BEING HEARD, BEING SEEN!
“Imagine if over half the UK population was to experience the same life-changing health condition, which if disregarded would contribute to an increase in disease and illness, an increase in mental health issues, and the likelihood of losing jobs and marriages. Wouldn’t we want to do something about that?
This is the current situation for the 33 million women in the UK who, at some stage in their life, will experience menopause. But, due to a lack of awareness among the public, a lack of training among some medical professionals and social stigma, their needs during this critical life change are frequently ignored, belittled or overlooked.
No two menopause stories are the same. This contributes to the lack of understanding. Some women transition smoothly, without any major effects. Others will suffer the most extreme symptoms and endure the massive negative impact these have on their lives.” (The Menopause Charity - https://www.themenopausecharity.org/ )
In September, I put out a call to female creatives across disciplines to help me get a better picture of other artists' experiences of peri through to post menopause and to help give a voice to issues that they might like to see highlighted and explored in the future. I have been moved by the responses I’ve already received and I’m deeply grateful to those women who have taken the time to share a part of their personal journeys.
Experiencing menopausal symptoms at work can be hard, especially in the performing arts industry where a huge percentage of women are freelancers as well. The energy, focus and drive needed to both create, deliver and manage a career in the arts is challenging at the best of times, but factor in the physical and mental challenges that many women face during their menopausal journey and it can become an almost impossible task to navigate. The issues facing female creatives during this period in their lives are further compounded by continuing gender inequalities and gendered ageism.
The Women in Theatre Survey, which was conducted in 2021 to investigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women in theatre, calls for specific support to be provided to support older women in theatre (40+), highlighting it as an area urgently in need of redress. They cite the increased challenges female artists over 45 face and call for the UK government and Arts Council England to take action to urgently increase awareness of gender bias and provide guidance on this issue to prevent an increase in gender inequality. From the women who have shared their experiences with me, it is clear that menopause and its effects need to be highlighted and included in this action.
The menopause - and the years leading up to it - affect women in different ways and each journey is individual. Often women don't think about the menopause until they're in their 40s, but it could start much earlier and very often go undiagnosed. There are lots of possible symptoms and women can have some of them, all of them, or none - and for varied lengths of time.The most common symptoms are: heavy or irregular bleeding, hot flushes. night sweats, low mood, vaginal dryness, bladder problems and poor memory and concentration, usually called brain fog, painful joints and dry skin. Of course, not all women get symptoms - but most do, around 75% and over a quarter describe severe symptoms. Furthermore, these symptoms can last for an average of seven years, with one in three women experiencing them for even longer. The impact of these symptoms can be critical for creativity, especially in the face of existing gender inequality and to take the, often necessary, time out to manage the effects is almost impossible.
Of course it’s not just the physical effects which can be so crippling. The mental health implications for women going through all phases of the menopause are immense. The creative arts can be a very solitary profession and largely without the benefits of organisational support. Working within the creative arts requires a high level of mental resilience to face the day to day challenges of producing and delivering work, so it is no surprise that 95% of respondents to my survey highlighted how difficult the psychological impact of their menopausal journey was on their work. It’s timely that today it was announced on the news that women could be offered cognitive behavioural therapy, or talking therapy to help alleviate menopausal symptoms. Many of the women who engaged with me said that talking and awareness are the heart of what needs to change, alongside practical support. There are many organisations and movements trying to address this directly for all women, with perhaps the menopause mandate (https://www.menopausemandate.com/) being amongst the most vocal and visible.
I hope that my ‘On Pause’ project can also help to champion the unheard voices and experiences of the everyday creative women who feel invisible. Now just the little matter of an Arts Council grant application to write to support it!