Women of a Certain Age

Every physical stage and emotional aspect of women’s lives has been pathologized, that is to say, viewed through the lens of a medical or psychological abnormality. And though aging is a condition none of us survive, women’s aging is problematized every step of the way.

When we enter puberty, girls begin to menstruate of course, but in addition we are cajoled, pilloried and warned about the physical and emotional condition known as PMS — premenstrual syndrome.

When I was younger, it was common to hear men explain their opposition to women in powerful positions because of the irrational emotional state women are supposedly overcome by during “that time of the month.” Fears that a bloated woman with cramps would launch a nuclear holocaust because her husband left his dirty socks on the floor was actually discussed with shocking regularity whenever a woman ran for high office.

Headlines like “Erratic Female Behavior Tied to Premenstrual Syndrome” (Providence Journal) and “Violence by Women is Linked to Menstruation” (National Enquirer) are still met with common sense approval and a knowing, raised-eyebrow nod.

Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender blasts away at the medical problematizing of a broad range of symptoms that some, but not all, women experience before, during and/or after their periods. Certainly, there are some women who experience debilitating pain, and they should receive whatever treatment they need, but Fausto-Sterling rips apart the dubious and contradictory studies that don’t even agree on what PMS is or when it strikes, but are certain it is an ailment in need of treatment.

She discusses the common menstrual experience of emotional disturbance this way: “Compared to whom? Are males the unstated standard of emotional stability? If there is but a single definition of what is normal and men fit that definition, then women with ‘female complaints’ must by definition be either crazy or in need of medical attention.”

And what about men who experience PMS-like symptoms at random times during the month? A man’s periodic crankiness, gassiness and dyspepsia is simply not pathologized and is therefore chalked up to a guy having a bad day.

According to the 2010 Census, the median age in the United States is 37.2. States like Maine, West Virginia and New Hampshire have the highest percentage of their populations deleting AARP come-ons from their inboxes, with most of their populations over the age of 40.

You’d think the efflorescence of the salt-and-pepper crowd (full disclosure: I’m one of ’em) would lead to a flurry of information, films and discussions about middle age. Instead, the most ubiquitous popular expression of older women’s issues seems to be the exclusive province of TV commercials.

Fifty-three-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis pitches Activia, which is a yogurt for women of a certain age with digestive issues. It’s not entirely clear to me what those are and why only women are the target audience, especially since digestive plumbing appears to be nonsex-specific.

Then there’s 69-year-old Blythe Danner whose latest commercial scares the bejesus out of women who are pitched a bone health drug to prevent osteoporosis. One of every two women over age 50 will likely have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime, twice the rate of fractures in men, according to medical experts. Certainly, osteoporosis is a very real problem, but one that exercise and a healthy diet can impact significantly.

But one issue that I have never heard discussed in polite company or in the popular media, with the exception of snarky jokes about hot flashes, is menopause. Like an isolated tribe in Papua New Guinea, American women are expected to pass on information about this inevitable stage of life through word of mouth, passed down from generation to generation.

Allow me to sum up our society’s collective popular understanding of menopause: women’s vaginas dry up, we get fat and grow facial hair, and though men find older women either ugly or invisible, not to worry since women lose all interest in sex. Oh yes, and we get hot flashes that require medical attention and therefore must take hormones. Our bones break, then we die.

In Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, published in 1969, Dr. David Reuben describes the horrors of menopause: “The vagina begins to shrivel, the breasts atrophy, sexual desire disappears. …. Increased facial hair, deepening voice, obesity…coarsened features, enlargement of the clitoris, and gradual baldness complete the picture. Not really a man but no longer a functional woman, these individuals live in the world of intersex.”

Wow, what gives?

Before we contemplate returning to a pre-industrial paradise when we all dropped dead long before menopause could set in, it’s worth noting some facts.

Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical giants are behind much of the popularized “science” that women require hormone replacement therapy when we cease to menstruate and estrogen levels sink. Even though a proven connection between estrogen treatment and uterine cancer has been documented since 1975, hormone replacement therapy remains common.

Feminist physicians disgusted with their field’s sexually blinkered studies began research of their own in the late seventies and discovered some shocking things. For one, 75% of the menopausal women they studied showed absolutely no signs of what is considered to be traditional menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and sweats.

And, in fact, hormonal levels adjust on their own over time and so these physicians conclude most women would benefit from simply experiencing some discomfort and letting nature take its course.

Even the catastrophic vision of the psychological state of postmenopausal women as depressed and irrational turns out to be a myth, according to Fausto-Sterling. One Boston study among postmenopausal women  showed that two-thirds were positive or neutral about their physical changes and 90% were over the moon about not having to worry about getting pregnant any longer.

As for physical changes like vaginal dryness, there’s a kind of use it or lose it principle at play. Continued sexual activity after menopause it turns out is highly effective at keeping a woman moist. For others, there’s always lubricant (avoid infections, go for the non-glycerine kind). And many studies show that as women age and become more confident about themselves and less concerned with what others think, many report the most gratifying sex of their lives.

In essence, women are no more slaves of our reproductive physiologies than men. The premise that women are by nature diseased and that as we age our already troubled biologies drag us into an unhappy grave is a feature of our social conditioning, not our nature.

Once again, understanding our bodies cannot be disentangled from understanding the social structures inside of which they exist.

Don’t even think of not checking out the Socialism 2012: Agitate Educate Occupy conference coming up June 28–July 1 in Chicago. Hope to see you there!

4 responses to “Women of a Certain Age

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! The flip side of pathologizing perfectly normal parts of human behavior in women, is that real medical needs of women are often ignored or brushed off. The V Book is a good resource with medical information that every woman should know, but that most doctors often don’t know, let alone most women. Conditions that cause vaginal pain, for instance, are unknown to most doctors and women are often told that the pain is “in their head.” We desperately need a revolution in women’s health (along with everywhere else).

  2. Another issue is the tendency to patholigize women on mental health issues. Women are more likely to be considered depressed, bipolar, borderline, dissociative etc… The perpetrators of the emotional and mental abuse are rarely “diagnosed” witha mental illness.
    Even if old age leads to a more androgynous appearance, that is beautiful. I love androgyny!

  3. Pingback: 2. Some Thoughts on Agein « Tikkunista!

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