Women are sharing their menopause experiences

Beena Hammond
·11-min read
Photo credit: Hearst
Photo credit: Hearst

BAME women don’t go through the menopause. At least that’s the message being told to countless Black and Asian women in the UK. Look at posters in doctors’ surgeries, or do a quick image search on Google, and you’ll likely be met by images of white women with grey hair, invariably clutching a fan.

Although menopause is being discussed more than ever (about time as the definition was coined in 1821), the narrative isn’t culturally diverse. Take this year’s musical Cruising Through Menopause or Nicole Kidman’s series, Nine Perfect Strangers, all featuring menopausal women, but not one of Colour.

Add to the mix cultural, economic and healthcare barriers that Black and Asian women hit harder than their white counterparts, and we begin to see disproportionately high levels of BAME women being diagnosed with menopausal-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

GEN M, a new online platform offering support and advice for menopausal women of all ethnicities and backgrounds in the UK, is trying to change that.

Co-founder Heather Jackson says: 'In today’s society, there are some cultures where menopause is a conversation that still needs to happen, be understood and be supported better. Research and data show us that those with a BAME heritage are affected differently.' You can read more about the work they're doing here.

Here, we speak to five Black and Asian women trying to navigate the menopause in Britain today...

Karen Arthur hosts podcast Menopause Whilst Black, and shares Black women's menopause stories on Instagram

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Karen Arthur is tired. Six years ago, the 59-year-old fashion designer left her job in a secondary school, her life crumbling around her. She went to the doctors about the debilitating depression, anxiety and hot flushes she was experiencing and was immediately offered anti-depressants.

It took Karen three years of research to conclude she was menopausal. That the depression she was experiencing actually related to a hormonal drop she faced with menopause.

She now runs Menopause Whilst Black, an Instagram account and podcast sharing other Black women’s stories of menopause. She says this is 'essentially because, very little out there resonates for other Black women': 'There was nothing out there for women like me. The menopause landscape at the moment is incredibly pale.'

And although conversations about menopause are opening up, they’re not opening up for everyone. 'There’s a lot of white women making a lot of noise, but there aren't Black women making noise,' she adds. 'It's not that we don't exist. It's that we’re not seen', and – with the whole Black Lives Matter movement – she says: 'I feel at the moment there’s something about expecting Black women to only talk about race'.

When it comes to research around Black British women and menopause, Karen says she was shocked by how little was out there: 'The last survey was in 2007 on BAME women and HRT. It featured just three Black British women, and concluded more work was needed'. That work is yet to be done, so Karen has being doing some research of her own.

'Why did it have to take me, a fashion designer, to do a survey on this from my kitchen table, to try to find out why Black women don’t want HRT?' Thirty women filled it in, and only two were on HRT. ‘Whenever I see HRT being discussed on social media, it tends to be white women,' she says.

On top of this, Karen says there’s historical patriarchy, where not only are women shamed for their natural processes, but Black women are also plunged into a stereotype. 'There’s something about not showing weakness,' she explains. 'Not slowing down or stopping. Being the shoulder that everybody cries on, and the person who fixes everything.'

Karen hopes that her podcast will help to empower women to be 'able to advocate for themselves at the doctors, in the workplace, at home, and give us permission to talk about what is going on so we can allow people to support us. Right now, that isn't happening.'

On that theme, she says she’s often asked by doctors where all the Black women are.

“I would answer, "how are you approaching Black women?". What outreach work are you doing? Are you making a conscious effort in the media? Do women think your clinic is the place for them?' she says.

'Once we diversify the menopause landscape, everyone wins. I can’t believe it’s 2021 and there are only two Black British women on social media talking about menopause, and even that’s seen as so bloody ground-breaking.'

Nina Kuypers is founder and host of Black Women in Menopause on Facebook, and runs monthly events around menopause.

Photo credit: Nina Kuypers
Photo credit: Nina Kuypers

Nina found out she was perimenopausal aged 43, after she had a routine appointment for a blood disorder. She was shocked by the lack of information available to her.

'I wasn’t provided with any information on what to expect or where to seek support,' she says. When she went online, she found platforms that related to US-Black women or featured only white women. 'I thought why are few Black women and women from other ethnic minorities portrayed in the UK media? Why are we not talking about this?'

For Nina, now 48, the answer to these questions is a rabbit hole of complexities: 'What you don’t understand, or know about, you are less likely to speak about, especially something which has such a societal stigma. For me, as a Black woman, none of what was out there resonated with me on a personal level'.

Her menopause experience, in part, included issues that she felt were difficult to talk about – for example hyperpigmentation becoming more noticeable on her skin, or her hair becoming coarser.

'I didn’t have a place to discuss with other Black women about their experiences. Couple this knowledge with the fact that many health care professionals aren’t trained about menopause – on top of barriers talking about those cultural elements – then it makes the natural biological process, that half the planet goes through, even more challenging,' she says.

