Fiona Cullinan on how she built a walking arts collective

Entering the menopause can feel like entering an unknown land. Walking through it with other perimenopausal women, and processing the issues of ageing through art, offers a way to navigate this new territory.

Never would I have guessed that I’d become an artist in my 50s – let alone co-found a walking arts collective and feminist collage club. But then menopause is nothing if not a time of transition. Sometimes the messages can feel all about the physical symptoms. But there are also big emotions to deal with – particularly around getting older as a woman, and what role we have to play now.

Menopause is something I’ve been (knowingly) dealing with since 2021. But really it started five years’ earlier with weight gain that wouldn’t go. I felt like I was slowly coming to a halt, which scared me. I was only 48, for heaven’s sake! So I stuck a fitness band on my wrist and started walking every night after work – through the winter. I soon forgot about the step count bit, though. Walking felt both peaceful – as I pretty much had the suburban streets to myself – and uplifting, as I stomped along to a playlist of rock, pop and disco.

But then the hip pain kicked in. I blamed walking but didn’t know until years later that joint pain could also be a symptom of menopause. (In fact, it’s only this year that the hip ache has finally resolved, after finding I wasn’t absorbing oestrogen well and the GP adjusted my HRT upwards.)

With long walks now out, I needed a shorter option. Fortunately, walking lends itself to all sorts of activities: from photography to psychogeography, writing to waymarking, surveying and mapping to tour guiding.

It was a walking arts conference at Plymouth University that kickstarted a whole new world of creative walking for me – and inspired the launch of a walking arts collective for the West Midlands region. Walkspace was born in 2020 as a way to connect with others who were also intrigued by walking as a creative practice. Our first event was a group night walk with about eight people. I planned and led it because I wanted to walk in spaces that became off-limits after dark. Strolling through parks, woodland and along the local canals at night was thrilling. And at our next ‘moon walk’, more than 20 people showed up.

I think we must have tapped into something because three years on – despite (or because of) the pandemic – we’re now a collective of 50 ‘weird’ walkers and walking artists. And this June we held our first group exhibition with 20+ members showing their work – and walks.

For me, menopause has felt like a journey, a puzzle and a battle all at once. In some ways I’m the most confident I’ve ever been. But I’m also at an age when women are often overlooked and invisible in our society.

I’ve become really interested in that invisibility – where it is empowering and where it’s disempowering. Walking continues to play a part in how I process the physical change but also the mental/emotional side of ageing.

My first commission as a walking artist, for example, was a ‘Dazzle Walk’, which used the idea of being invisible as a woman over 40 to become ‘unseeable’ to surveillance cameras around the city. I’d realised when applying for a passport that my whitening hair and pale features made it hard for facial recognition technology to analyse my face. So the walk became about using low-contrast clothing and cosmetics to literally make ourselves ‘invisible’ older women.

The opposite idea then arose: could older females become highly visible in the city? A group of perimenopausal friends collaborated to design such a walk, and the resulting ‘Crone Walk’ saw us wearing bright outfits and using props, such as stuffed toy cats, to evoke older female stereotypes, while a professional photographer ran around us taking our picture. We walked silently, in single file – again in areas that would normally be off-limits – past strip clubs, through subways, along canals and through the entertainment district on a busy Saturday night in high summer. It felt almost maternal, as if looking back on our younger selves, but also a semi-political act: having people stop, look, point and even directly talk to us helped us to reclaim our visibility.

Putting yourself out there like this can be unnerving, though. I’ve had a quiet desk job as an editor for decades – and still do – so working as an artist feels new and strange. I try not to think about it too much and just get on with the project at hand. There are many strategies for successful ageing – and this is mine.

If I’m less inhibited in my mid-50s, I’m also definitely angrier and more activist. Looking back at my youth, I’m reassessing so much in terms of female equality. I thought I had it, working in London media in the 1980s and ’90s. Now I’m not so sure. I also spent many years working in women’s magazines. How did I not see how much pressure they placed on women to look and act a certain way?

I do feel a sense of shame about this, which is coming out in my walks and collage work. I’ve got a piece in the ‘Walkspace 23’ exhibition called ‘How to Walk Like a Woman’ – with instructions cut from women’s magazines. And in May I launched a feminist collage club called ‘Simone de Scissoir’, inviting others to join me in creating counter-images to those we’re bombarded with by media of all types.

They say that when your oestrogen runs out, you’re less likely to put up with all the rubbish that women have to deal with. And that has been me in menopause.

What started with weight gain and hip pain, has ended with me getting angry and wanting to change things. Perhaps it’s that menopause brings on a mindset of change. But becoming an artist has been my way of processing the anger, frustration and other issues that menopause is bringing into focus – and therefore a way to process The Change itself.

For more stories, advice and interviews, head to the Menopause Your Way Stories hub. To browse and shop a curated edit of menopause products, visit the Menopause Your Way page on QVC.

The content of the QVC website is for information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the QVC website.

We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.