Author Gail Sheehy called it the “silent passage” in her landmark 1992 book, but now women can’t stop talking about it. “It” is menopause. Yes, menopause is now like the love that once dared not speak its name. It’s all the rage (no pun intended) and celebrities are happy to discuss its impact on their lives.
A website called Healthline, for example, has a “Famous Faces of Menopause” slide show featuring celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Rosie O’Donnell talking about their own experiences with menopause. Whoopi Goldberg talked on national television about hot flashes and other hormonal changes. Oddly, despite the constant meno-chatter nowadays, “the Change,” as it was once called in whispered voices, took Whoopi by surprise. “My sex drive has totally changed,” Whoopi said. “One minute I’m like, ‘Yeah! I can’t wait for it.’ The next I’m saying, ‘Oh God, go away.’” Um, thanks for sharing?
Today, it’s not enough to endure the change of life; if you’re a celebrity, you have to talk about it. A lot. A good menopause is replete with edifying, sharable moments. Whoopi claims it was “liberating” and offered an opportunity to “examine the negative people” in her life and shed them. Angelina Jolie is the latest celebrity to embrace menopause publicly. Jolie, who is married to actor Brad Pitt, is only forty. Her menopause was brought on by the recent removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes to prevent cancer. (Jolie had a preventative double mastectomy two years ago.) But she is loving her menopause: “I actually love being in menopause,” Jolie has said. “I haven’t had a terrible reaction to it, so I’m very fortunate. I feel older, and I feel settled being older.”
While I rejoice that menopause is treating Angelina well and that dishy Brad is copacetic with everything, I mentally filed Jolie’s revelations in my things-I-did-not-need-to-know file. Not so Allison Pearson, the U.K. columnist and author of the feminist-approved novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, who finds Jolie’s confessions nothing short of an act of heroism. “This may be the bravest thing said by a Hollywood star since, well, since forever actually,” Pearson writes in her Telegraph column.
Pearson considers Jolie’s acknowledgement of her menopause “a hugely symbolic breakthrough” comparable to actress Demi Moore’s posing seven months pregnant and buck naked for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. While I decline to share my “M” status with you, Gentle Reader, I will just say that I am enough of an old fogey to have found Ms. Moore’s Vanity Fair cover, if not downright frightening to little children, at least not in the very best of taste. For Pearson, by contrast, Moore’s act showed not a strain of exhibitionism but was in fact courageous because the actress “dared to show what sexy and desirable commonly leads to in real life: a baby. Who knew?” (Who did not know?)
Predictably, the headline of Pearson’s column was “Menopause Is No Longer Taboo.” The menopause-is-no-longer-taboo meme isn’t exactly new; it’s been making the rounds at least since the New York Times hailed Sheehy’s 1992 book as “a truly gutsy and taboo-breaking book on menopause.” Earlier this year the Independent noted, “There’s nothing shameful about the menopause, so why is it still considered taboo?” And we learned only last month from NPR that menopause is “no longer taboo.”
To her credit, Sheehy offered women encouragement and helpful medical information about a time of stress. But embedded in the current menopause talk is the notion that menopause was once a stigma from which women are now boldly freeing themselves. No, it was never a stigma. It was a fact of life. But it was private.
One cannot leave the subject of menopause without mentioning Florence King, who wrote about it in the 1970s and 1980s. For King, the taboo status of “the Change” is what made the subject so much fun. During a performance of Lady Macbeth’s out-damned-spot scene in Macbeth, for example, Florence’s granny whispered, “She’s havin’ the change!” Of Antigone, Miss King’s grandmother’s observed, “Some women get a bee in their bonnet at that time of life.” According to Florence, there was even a kind of menopause status hierarchy: An early and arduous menopause was regarded as a sign of good breeding, at least in the South.
If that is the case, my own mother must have been a true aristocrat. Of course we never discussed the situation. I only knew because I often accompanied mother to the doctor to get “happy shots,” which, on reflection, I hope were legal. My mother survived without ever talking about menopause and had many productive years afterwards. It was a far cry from the Angelina Jolie-style celebrations of menopause we see so often now. Perhaps celebrities could take a page from previous generations and bring some much-needed silence back to this life passage.