This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
This being Thanksgiving weekend, we all have many things for which to be thankful. For a significant number of women of a certain age, menopause has come and gone, and for that they thank biology and the universe.
Women have a quirky relationship with menstruation and menopause. Both normal biological processes directly related to fertility, they have been greeted, at various points throughout a woman’s life, with joy, dread, irritation, and resignation.
Menstruation in particular has been alluded to over the centuries rather disparagingly, called the “curse,” requiring, in some societies, that women be quarantined when on their periods because they were thought to be “unclean.” In parts of India, women are still banished to “period sheds,” during that time of the month, effectively ostracizing them when they are menstruating. Nepal only very recently banned the practice of chhaupadi, an age-old tradition of exiling women to huts during their periods. The onset of menstruation was regarded as a sign that a woman, who could be as young as 12, was impure.
The South China Morning Post reported on what one woman, Ganga Kunwar, now 30, has to endure in Nepal as a result of chhaupadi:
“When not pregnant, every month, Kunwar stays in the goth for five days, when her period comes; the first menstruation after giving birth requires a 13-day stay, with her newborn. During these times, although she can step out of the goth, she is not allowed to touch men or cattle, she can’t cook or even enter the kitchen—she will be fed only rice, salt and cereals—and she can’t enter religious buildings or attend ceremonies. She must wash herself far from the water used by the other villagers. Conveniently enough for the men, though, she is permitted to work in the fields.”
Misogyny, much? How very convenient for the patriarchy, shaming women for an occurrence that is completely natural. As Clue, a portal on Medium.com dedicated to a woman’s cycle pointed out, “The menstrual cycle is a vital sign, which means it can be an indication of your overall health — similar to blood pressure or heart rate. This normal, healthy bodily function is experienced by nearly half of the world, but it’s surrounded by taboos for many cultural and social reasons.”
Such is Nepalis society’s disgust of the menstruating woman that people venerate a young girl known as Kumari Devi, who is believed to be a Living Goddess. Yet her reign is often short-lived; the moment she reaches puberty and menstruates, she must step down and return to life as a mere mortal.
The Kumari inhabit a secretive world, and the procedure for their selection is arcane. According to an NPR broadcast, one such Kumari, Chanira Bajracharya (now 21), was conferred the title when she was only five years old.
“It followed an elaborate search that included an elimination round in which seven girls were handed grains and studied for their reaction: ‘Some became fevered; some cried,’ she says. Barjracharya only turned a slight blush color.
“She was whisked off to the Royal Court to be inspected for ‘32 characteristics’ of physical perfection, among them ‘thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow.’
Bajracharya says after the royal priest’s wife examined her ‘teeth and nails’ and ‘checked to see there were no blemishes on my body,’ she declared that I was to be the next goddess.”
Bajracharya reigned for 10 years, losing her goddess stature when she began menstruating at 15. From being possessed of superpowers to being forced to crash land back to earth because of a speck of blood… And yet women have gone on to win Olympic medals and discover radium and win elections and lead nations, periods notwithstanding.
The onset of menopause brings its own set of issues and emotions for women, too. While it might be a relief to be free of the fear of getting pregnant, there is also the accompanying sense of deflation at what is perceived as the loss of desirability, which in turn morphs into a state of invisibility: I am old, no longer attractive, and therefore I have become insignificant, an old woman lost in a sea of other faceless old women.
I’d like to think that that mentality is swiftly being eroded as older women—60 is the new 40—prove that they remain hot, vital, healthy, and visible well into old age. And they couldn’t really give a f*ck about what society might think of them.
And yet, Lisa Selin Davis, writing in The New York Times, wondered why women were not more adequately prepared, physically and emotionally, for this onset of a second puberty of sorts.
“If only,” she writes, “on your 45th birthday, a doctor would sit you down, look you squarely in the eyes and say, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen: Eventually, your pubic hair is going to thin out everywhere but on the bikini line, exactly the opposite of what you’ve always wanted. The fat on your body will redistribute so that each of your thighs is the shape of Grimace, the McDonald’s blob monster. You will develop those wings of loose skin below your arms. You just will, no matter what you do. Also: Everything about your periods will change. They may become shorter, more frequent, more painful. And they’ll just get weirder until they desist.”
Just as we talk about having “The Talk” with our children when they approach the teenage years, so should women, she argues, be given “The Talk”—one centered around the normal yet bewildering changes we go through as we approach perimenopause, and of course, menopause.
“Doctors should speak to their patients about the changes that could lie ahead and how to prepare for them. And we perimenopausal women need to talk to one another, and the rest of the world, about what’s happening. Because a lot of it, to me, is really weird, really surprising and really hard to sit comfortably through, from the stray chin hair—O.K., hairs—to the decreasing bone density. Some 40 percent of women have interrupted sleep during perimenopause. Between 10 percent and 20 percent have mood swings. Some have uterine bleeding or vaginal dryness and even that hallmark of actual menopause, hot flashes.”
I have a confession to make: I’m terrified of menopause. But I’m lucky—I have a great doctor.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
For comments and questions, e-mail [email protected].
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
Art by Marian Hukom
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