear menopause, because society suggests that our value only lasts while we are young and fertile.
Do you agree that our society discriminates against non-fertile women?
Yes, but women also often discriminate against themselves. Ageism is a prejudice against our future selves. We have negative thoughts about aging and the generations are separated. The media plays on this and the result is that there’s not enough respect for aging and older people. It’s crazy that people have such wrong ideas on aging - for example, our society rarely acknowledges the beauty of older women - preferring to worship youth.
But the same rule doesn’t happen apply to men…
Men’s fertility is independent of their years and, in fact, we feel they do not lose their beauty when they age. We refer to them with expressions like “silver fox,” but we don’t use “silver vixen” for women.
It seems that the history of menopause has been written by men. What is your position on this phase?
I’m against the over-medicalization of menopause, which I see as a natural transition in a woman’s life. Menopause seems to be a bigger issue in the West than in other parts of the world. Some women have symptoms and others don’t. Why are there so many differences? I’d like to see more research on that.
I know there are numerous variables at play, like diet, lifestyle, mind-set and the environment, but since I’ve began my journey into the realm of menopause, I’ve realised we’re culturally conditioned to think about it in a certain way that can affect our experience.
For example, it was shown in a BBC documentary that hot flushes could be helped dramatically by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which focused on removing the sense of shame associated with having the flush.
We are used to thinking about menopause as a physical event and, somehow, the psychological changes remain in the background. What are the most fascinating changes you experienced and/or learned about through your online community?
The end of fertility can be an incredibly fertile time. We have a different hormone profile, we are no longer subject to the yo-yo effects of estrogen. We can feel empowered, calmer, we see things more clearly. It’s been reported that we have a second creative spurt in our 50s.
What suggestions would you give to benefit from this psychological transition?
It’s a great time for women to re-evaluate what they want from life and take advantage of new passions and confidence. It’s easy to get down or feel stuck, but connecting with like-minded women (like in my members club) can help women make positive changes and bring them a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment. I help them bounce ideas around, imagine a different future and make that actually happen.
What are the most unexpected and surprising things you have learned about menopause so far?
I would never have imagined this would have be the most positive and empowering time in my life.
What would be a better way to frame menopause?
Menopause is a very powerful transition. We need to embrace it. We’ve been dealing with our wombs all our lives, now’s not the time to start fighting them. Be open to new possibilities and don’t buy into the negative narratives. We get better with age, not worse. I don’t want women to fear menopause or getting older.