I sat in the dark staring at my laptop screen. Flickering from the muted larger screen in the corner the only other light in the living room. Silence. I looked up at my clock on the mantelpiece and squinted. 8.15pm. Too early for bed. I was exhausted. We’d only been back at school for a few days after half term. I felt numb. I realised that if I went to bed it would simply bring tomorrow morning closer quicker. I burst into tears. Twenty minutes later I was still sobbing, googling symptoms on depression and ticking every box.
This was eight years ago. It took a break down – I like to call a break through – and oodles of self love to heal. Back then no-one was making the links between poor mental wellbeing and menopause. In fact not many were talking about menopause openly. If they were they definitely didn’t look like me or any of my friends.
When one day the whoosh of another fierce hot flush left me in no doubt that I was fully menopausal, I could no longer ignore my symptoms. Brain fog, panic attacks, not feeling like I could do the job I’d been ace-ing for decades, feeling lost within my own body. Not to mention weight gain, mood swings, thinning hair and skin breakouts. I had put all of these down to stress. Where was the advice? And when I did find it, why wasn’t it nuanced? My doctor diagnosed anxiety and depression and, despite a brief chat about my realisation, she offered me a course of anti-depressants.
“Have you ever googled the word ‘menopause’ and clicked ‘images’? This was the simple question I asked in a video I posted on Instagram in early June 2020. It was a week after Amy Cooper, a white woman, had called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man, in Central Park, NYC. Hours later the world bore witness to the execution of George Floyd. Black squares of performative ‘solidarity’ flooded the internet. Lockdown turned us all into a captive audience. The world seemed to wake up to the racism that has always persisted. I knew that stress exacerbated menopause symptoms.
Racism is a form of stress (still unacknowledged on traditional stress tests). I had begun to find out about ‘racial weathering’ a term used to describe the negative effects that racism has on Black bodies and our health outcomes. How were Black menopausal women coping with their menopause symptoms? The internet was full of sad white women with their heads in the hands (to stop their heads falling off?) wearing beige. You could be forgiven for assuming that menopause was something that only affected this demographic. The video resonated.
A walk into the internet brings up The Swan(1) report:
“Black women reach menopause at 49, two years earlier than the national median age… It also appears that Black women spend more time in the menopause transition than white women do”.(2)
How was this not common knowledge? More Black women reached out to me asking for info. I put out two surveys specifically targeting Black women with British roots to share their knowledge and experiences of menopause. The responses were varied and insightful. Most knew nothing about menopause, didn’t realise the symptoms they had been experiencing could be attributed to perimenopause and certainly weren’t speaking to anyone else about it.
Our mothers just ‘got on with it’ and the phrase ‘strong black woman’ was sprinkled throughout. Some who had been dismissed by their doctors as ‘too young’ or offered medical procedures they weren’t comfortable with. The overwhelming finding was that more nuanced and cultural information was needed. Black women had never been asked these questions about their own menopause journey. It was long overdue.
I had been listening to Omishade Burney-Scott on her podcast Black Girls Guide to Surviving Menopause for a year. Hers was the first podcast of this nature – a mid-life Black woman centering Black people during their varied stages of menopause and beyond.
I started my own, Menopause whilst Black, out of a need to put UK voices out there. Whilst the experiences of our sisters across the pond are similar, the cultural reference points differ. A podcast featuring Black, British based women talking openly about their menopause experiences was a welcome change from the habitually amplified ‘middle class white woman’ message. The more people from across demographics and cultures who speak on their lives, the less people will feel desperate and alone.
Just as I felt all those years ago.
As mentioned, Black people who experience menopause start our transition up to two years earlier than our white counterparts. We are more likely to suffer from physical symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats for longer. There’s more. Black people have a higher propensity towards developing diabetes often brought on by menopause. Relative to white women, Black women are 2-3 times more likely to have fibroids, to develop them at younger ages, to have bigger fibroids, to have more fibroids, and to have more symptoms. (3).
Women experience depression at rates twice that of men so you’d think the percentage of Black women receiving care to mirror that of White women. However, Black women are only about half as likely to seek care. The links between poor mental wellbeing and the onset of peri-menopause still need much more probing. One of the highest death by suicide rates in the UK in women is age 45 – 54, which coincides in the time that the average person transitions into perimenopause and beyond.
Black women face significant disparities in health care. An understanding of why these differences occur requires an appreciation for not only the multiple roles that Black women play in society but also for the racial and social injustices they have historically faced.
American gynaecologist James Marion Sims is widely seen as the ‘godfather of modern gynaecology’. A less publicised fact is that he performed his gruesome research ‘experiments’ on enslaved Black women. Without anaesthetic.
Let that sink in. Much of the medical knowledge and education we have to hand in the modern world has been founded on this mans work and his ilk. There are recent studies that reveal disturbing racial bias in pain perception amongst medical students. This has a negative impact on the treatment and care that Black women receive. It will come as no surprise, then, that many of the Black women are often, justifiably, distrustful of the medical system.
Whilst research hasn’t yet caught up with the cultural breakdown required to provide more targeted menopause care amongst women across cultures, you don’t need to be an academic to join the dots. Black women often weren’t being listened to when they did work out that something was wrong. Getting a doctors appointment post-Covid times is stressful enough without the anxiety of possible misdiagnosis, micro-aggressions or dismissal added to the mix.
Truly well thought out menopause care that centres the individual is improving with heightened awareness from doctors and deeper training. But it has a long way to go.
So what can Black people do to ensure that we survive and thrive through menopause? And how can people who don’t happen to be Black, help?
Knowledge is power. Oftentimes we ignore the signals that something is wrong in order to carry on, or because we feel we have no choice. We may not have had role models in our mothers who were intentional about rest or setting boundaries with family and friends. We have been eternally praised for being ‘strong’. It’s time to be soft. It’s time to turn the love, care and attention we give to everyone else and pour it into ourselves. Rest is our birthright.
So the answer is in the knowing. In this way when we visit a doctor or healthcare professional we will find it easier to advocate for ourselves.
We need others to listen. Believe Black people. Amplify our voices and speak up proactively for our often marginalised voices. We are not ‘all in this together’ (I’m looking at you International Women’s Day) We need allies to ensure that ALL receive the respect and care we deserve. As I am fond of saying, when diversity wins, we all win.
- Study of Women’s Health Across the nation which began in 1996
For more menopause 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.