Menopause and Culture
by MC Kelby (originally published on empowher.com)
Western women suffer greater menopausal symptoms than other women around the globe. Also, Western patriarchal cultures treat older women as if they are less valuable members of society. But this is not the case in other areas around the globe.
Studies have shown that, with menopause, one size does not fit all. Learning to appreciate these differences may help women become more comfortable with and find a more positive way to approach menopause.
A clear example of the difference in Eastern and Western perspectives on the emotional and physical changes women typically experience as they get older are the very terms used to describe these changes. The Japanese word for this phase of life, konenki, when broken down, stands for “renewal years” and “energy,” whereas the Greek roots of the English word “menopause” simply mean “monthly stop.”
In fact, only about 25 percent of Japanese women reportedly experience hot flashes. Chilliness is the symptom reported more often than hot flashes but the most common symptom during this time for Japanese women is reportedly shoulder stiffness.
Most research tends to point to diet as the main reason for the lack of symptoms among Japanese women. Some feel that a diet high in fats and low in fiber (typical American diet) leads to higher estrogen levels and set us up for a large drop of estrogen when our ovaries begin to make less of it. Others feel that the high intake of phytoestrogens and isoflavones in Asian diets lessens hormonal imbalance.
The absence of hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms in other cultures shows us that, in addition to diet and lifestyle considerations, there may be a relationship between what we experience physically and what we learn from our social environments. Women in Kaliai, Papua New Guinea, welcome the end of childbearing without symptoms, as do many Native Americans and subcontinental Indians. And in northern Sudan, menopause is merely another facet of growing older, bringing with it increased social power and respect. If menopause were looked at this way in the U.S., we would all welcome it as a time of renewal.
And interviews of rural Mayan Indian women further illustrate that menopause is far from a uniform experience. Researchers found that the women reported no hot flashes or any significant menopausal symptoms. Mayan women tend to look forward to menopause because with it comes a progressive change in status within their communities and, in turn, a feeling of freedom. When women from indigenous cultures cross into menopause, they often become known as “wise women” or spiritual leaders and hold a place of power in their communities.
Across indigenous cultures, from the Maori in New Zealand to the Iroquois Indians, post-menopausal women are community leaders with considerable power and status. To these people, menopause itself is the transition between being a member of the community at large to becoming a spiritual elder.
A common belief among traditional shamanic cultures (for example, Mayan women and the Cree women of Canada) is that women must enter menopause to access their shamanic and healing powers. Menstrual blood has the power to create life in the womb, so when women reach the age of retaining their “wise blood,” they cross the threshold into “wise womanhood” by keeping their wise blood within. At this point they become priestesses and healers (the spiritual leaders of their communities).
So how much do our own perceptions about menopause influence the way our bodies react?
A doctor in California may tell a woman that her loss of libido is another physical response to menopause and write her a prescription while a Bengali woman having the same symptom doesn’t think there’s anything wrong (to her, sexual activity during this time seems totally illogical).
In a study done in Iran, women living in rural areas experienced more negative feelings about menopause than urban women. Researchers had predicted the opposite, assuming that urban women exposed to Western, youth-oriented culture would have more negative perceptions of menopause. Instead, they found the farm women, whose importance was identified with their fertility, had more problems with menopause.
Also, findings from a SWAN study showed that ethnic background influences the age at which menopause starts. Latina and African-American women often entered menopause earlier than white women, while Asian women reached menopause several months later. (Interestingly, women who smoke tend to begin menopause one to two years earlier than non-smokers.)
What accounts for these diverse experiences? Differences in diet, environment, cultural beliefs, and genetics may all play a role. Greater awareness and understanding of the diversity in how women experience menopause across ethnic groups gives all women permission to celebrate and embrace their new status in any way they like.
Knowing that hot flashes and other symptoms are not mandatory in menopause can help us to understand that, whether through change in diet, exercise, stress management or hormonal balance, we do have a lot more control over our own menopause than we might have thought in the past.
MC Ortega is the former publicist for the late Walter Payton, Coca-Cola and Dunkin™ Donuts. Ortega is a senior communications and messaging executive specializing in media relations, social media, program development and crisis communications. Also, Ortega is an avid traveler and international shopper. Ortega resides with her partner, Craig, dog, Fionne and extensive shoe collection. Ortega also enjoys jewelry design/production and flamenco dancing.