Gwyneth Paltrow, owner of the lifestyle brand Goop, is back talking about reproductive health and has now turned her attention to the menopause.
“I think menopause gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of rebranding,” Paltrow said in an online video, explaining that she was going through its early stages.
The menopause, when a woman’s periods stop as the levels of the hormone oestrogen decline, is a natural part of the ageing process and usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. Common symptoms range from the physical – hot flushes, sweats, vaginal dryness – to the psychological and emotional, such as low or swinging moods, a reduced libido and loss of memory or focus.
“When you get into perimenopause you notice a lot of changes,” said Paltrow. “I can feel hormonal shifts happening, the moods, you’re all of a sudden furious for no reason.”
The 46-year-old actress turned brand ambassador, who has come under fire for selling ‘vaginal health’ products with little medical backing, added: “I don’t think we have in our society a great example of an aspirational menopausal woman.”
To what extent is this true? Social perceptions of menopause have often been negative, particularly in the West, with silence, shame and stigma recurring themes around conversation and coverage of the process. In fact, stigma around menopause has even been suggested to exacerbate its symptoms.
The way ‘the change’– as it is often nicknamed – has been perceived has itself changed over time, particularly in whether it’s discussed as a medical ‘problem’ or a psychological one. While men are variously celebrated and mocked for the social phenomenon of the ‘mid-life crisis’, menopausal women can be labelled ‘hormonal’, a word that while technically true comes laden with associations.
In the BBC1 documentary, ‘The Menopause And Me’, Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark said: “It’s not so long ago that the hormonal changes that came with menopause were regarded as madness – the madwomen in the attic.”
Meanwhile, Dr Andrea Davies of the University of Leicester attracted press attention in August, suggesting men should say “menopause” at least three times daily to break the pervasive societal stigma.
Lizzie, 51, who runs a blog about menopause and is currently going through it herself, told HuffPost UK: “I never agree with Gwyneth Paltrow, but I totally agree with her on this. It’s such a taboo subject, that nobody wants to talk about it.”
There are also specific parts of the process that Lizzie feels people aren’t made aware enough of. “I knew that I’d get hot flushes,” she said. “I didn’t know I’d start losing my hair. That was a huge bolt from the blue.”
Lucy, 28, who went through menopause after going on hormone suppressing treatment for endometriosis, said: “I think anyone who has been found to be making statements about the benefits of putting jade eggs in your vagina probably loses their right to a platform on women’s reproductive issues.”
But Lucy, similarly to Lizzie, acknowledged that there might be something in Paltrow’s baseline statement. “I think menopause comes at a particularly vulnerable time for a lot of women in the workplace – they are senior but operating in a society that doesn’t value ageing women in the same way as it does men,” she said. “So I don’t think there’s an incentive really for a lot of women to speak out about it.”
With regards to role models, Lizzie said she had mixed feelings, questioning the idea of what ‘aspirational’ – a word that Paltrow has previously used to justify the prices of Goop’s products – really means.
“We need to get a role model out there, but not so much the ‘aspirational’,” she said. “I don’t want a role model who’s gonna be like the sanitary towels skydiving ads. Just someone who says: ‘This is how it is, it happens, and it’s perfectly natural.’”
Lucy says that gradually, discussion of menopause as an issue should, and will, come to the surface. “I think we have a long way to go to ensure the most senior positions in society are truly representative of our population. I think when we solve that problem, naturally more of these issues are going to be on the map,” she said.
“But Gwyneth Paltrow speaking about her experience of the menopause while simultaneously trying to flog dubious menopausal supplements does not an aspirational female role model make.”