A CHANGE IS GONNA COME

Christa D’souza on menopause.

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents -

IT WAS THE SUM­MER OF 2012, two years be­fore I hit menopause proper, when it first be­came ap­par­ent. Friends had in­vited us to a sig­nif­i­cant birth­day party on a boat in Capri — with a ’70s theme. Christ, I hate fancy dress, but for once I felt OK about it be­cause I had some­thing ap­pro­pri­ate to wear: a floaty hal­ter-neck maxi which had al­ways looked sort of ridicu­lous in Lon­don but would have been just per­fect for this. It was while hav­ing a last look at my­self from be­hind in the ho­tel’s wardrobe mir­rors that I no­ticed it. Overnight, ap­par­ently, I’d grown back fat. Back fat, which draped in folds like a chubby baby’s from un­der­neath the sides of my bikini top strap (and this is some­one who, for all her bod­ily de­fects, has never had spare flesh there, even in her chunky teens and twen­ties).

That was a turn­ing point, that week­end in Italy. from that mo­ment on, it felt, ev­ery­thing sub­tly but surely started chang­ing. My pants felt some­how ‘friend­lier’ (as we used to call it at school when they crawled up your be­hind). So, weirdly, did all my shoes. Though I was ba­si­cally the same size, my up­per body felt — what’s the word, moosier? And I found my­self hav­ing to un­hook my bras a notch, tuck­ing fewer things in, wear­ing bag­gier tops. with­out re­al­is­ing it, I was be­gin­ning to dress like my mother. My waist, mean­while, which had never been a strong point any­way, I could feel go­ing by the day. Go­ing through old photos, I found some of me in a bathing suit five or so years be­fore I had ba­bies. Nora Ephron was right: with the hip-to-waist ra­tio I had then, I should have been walk­ing around in a bikini the whole damn time. what had been

the mat­ter with me? I looked fuck­ing great, and now, well now… it was like wear­ing an ex­tra du­vet tog, or as one friend put it, like those padded cooler jack­ets you put on a bot­tle of wine. It wasn’t just about be­ing big­ger, though. It was about not hav­ing any say over it. My body, af­ter years of toe­ing the line when I told it to, obe­di­ently shrink­ing when I put my­self on the pa­leo diet or 5:2 or what­ever, sud­denly had a mind of its own, al­most like when I was preg­nant. this pow­er­less­ness against the forces of na­ture made me an­gry as well as sad.why was this hap­pen­ing to me? It didn’t seem fair.

So there I was, feel­ing moosier and moosier by the day, and oh, did it piss me off. I pity my fam­ily at all times any­way, but I re­ally, re­ally pitied them in those two years lead­ing up to my menopause proper. In ret­ro­spect it felt like be­ing in per­ma­nent PMS, with no let-up from the wa­ter re­ten­tion and rat­ti­ness and mon­strously hurty boobs, not to men­tion this in­fer­nal thick­en­ing waist.

Hor­mon­ally, of course, it was all hap­pen­ing in­side. If the first part of peri-menopause is when testos­terone dom­i­nates, then the se­cond part is when oe­stro­gen is the rel­a­tive top dog, both testos­terone and pro­ges­terone lev­els now fast dwin­dling away. Oe­stro­gen is the good guy, I know, but when it is un­op­posed it can do some bad things. In­hibit­ing the pro­duc­tion of hor­mones from your thy­roid gland, for ex­am­ple, which slows down your me­tab­o­lism; mak­ing you feel like you are walk­ing in trea­cle, like you have lost your mem­ory and, yes, caus­ing you to gain weight. Oe­stro­gen is pro­duced in your ovaries and your adrenal glands but also in your fat cells and be­cause of this a vi­cious cy­cle is set up. More fat cells, more fat stor­age, more fat cells, and so on. But if you thought a de­cline in oe­stro­gen — which, joy of joys, hap­pens next — bal­ances ev­ery­thing out, you’d be wrong. Oe­stro­gen, for all the havoc it plays, has a sooth­ing sero­tonin ef­fect on our mood — it’s what helps us feel calm and full af­ter we’ve eaten. So when it goes, we don’t even have that any­more, and are there­fore hun­grier than ever be­fore. wait. there’s more. there’s ev­i­dence to sug­gest a de­cline in oe­stro­gen de­creases our tol­er­ance for car­bo­hy­drates and af­fects the way our di­ges­tive sys­tems work.

