It may seem odd to ask the question "What is menopause?" After all there's loads of information available these days. But this information can leave us feeling confused because menopause can be seen in different ways:
Menopause is i) a biological event, ii) a general life phase or process and iii) a way to categorize older women.
You can read about each of these different ways of understanding the term menopause by clicking the buttons below:
What natural menopause is NOT…
Many of us find the answer to the "what is menopause" question confusing, because in the Western world many people talk about it as if it were a medical condition with symptoms and treatments.
But menopause is NOT a medical condition.
Naturally occurring menopause is a normal phase of all healthy women's lives.
This doesn't mean that menopause doesn't bring some discomforts in some women. But then menarche (when menstruation starts during adolescence) can also bring problems, but nobody thinks of that as a medical condition.
So what IS menopause?
The answer to the question will differ depending on who you ask and in what context.
The word menopause can even mean something different when used by the same person in different contexts...
Doctors especially tend to talk about menopause differently depending on whether they're amongst colleagues, with patients or when they're socialising with friends and talking like "normal" people!
All this means that menopause is confusing and puzzling but it is also a fascinating topic.
Origin of the word menopause
The actual word menopause was first coined in the early 19th century by a physician called Gardanne who used the term la ménépausie to refer to the "critical age" that women enter at midlife.
This original definition might be considered to be closer to the term climacteric or what the Japanese refer to as konenki. Click here to read more about climacteric.
Nowadays if you ask: "What is menopause?" you might get variations on any one of the following three answers:
Menopause meanings - some answers
1. Menopause is a normal, biological event in a middle age woman and is defined as the end of monthly periods. Our periods stop because we stop ovulating and become infertile (for the second time in our lives). Read more about normal biological menopause.
Menopause occurs naturally in all healthy middle aged women (unless it has been artificially induced by surgery before).
Even in medical circles, where there is a more or less exact definition of menopause there is still lots of debate about the exact meanings of associated terms such as pre-menopause, peri-menopause, post-menopause and menopause transition. LINK
2. Menopause is a process that covers the midlife phase of a woman’s life.
We talk about women being menopausal and we refer to ourselves as entering menopause. And although our last ever menstrual period (biological menopause) happens as a single event, in popular everyday talk we still tend to refer to a kind of phase of life as menopause.
3. Menopause is a social, cultural and political taboo.
As well as the more obvious meanings of menopause, there are also some more hidden answers to the question "what is menopause?". Unfortunately the term menopausal woman can be used in a dismissive or even disparaging way.
These indirect, rather shady meanings of menopause relate to what society expects of middle aged and older women.
Menopause is frequently (and wrongly) seen as the dividing line between youth and age in women. Perhaps because until relatively recently, women over forty or so were regarded as old women.
And let’s face it: In Western cultures the word menopause has such bad press it's almost become taboo!
Women in their twenties and thirties prefer to think that menopause will never happen to them. While women in their forties, faced with the inevitable, look forward to its arrival with a sense of dread and impending doom!
All this is hardly surprising given the negative meanings that are bound up with the "M" word in many Western cultures.
Negative and stigmatised associations with the word menopause include:
• loss of sexuality and attractiveness
• loss of womanhood
• onset of diseases and health problems
• moodiness, depression and irrationality
• obsolence and the advent of old age and decreptitude
And perhaps most pernicious of all is that menopause is implicitly regarded as the time...
...when a woman becomes INVISIBLE!
But why should this be so?
A serious question deserves a serious answer
Rather than taking it as a given, we need to ask the question "What is menopause" very seriously.
Because only by really understanding the WHOLE meaning of menopause, can we hope to re-discover the huge potential and value of older women in creating a stabilising force in the world.
It is time for the invisible women to come out into the daylight again!
Last update - 2015