The Words We Use
The lack of Menstrual Health literacy is a huge part of the gender education gap.
There are hundreds of synonyms to describe periods alone, ALL negative. When talking about anatomy we rarely use the correct terminology. So it’s hardly surprising we don’t talk about menstruation when we don’t even know how to describe the process in a confident way with words that were actually created to explain it.
Describing menopause comes with its own set of challenges, but in fact, if it was more uniform it would clear up a lot of confusion. Words matter when describing menopause, and here is why.
Here are my top 6 words/phrases NOT to use when talking about menstrual and menopause health
Natural or normal – as humans, we are ‘of nature’ and our operating systems are natural also. However, the word natural is now used as a marketing term to suggest things are simple, pure, or organic and therefore better than non-natural products.
The beginning and ending of regular menstrual cycles can both be natural events, that are neither a medical condition nor a disease. Just because they are classed as natural in terms ‘of nature’ it does not mean that the physiological results of the shifts are to be accepted without question. Stinging nettles are natural, but touching them can have painful consequences.
When something like mineral water is labelled as naturally sourced the implication is that it is healthier than other water and natural is the preferred choice. Periods starting and periods stopping over age is guaranteed and natural, but it does not necessarily mean this timeline is a nice experience.
The preferred phrase is typical or usual menopause over natural or normal.
Women go through Menopause – kind of but it is not accurate. Menopause is one moment in time when periods have stopped permanently. Menopause is not a process. Menopause is a word used by a French Doctor 200 years ago to mark the cut-off point where periods stop, long before death. Talking about being ‘in’ menopause or ‘going through it’ can be better explained if we turn the word menopause from a noun to a verb and say menopausing. Better still we use the word perimenopause to talk about the time frame before menopause (moment/day).
All ‘women’ have a similar menopause experience – this is separate from menopause symptoms. In 6 years of being in, on, and around the conversation I have listened to many discussions that instantly describe women as the ‘sandwich generation’, with a husband, and children, worrying about their weight, and experiencing low libido.
I have then on the other hand spoken with many different groups of women who instantly assumed that if they were not in a relationship with a man, had children and parents they were looking after, and had a high sex drive, menopause did not apply to them. One lady said she was overweight and thought her symptoms were due to her weight and not menopause, simply because she didn’t like sex, and never had, which meant she had no libido to lose in the first place, plus she didn’t have kids and never planned on having them. Others thought it was only white women who had periods and then menopause.
- Not all women experience sudden weight gain or ongoing weight gain with menopause transition.
- Not every woman experiences irregular periods as part of menopause transition
The list of variables could go on and on and on.
Be mindful of how society places women in different boxes based on sexual identity, race, ethnicity, lifestyle, culture, and religion, and use inclusive terminology and examples when trying to add context to the menopause experience.
Oestrogen is made primarily in the ovaries – not exactly, but this one takes some explaining, and as you work through the different sections you will understand more. Estradiol, just one of the many oestrogens, is made primarily, by a narrow margin, in the ovaries during the years a female is menstruating. Different Oestrogens are made in various places throughout the lifetime of a menstruator and it is important to use the name of the specific oestrogen. It is not just oestrogen in HRT, it is Estradiol.
Menopause is caused by a hormone imbalance – The typical menopause is caused by genetics and time. Hormones do not become imbalanced and then menopausing starts. Menopausing, , aka ovarian aging, reaches a tipping point around the age of 38, at which point due to changes in ovarian activity and the amount of sex hormones they produce moving forward, a change in ratio occurs of sex hormones to other hormones.
ALL women experience menopause – all human females will, but not all women. Please remember the world we live in right now is different from previous generations. ‘Not everyone woman menstruates and not every menstruator is a woman.’
We need to consider the audience we are talking to when we use words relating to gender.
Of course, the medical profession and government still refer to Women’s Healthcare and the Women’s Health Strategy. We are not removing women from history nor dismissing the historical role of patriarchy in the gender health gap, but moving forward we must be mindful of who you may exclude from the conversation depending on the words you choose.
This Instagram post is helpful to understand why the words we use to discuss the anatomy and physiology of menstrual health matter:
The Menopause School (TMS) has opted to use menstruator and co-menstruator, particularly when working with mixed groups. No one feels excluded and we all know what we are talking about. If anything co-menstruators feel more included and are enabled to be a part of the conversation.
I first heard the words menstruator and co-menstruator in this TEDx talk. It resonated with me and since then I have found it sits well in all environments when talking about menstrual & menopause health. Take a look at let me know what you think.