Nina created Black Women in Menopause on Facebook, a safe space for Black women to have open and honest conversations about menopause. But, more importantly, she says, 'to let them know they’re not alone'.

Nina runs events every other month. The next one will run on April 22 around 'Eating for Menopause'. Find out more here.


Meera Bhogal runs a healthy eating programme for South Asian women

Photo credit: Meera Bhogal
Photo credit: Meera Bhogal

Right now, Meera Bhogal, 52, is a picture of health. Meera runs healthy eating and wellbeing classes for menopausal women of South Asian descent, as well as healthy eating brand Made from Scratch. She could easily pass for someone who’s never had a health issue in her life.

But, when early menopause at 40 left her with debilitating periods, painful cramps, and joint pain, a visit to her GP incorrectly informed her that she was too young to be menopausal.

'No-one in my family would talk about it,' she says. 'There was no elderly female I could go to. So, I just thought – OK, it doesn’t happen. It was a very lonely place and there was no-one I could reach out to.'

It was only when Meera met up with her English friends and talked about her symptoms that she joined the dots.

'As far as the generation before us, it never happened. But perimenopause and menopause can go on for 20 or 30 years of your life and it’s just not talked about. More often than not, women are misdiagnosed and given antidepressants when this is about hormonal shifts,' she says.

Meera now runs classes for South Asian women who initially come to her about weight loss. Weight gain being a common symptom of menopause. 'I ask them what else is happening, and talk openly about perimenopause, or menopause,' she says.

And the response has been positive with getting husbands on board too, but there’s a long way to go: 'I’ve been told that this is a "white person's illness" and that menopause is a myth. This is what we’re up against. We need translators. We need role models who look like us to ensure that the seriousness of missing things is understood. Getting factual information is important – many Asian women still believe HRT is made from horse urine.'

She adds that it’s no coincidence that menopause-aged Asian women have a high prevalence of osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease. 'It’s rising because we tend not to talk about things,' she explains. 'Whether it's miscarriages or periods, you’re just meant to get on with it.'

Priti Patel, 50, is a chemical engineer from London

Photo credit: Priti Patel
Photo credit: Priti Patel

Priti has two children aged 17 and 14, and describes her home as 'a house full of hormones'.

She was lucky enough to have cousins to share her experiences of menopause with, but, she says, like many, 'my mother’s generation would never speak about it; it was never discussed'.

She first noticed heavy bleeding after her daughter, who’s now 14, was born: 'I had this for six months, then they’d stop, and came back even heavier. I saw my GP, but he said there’s nothing to worry about, so I endured it all. I didn’t know it was perimenopause'.

Even though she has a safe haven to speak about menopause with cousins and friends, she also faces the same issues as other BAME women whenever she visits sites online or sees her GP.

'[Images] always features white women going grey. I don’t feel 50, and I don’t look it, so how does this image relate to me?', she says. 'I know a large proportion of the population is white, but there’s a lot of Asians and minorities out there, we're just not seen. This is especially important as in our communities, menopause is just not talked about.'

Dr Nighat Arif is a family GP, specialising in women's health. She is a familiar face on BBC Breakfast and ITV, and also raises awareness of menopause on Tik Tok, Instagram and Twitter

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Dr Arif says BAME women face two barriers when it comes to talking about menopause: the health industry itself and pressure within their culture to stay silent.

'NHS practitioners are not trained in menopause,' she says. 'They often don’t realise you can have menopausal symptoms during perimenopause, or have symptoms and still have your period. And that there’s no blood test that can reliably tell you if you’re perimenopausal as hormones fluctuate. That’s a barrier to all women.'

She’s often faced with a backlash from within her own South Asian community, just for trying to raise awareness: 'I often get asked "why are you talking about this?" It’s because we have an internalised misogyny, with women themselves alluding to an attitude of "let’s just put up with it". We need a whole cultural and healthcare shift.'

Dr Arif says the mental health side effects of menopause are even more taboo. 'Many women from South Asian communities will not talk about menopause-related mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, because of a shame of linking this with an incapability to cope or even madness. So, pain is easier to discuss.”

She adds that when a doctor doesn’t understand this, the pain is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia, or perhaps vitamin D deficiency. 'But there are often other things: hot flushes, lack of libido, night sweats, so it comes down to our patient’s ability to communicate that.'

Overall, she says getting more South Asian women to speak about their symptoms needs to come from having more 'people like me, who look like them, breaking barriers and talking more and openly educating women in a language that they can understand'.

Dr Arif says: 'I produce information Punjabi and Urdu and Hindi and on Tik Tok for women in their own language, pertaining to midlife doesn’t mean end of life.'

BAME women can help end the taboo around menopause by visiting the Gen M website and sharing their experiences. Find out more here.

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