Why menopause is stigmatised as a negative aspect of ageing

UAE-based menopause coach Sharon James on why a natural biological process — that every single woman on this planet will have to contend with, sometimes as early as when she is in her 30s — is not getting the kind of attention it deserves


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 5:26 PM

Childbirth, long considered a ‘private’ process, is a difficult one. Your body takes months, at times years, to recover from it. Yet, for those women who choose not to have children, it is something that is bypassed. It’s not the same with menopause: it’s something that will strike every single woman. But unlike menstruation, which has been ‘normalised’, no more sense of shame being stoked each time one goes to the pharmacy to pick up a packet of sanitary napkins, menopause — the cessation of periods — is still glossed over. Consequently, the physical, hormonal, and emotional challenges that women face are mostly not encouraged to be talking points.

Sharon James calls herself a menopause coach, and she is hoping to change the menopause mindset in the UAE by educating people about this ‘milestone’, and equipping them with information — and training — to bring about that change. With 30 years of international experience in the health and fitness industry, Sharon guides women through a period of transformation as they navigate midlife, menopause and beyond. She combines scientific understanding and evidence-based methods with a passion for helping people take control of their mind and body in a way that works for them.

Sharon came to the UAE in 2008, when she was 38. “To be honest, even as a health coach, menopause wasn’t even on my radar back then.” Throughout her education and in all the additional training courses she did at that time, menopause was never mentioned, she remembers. “It may surprise some people, but even the medical profession gets very little training on the topic.” When she was in her mid-40s, her ‘regular’ life was upended as she entered perimenopause — the period that precedes the onset of menopause — and found herself grappling with changes like weight gain, hot flashes and fatigue interfering with her lifestyle.

That’s when she made it her “mission” to be a menopause coach. Today, Sharon works with multinational organisations, speaking to their management and staff, and is regularly involved in thought leadership discussions.

Why do people — and by this, I include women, even perimenopausal and menopausal women — have such a problem talking about menopause? Just the way girls are educated about menstruation, why aren’t women educated about menopause so that they can be better prepared for it?

There are several reasons.

• Cultural stigma: Menopause has long been stigmatised as a negative aspect of ageing, and discussions about it have often been viewed as taboo or inappropriate. This cultural attitude can make women hesitant to discuss their experiences with menopause openly.

• Lack of information: Many women may not know what to expect from menopause and may not have access to accurate information about the physical and emotional changes that can occur. This lack of information can contribute to feelings of confusion or anxiety around the topic.

• Fear of judgement: Women may worry about being judged or stigmatised for discussing menopause, particularly if they experience symptoms that are considered embarrassing or uncomfortable.

• Fear of losing their job: A major factor, which isn’t getting the attention it deserves, is the link between menopause and workplace gender imbalance. According to a report from Standard Chartered, 1 in 10 employees working in financial services is currently going through menopause; 50 per cent of those experiencing menopause are less likely to want to progress in their role; 25 per cent are more likely to retire early as a result. Only 22 per cent of those experiencing menopause are open about it at work. Difficulty sleeping, anxiety and problems with recall were cited among the most common symptoms.

There has been a historical lack of emphasis on educating women about menopause that can contribute to the difficulties they face in discussing it. However, there has been an increased effort in recent years to raise awareness and provide education about menopause, with a focus on empowering women to take control of their health and well-being. This includes promoting open and honest discussions about menopause, providing accurate information about symptoms and treatment options, and encouraging women to seek support and resources to manage their experiences.

There’s a sense of shame about “attaining” menopause. Women feel they’ll be branded “over the hill”. How do we change this perception? How can the media help, without everyone running for cover or trying to gloss over it?

Unfortunately, menopause has been stigmatised, but this is a natural biological process that will happen to every woman, and it’s essential to challenge these negative attitudes and perceptions. One way to do this is through education and raising awareness about it and its potential impact on women’s health.

The media can play a crucial role in this by portraying menopause in a positive light and providing accurate information about the various stages of menopause. The media can also help by featuring stories of women who have embraced menopause and continued to live happy, fulfilling lives, rather than portraying menopause as the end of life as we know it.

