The first in our series of articles explores the reasons behind the stigma surrounding the menopause.
Why is there a stigma?
We constantly talk about the menopause as being stigmatised, without really discussing how stigmas are created, why there is a stigma around the menopause, and how it can be undone. But first, let’s explore what a stigma really is.
The word itself is derived from the Greek steizen, that refers to the marks that were cut or burned onto the skin of slaves and criminals in ancient times, to set them apart from the rest and symbolise shame and low status. While modern-day stigma does not lead to any physical marking, the feeling of shame and lower status has persisted. According to Professors Link and Phelan, stigma, ‘exists when elements of labeling, stereotyping, separating, status loss, and discrimination co-occur in a power situation that allows these processes to unfold.’
Until about 100 years ago, there was very little medical information on the menopause and many believed that the menopause was a sign of women’s hysteria…
So why is there a stigma around the menopause? In general, a stigma occurs because it causes two threats: tangible threats and symbolic threats. A tangible threat is one which poses, ‘a risk to material or concrete goods’ while a symbolic threat threatens ‘beliefs, values, [and] ideology’. While it may seem silly to think that the menopause causes any threat whatsoever (at least, to anyone who isn’t experiencing it), it’s important to remember that the stigma around the menopause has been building for a long time. Until about 100 years ago, there was very little medical information on the menopause and many believed that the menopause was a sign of women’s hysteria – a once diagnosed disorder (for more on this, see our article A History of the Menopause). Like other mental illnesses, the menopause was considered something scary, something problematic, and even something harmful to society. As such, this concept carried on throughout the years and as societies remained uninformed about the menopause, the stigma persisted.
The biggest solution is to continue talking about it, despite the discomfort it may cause a very few.
Today, the menopause is still fairly unknown to many. There are many myths and unknown facts about the menopause and as a result it is still seen as a hush-hush topic. Because of this, it continues to be difficult to destigmatise. The biggest solution is to continue talking about it, despite the discomfort it may cause a very few. The more we educate the public about the menopause and the more we open up about our own experience, the more normal it will become in society (because it is normal).
There are a lot of things that used to be stigmatised or taboo that are now commonplace: having children outside marriage, tattoos, women keeping their maiden name, divorce, and the list goes on. That said, unlike these things, menopause is inevitable, and will occur to every woman at some point and so we really aren’t dealing with something that happens to a small percentage of the population. To break a stigma requires open discussion and clear information. It is such a normal and commonplace event in a woman’s life, it should be treated like a normal and commonplace concept in society, so let’s keep the conversation going and fight to destigmatise the menopause once and for all.