Holy Hormones Journal: – so very pleased to share this post from my colleagues at The New View – an academic feminist organization acting as a watch dog for pharmaceutical products marketed to women – and to providing accurate information challenging the medicalization of women’s health.
“Larger societal attitudes and norms concerning women’s roles, worth, contributions, and sexuality generally and as they age has an effect on how women experience menopause since it is through our cultural lens that we make sense and meaning of menopause.”
Menopause: What’s Culture Got to Do With It?
The Huffington Post
11/02/2017 05:12 pm ET
Patricia Whelehan, Contributor
Patricia Whelehan, PhD, CST/CAC, is an emerita professor in the SUNY system and a certified sex therapist with AASECT, a certified sex therapist, mentor and clinical supervisor with the ABS and a certified HIV test counselor in CA and NY
Anne Bolin, Contributor
Emerita Professor of Anthropology, Dept of Sociology and Anthropology, Elon University
Menopause is more than a physiological phenomenon. It is steeped in cultural meaning and articulated with our evolutionary past. This entry and future entries are shaped by your authors’ training as anthropologists. As we have stated in our first blog, “Sexuality and Women over 50: Women and Aging,” we believe we bring a unique lens to this topic not shared by other disciplines and one not known more widely outside of academia. We are both “Boomer” women, retired university professors of anthropology. We devoted our careers to sexuality issues especially as those impacting women. We will use cross-cultural, comparative, and evolutionary data to show how many societies, in contrast to ours, embrace sexuality in women over 50. We will apply this perspective to specific topics concerning women over 50 in the US. Here we are concerned with menopause as a bio-cultural phenomenon. Humans are unique in that our biological evolution is closely tied to interaction with culture, and thus has huge implications for understanding menopause.
Why Menopause?: “Why do human females, and even higher primate females, live for an extended period of time after their reproductive lives are over?¹
As with much anthropological research, there are controversies and multiple explanations as to why human and higher primate females experience menopause and live for an extended period of time after it occurs. While there are numerous explanations including the argument that menopause is a “by-product of the longer life span in general for humans,
” we feel the most compelling evidence supports the Grandmother hypothesis which we explained in our entry on Aging (Blaffer-Hrdy 1999; Fadigan and Parelka 2015: 781-782). Briefly, the Grandmother hypothesis argues that there is an evolutionary benefit to having post-menopausal women survive well past menopause due to the vital socio-cultural roles that they fill in their societies. As Fedigan and Pavilla (2015) discuss, older females provide extremely important additional roles to that of mothers, including childrearing and caring. They also fill other fundamental roles as healers and political leaders which are often denied to younger women.
As a bio-cultural stage in the human life cycle, menopause is a perfect/ideal topic to exemplify the interplay of a biological process (menopause) with the socio-cultural and structural responses and meanings societies attribute to it. Menopause is an evolutionary old process as testified by its universality for human females and by some evidence that our closest living relatives, female chimps, also experience menopause (Blaffer-Hrdy 1999). There are finite universal physical manifestations of menopause for human females which include the following:
- Menopause is a process that lasts several years, generally occurring between 45-55 years of age.
- As a multi-year process, women are assumed to be fertile until 1 year after their last menstrual period or LMP). To avoid pregnancy, the use of effective, culturally-acceptable, birth control is recommended during this time. In the US, if a pregnancy occurs during this time it is often referred to as a “change of life baby.”
- Fertility ends.
- Due to a decrease in estrogen which maintains the vaginal walls and mucosa, thinning and drying of the vagina occurs (Northrup 1998; Crocetti 2015).
These are the only universal biologic aspects of menopause, and these changes are also structured and responded to by societal norms, beliefs, and values which influence how women in various cultures experience menopause and its changes.
Other physical events commonly ascribed to menopausal women in the US such as vasomotor changes (referred to as hot flashes, night sweats and flushes), osteoporosis, weight gain and reduction in muscle mass; and lack of interest in or enjoyment of sexual relations or painful vaginal sexual activity are neither universal across societies or even within the U.S. The mainstream U.S. perspective reflects larger societal views and beliefs that menopause is a period of “decline,” which is structured and reinforced by bio-medicine, Big Pharma, and the beauty industries.