Additionally, women can take an active role in changing this perception by speaking openly about their experiences with menopause. Sharing personal stories can help normalise menopause and create a more supportive environment. Finally, healthcare providers can also play a significant role in educating women and providing necessary support and resources to help them navigate this process.

When you try to tell women to open up, what are the pushbacks that come from them?

When I talk to women and I say I am a menopause coach, the first reaction is, ‘I’m not there yet.’ Usually, they are in the perimenopause age group and may be experiencing some symptoms but put it down to day-to-day life stresses and haven’t connected the dots. Or they are not too sure what (peri) menopause is.

While some women may feel comfortable talking about menopause, others may find it difficult or uncomfortable to open up about their experiences. Pushbacks come from women when talking about menopause, including feeling embarrassed or ashamed about their symptoms, feeling like they will be judged for discussing something considered taboo or private, or feeling like they don’t have anyone they trust to talk to about it.

I have also come across a vanity aspect of not admitting that they are heading towards menopause; again it has the stigma of being old and past it. I feel that there is a tendency to put your head in the sand and only worry about how you look on the outside rather than what’s going on inside.

I do want to say that menopause is all about mindset, understanding it, and taking control of it. I work with women going through menopause who rediscover new things about themselves and say that they love it. It’s important to recognise that each woman’s experience with menopause is unique, and there is no one ‘right’ way to handle it.

Hot flashes, mood swings, irritability, palpitations, and fatigue are common symptoms. Are there any uncommon ones?

Women have over 50 symptoms to choose from! Aren’t we lucky? The good news is you won’t experience all of them and every woman is different when it comes to their menopause experience.

Yes, the most heard of are hot flashes, mood swings and fatigue. Some of the less common ones are itchy skin, vaginal dryness, hair loss, bladder control, drop in libido, memory loss and unexplained belly fat. The symptoms are usually broken down into three categories depending on the severity to determine appropriate treatment, and lifestyle changes also need to be discussed.

At what stage in life should a woman start looking out for perimenopausal signs? Ever since you started working on this project, what has been the earliest perimenopause onset? And the latest? And what has been the earliest menopause you have encountered?

Menopause is all about hormonal changes, therefore, I think it’s good to have it on your radar in your early 30s. I have had clients who have suffered from primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) as early as 35, and this can happen for a number of reasons. The latest I have heard of is 60 years old.

The average age is 51, I have worked with clients in their late 30s, but mainly early 40s, in the perimenopause stage. I am 52 and still in perimenopause (seven years so far). I like to work with my clients if not before but as soon as they start experiencing perimenopausal symptoms.

Perimenopausal and menopausal — what’s the difference?

There are three stages.

Perimenopause can last anywhere between 4 to 10 years — but every woman is different. This is when you will start to experience the symptoms and irregularity in periods is usually the first sign.

Menopause is when you are experiencing no periods for 12 months in a row.

Post-menopause is when you have completed the 12 months with no periods, and you are in the post for the rest of your life.

Tell me five things a woman should do without fail from the time she enters the perimenopause phase.

1. Keep an eye on her symptoms and be aware of her own body.

2. Look at her sleep management.

3. Reassess eating and exercise habits.

4. Monitor stress levels.

5. Talk to people so that she doesn’t feel like she is going through this alone — and that includes their partner.

How can men — a partner, friends, or family members — do their bit to support women during this phase?

First, I think education and awareness are key for everyone, and that includes women being willing to talk about what they are experiencing. Communication is a must as to what’s going on. Men are somewhat baffled, as are women, to understand what is happening. How can you explain one minute that you are all smiles and happy, then the next you want to bite someone’s head off? Or you are doing a presentation and suddenly dripping wet through, and I mean shower dripping? But there is an explanation for everything.

I have a Men Take A Pause workshop, which gives simple facts on what’s happening and what they can do to co-share the transition. Women don’t need fixing from family and friends, or partners… they just need understanding!


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