Images of Menopause
As a physical and biological marker of aging, menopause is most often portrayed as a stressful, disruptive, and negative experience in women’s lives. This creates a certain angst and feeling of impending loss when contemplating menopause, expressed by one woman thus: “I don’t want to go through the rest of my life feeling that I lost my wallet with everything in it” (Sand, 1993).
Defined by a long list of symptoms, women are urged to combat menopause with hormone replacement therapy (Chrisler, Torrey, & Matthes,
1991) . Even woman-friendly approaches present many negative images. Gail Sheehy (1991), for instance, describes her own experience of menopause with metaphors of destruction such as “a battle,” “first bombshell,” “a little grenade went off in my brain,” and, “some powerful switch had been thrown” (p. 15). In a chapter on mid-life sexuality, Gayle Sand (1993) states, “Menopause has had a magical effect on our sex life. It made it disappear” (p. 151). Are these experiences typical of mid-life women? Are they induced or exacerbated by negative stereotypes that pervade American culture so that they become self-fulfilling prophecies? If so, who benefits from this social construction, and what does it cost us?
We propose that the images of menopause as a problem characterized by symptoms of decline and deficiency are both reflected in and perhaps partially derived from medical and scientific discourse. That is, medical literature and to a lesser extent social science and psychological literature, as sources of scholarly knowledge and officially sanctioned truth, have been influenced by cultural worldviews of women and aging and in turn have become bases for contemporary popular discourse. We contend that commonly held negative attitudes both heavily influence and are influenced by the received knowledge that endorses (that is, socially constructs) these negative views. This circular influence is problematic because it is likely to endorse popular beliefs that are inaccurate and harmful to women. To the extent that biased scholarly wisdom saturates and reinforces popular views, it is likely to affect the social identities of mid-life women and to color women’s actual experiences of mid-life and aging. In the following section we examine traditional sexual scripts and their impact on mid-life sexuality research.