According to Shirley Weir, founder of Menopause Chicks, 70% of women don’t have anyone to talk to about menopause. She’s working to change that.
Weir empowers women to make informed decisions about their midlife health by “cracking open the conversation” about perimenopause and menopause. Her online platform, Menopause Chicks connects women to unbiased information about menopause, and allows site visitors to search for health professionals in their area who specialize in women’s midlife health.
Q&A with Shirley Weir
We recently sat down with Weir, a well-regarded speaker and writer, and asked: Why is menopause so misunderstood? A topic she recently tackled at TedxGastownWomen (YouTube video; 11min).
Q: Why do you think menopause is such a taboo topic in North America?
A: Menopause and perimenopause are taboo subjects because of the language we use to describe them. Menopause has been medicalized and monetized, and there are a number of misconceptions around the definition of “menopause”. Menopause is just one day. Your mother or grandmother might have said I’m going through menopause which implies a longer time period, but the reality is that description refers to perimenopause.
Menopause is the 12-month anniversary of your last period. And perimenopause describes the 5-15 years of hormone fluctuation leading up to that day. It’s different for each woman, but the average age of menopause is 51. Perimenopause can start as early as your mid-to-late 30s.
In North America, we’ve been conditioned to think of menopause as something that requires medical intervention. However, in Japan, they don’t even have a word to describe a hot flash. Japanese and Asian women in particular report fewer perimenopause and menopause experiences. This could be due to their diet or culture. They also respect and revere their elders. Growing older is something that’s celebrated.
That doesn’t happen in North America. We’re bombarded with anti-aging messages that get into our psyche and we start to think of aging, and all that comes with it, as something we should run from rather than embrace.
Q: What are misconceptions about perimenopause and menopause that you’d like to clear up?
A: These are the common misconceptions I come across:
Misconception #1: Menopause is a negative thing that happens to us.
Whenever I say the word “menopause” at a cocktail party, I can see the thought bubbles rise above people’s heads and typically, if they share their first thought, it’s a word like old, fat, moody or bitchy. But the truth is menopause marks a time when women really come into their own. We need to reframe menopause to include adjectives such as wise, free, confident and sexy.
Misconception #2: Menopause needs a doctor or diagnosis.
There’s an undertone that menopause needs a doctor or a diagnosis. It doesn’t. It’s a phase of life. We typically don’t take our children to the doctor when they’re going through puberty.
Misconception #3: Menopause is just part of aging.
It’s true that menopause is part of the normal aging process. What’s not true is that women going through menopause must compromise their quality of life. For example, if a woman experiences urinary incontinence, it’s often chalked up to getting older and many women suffer in silence. By having more conversations and education, we turn this misconception on its head so women learn they can easily navigate any challenges, that they don’t have to “suck it up” and that they deserve quality of life.
Misconception #4: We don’t need to learn about menopause until we’re 50.
I started Menopause Chicks when I was 46 and I had a lot of friends say to me, Oh, I didn’t know you were 50 yet. Or they would say, I’m not there yet, so I don’t need to know about menopause. Since perimenopause often begins in our 30s, my message for women is to get informed early. That way, you’ll know what to expect.
Q: How can women become more empowered at the doctor’s office?
A: I encourage women to become their own healthcare advocates. The reality is a lot of women are frustrated by the limited or lack of knowledge they get from doctors and the media regarding menopause. To be your own midlife health advocate, you have to first know what each healthcare professional has in their toolkit. You also need to confidently question the options you’re given and know that it’s okay to say that’s not going to work for me and to explore other options like acupuncture, yoga or meditation.
For example, women in the Menopause Chicks community often say to me, my doctor prescribed antidepressants. They feel very frustrated with the whole experience. What I wish they would say to their doctor is, you know what, I don’t feel depressed. What are some other options?
It’s important for women to know that they don’t have to accept the messages or the treatment options initially presented. Often, we go to the doctor and expect them to have all of the answers. We must ask questions. Part of being your own healthcare advocate is getting informed and then choosing the journey that’s right for you. This includes building your own midlife health team.
Q: Tell us about building out a midlife health team. Who should be on a woman’s team and how early should she begin to plan?
A: Start as early as possible. First learn as much as you can about your body. Track your experiences. Everyone’s experience is different. Being proactive is probably the best approach anyone can take. And then, if you feel you would like external support, there are many health professionals to choose from. Who should be on the team is up to you. Begin by asking yourself questions like:
- Do I have a strong relationship with my family doctor?
- Do I subscribe to the theories of naturopathic medicine?
- Would I feel better if I increased the number of vitamins or supplements I’m taking?
- Am I getting enough exercise?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
In addition, your health team is more than just a group of healthcare professionals. It should also include the people you interact with on a daily basis. Surround yourself with a community of support. Talk to your mother, sisters and girlfriends. Have lots of conversations.
Q: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). What are your thoughts on it? What about alternative treatments and natural remedies?
A: In the 1970s and 1980s, hormone replacement therapy was the go-to prescription for women once they reached a certain age. Doctors didn’t necessarily look at the reasons behind women’s complaints and difficulties. Then along came a study that said hormone replacement therapy was bad and it could lead to increased risk of breast cancer, stroke and heart disease. It was front page news. As a result, a lot of doctors changed their tune.
Unfortunately, the results of the study were misleading. The women who participated in that study were all older and predisposed to those conditions. That didn’t make the front page. But by that point, a lot of women and doctors had already abandoned hormone replacement therapy as a treatment option. The whole thing caused a lot of confusion.
The good news is, 30 years later, we know hormone therapy can be a safe option when all the risk assessments are considered. By working with a healthcare professional who specializes in women’s health and hormone balance, you can determine the dosage and treatment time period that’s best for you. That goes for alternative treatments and natural remedies too.
Editor’s note: To help crack open the conversation about menopause, join the Menopause Chicks community group on Facebook, or become a member of the online platform and start building your midlife healthcare team today. In January 2018, watch out for Weir’s new book ‘Moody Bitch to Menopause Chick’, a guide to help you navigate your perimenopause-to-menopause journey with confidence and ease. Visit menopausechicks.com to download a free excerpt.