“Across cultures and over centuries, folkloric tales have told us to fear the maturing or older woman for she is often portrayed as magical, mystical, monstrous, or deadly. There is lore that speaks of her power, knowledge, and magic and she is often the face of evil, mystery, or represents imminent danger. These women become even more evil when they are enforcing their boundaries.
“This lore, passed down through the ages, paints her as a one-dimensional archetype, but what of her humanity, her relationships, her role In her community, and her own healing? How do these stories color the way we see older women and women-identified people in our culture as they age? Who tells your story Is Important. How we get to reclaim our voice and story is critical to our healing.
“What if the lore of the aged women was reimagined In her own voice? What would we come to know about her journey—her personhood?”—Excerpt from The Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause,“Messages from the Menopausal Multiverse: Lore of the Aged” zine (Fall 2022)
We all remember the moment we heard her story. Whether it was through folkloric tales or children’s bedtime stories, the formula was the same. There once lived an old woman, a witch, a shapeshifter … maybe even a ghost, who was to be feared by all who encountered her. Her age and her gender were the first identifiers before the story unfurls into tales of trickery, dark magic and a murderous plot. This woman—who lives in isolation, eats children for dinner, and sucks the life out of men’s souls—is likely somewhere in age between 40 and 101 (or perhaps even immortal).
Different cultures call her by different names. In Senegal, she is Karaba. In Japan, she is Yama Uba. And in Russia, she is Baba Yaga. Her story, not told in her voice, is a cautionary tale of the power and treachery of older women. She is deliberately deceptive, highly intelligent, vengeful and one-dimensional—but who is she really? Where did she come from? Is she, in fact, menopausal, and what is her origin story?
The naming and framing of “menopause” occurred around 1821. The term was coined by the French physician Charles-Pierre-Louis de Gardanne in one of the very first articles on the subject titled “De la ménépausie, ou de l’âge critique des femmes” (Menopause: The Critical Age of Women).
The male naming of what was historically perceived to be a woman’s experience was the beginning of a problematic journey in women’s health. Dr. de Gardanne’s explanations of how people with uteruses and ovaries experience hormonal changes reflected early 19th century pseudoscience, fraught with stereotypes and patriarchal tropes. As a result, menopause became another reason to assert the fragility of the female form in mind, body and spirit. It presented male-dominated culture with another opportunity to oppress women through the science of the growing field of gynecology. Menopause was and continues to be pathologized and problematized.
Fraught with stereotypes and patriarchal tropes, menopause became another reason to assert the fragility of the female form in mind, body and spirit. … This journey is not seen or held up as a positive transformation with a spectrum of stages and manifestations, but as an ending to be cloaked in fear.
By 2025 there will be over 1 billion women experiencing menopause in the world, equal to 12 percent of the entire world population. Those numbers will be even higher if you factor in the people in the world who will experience menopause who don’t identify as women or are gender nonbinary.
Because the vast majority of people who will experience menopause, will likely experience it after the age of 45, the changes that occur during this time tend to be conflated with aging. The ways a society or culture relates to aging or reveres its elders can be reflective of how it perceives aging and mortality. Often, when people talk about going through “the change,” it brings up all the images of a tearful, rageful, sweaty and emotional woman vaguely reminiscent of the antagonist in the folkloric tales of old. This journey is not seen or held up as a positive transformation with a spectrum of stages and manifestations, but as an ending to be cloaked in fear.
Another, and possibly more potent way to frame the menopausal experience is to see it as a rite of passage that is present to the liminality of the experience. In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” It is believed that during liminal periods of transformation, social hierarchies may be reversed or even temporarily dissolved. The constancy of cultural traditions can become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.
The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established. It is a transformation to a new iteration of you. And maybe, just maybe, the old woman living in the woods is not a mythical threat, but a person navigating their highly individualized journey with menopause and aging that transforms everything she knows about her body and her relationship to the world around her. Instead of being feared, perhaps we should take another look and see her in her full personhood deserving of care and support from the people around her.
What do we imagine is possible if we are able to shift the narrative and culture surrounding menopause and aging at both an individual and societal level? What stereotypes and tropes about the value of our bodies as we age—women and gender-expansive bodies, Black bodies, Indigenous bodies, Brown bodies—would be rendered useless? What policies upheld by white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny and heteronormativity would be dismantled? What if we embrace the dynamism and uniqueness of each experience that reinforces truths, not legend or lore?
“Reclaim your sweetness and understand your rage
Reclaim rest as an act of liberation
Fight the addiction to stay in motion
Live an embodied life
Propel transformation through truth, unraveling lies and myths
Stretch the portal to the new you
Remember, you walk with legion”
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