Ac­cord­ing to Gale Malesky and Mary Kit­tel, authors of The Hor­mone Con­nec­tion, where it used to take two hours to digest our food, now it takes more like four, which en­sures higher car­bo­hy­drate ab­sorp­tion and there­fore more in­sulin pro­duc­tion (the hor­mone that is so nice and help­ful in al­low­ing us to store more fat). Cut­ting out carbs is the ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion — isn’t it great the way once you cut out the bread, pota­toes and rice the pounds just melt away? — ex­cept that a very high-protein low-car­bo­hy­drate diet eats into the cal­cium our bones pro­duce ... and we need all the cal­cium we can get at this time of life to pro­tect from os­teo­poro­sis.

Also to be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion is the ex­tra cor­ti­sol your menopausal body is pro­duc­ing via your adrenal glands — that’s the stress hor­mone which, in ex­cess, sets off bing­ing and crav­ings and con­trib­utes to the fat around your mid­dle, and es­sen­tially means you haven’t got a hope in hell of main­tain­ing your weight, let alone los­ing it.

So then. Hot flushes, night sweats, an in­creased ap­petite and a thick­en­ing waist. what fresh hell, to para­phrase Dorothy Parker, will be vis­it­ing next?

At this junc­ture I’m sup­posed to say don’t worry, it does drop off once your body gets used to its new hor­monal state. But that is not what hap­pened to me. Cer­tainly the HRT worked won­ders on the hot flushes and the sleep­less­ness and the feel­ings of doom. But it didn’t give me back the body I had lost.and why would it? The fact of the mat­ter was that I had, in the past year or so, slightly pressed that fuck-it but­ton around food. Af­ter years and years of treat­ing the bread bas­ket as if it had an elec­tric fence around it, it just didn’t seem worth it any more. Mean­while, that cun­ning trick of drink­ing al­co­hol in­stead of eat­ing food? Now I was do­ing what most peo­ple did, i.e. both.was it be­cause I had re­signed my­self to be­ing a mid­dle-aged mother, know­ing I cat­e­gor­i­cally, em­phat­i­cally would never be on the pull again, and that I was never go­ing to be my for­mer self again, so I might as well in­dulge? Not con­sciously. It’s only in ret­ro­spect, I re­alise, that in that last year of peri-menopause (when more than likely my testos­terone lev­els had di­min­ished to zilch) the fridge-pil­fer­ing af­ter sup­per had be­come the norm rather than the ex­cep­tion; and that I had been av­er­ag­ing the good part of a bot­tle of wine ev­ery sin­gle night.

Whether it is the HRT or my body set­tling into menopause or a com­bi­na­tion of both (or nei­ther), two years on I do not have the ap­petite of a pre-men­strual teenager any more. A mod­icum of con­trol has def­i­nitely been re­gained since those rav­en­ous peri-menopausal years, now that I know ex­er­cise on its own is not go­ing to make me thin­ner. Mean­while, I find my­self lik­ing it, lov­ing it, ac­tu­ally, for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. How come I never re­alised it was such an ef­fec­tive way to get me away from the traf­fic in my head? Is this what they call mind­ful­ness? Be­cause if it is, then, fi­nally, af­ter plough­ing mind­lessly through all those mind­ful­ness man­u­als … I get it. An­other thing: ex­er­cise in­creases mus­cle mass and mus­cle takes more calo­ries to burn than fat.but you knew that.

It is true I can­not fit into the clothes I fit­ted into at my thinnest pre-menopause and I feel a lit­tle weird th­ese days in skinny jeans if my bot­tom isn’t cov­ered. But then maybe skinny jeans aren’t ap­pro­pri­ate for a woman four years shy of 60 any­way?

Be­lieve me, the menopause is a great time to re-eval­u­ate your wardrobe, to throw out those things you’ve let lan­guish there in the vain hope that once you lose that pesky spare tyre you’ll be able to wear them again.

I am sad when I think of how much time I have spent as an adult in ‘if only’ mode, want­ing to mould my­self to clothes as op­posed to the other way round, fan­ta­sis­ing about and some­times even splurging on clothes that will never suit my par­tic­u­lar body shape what­ever size I am. Only very re­cently have I come to un­der­stand that, if you pay that much money for some­thing, it has to work for you rather than you for it.

What we must ob­sess about now, if that is the word, what we must take time (and money) over is mak­ing life less, not more, com­pli­cated on the clothes front, cre­at­ing a kind of uni­form for our­selves, a mix of things we have come to know via trial and er­ror will al­ways work for us on fat, thin, bad- and good-hair days. It’s a lovely feel­ing, be­ing sar­to­ri­ally true to one­self. i now know, for ex­am­ple, what I can never have enough of — silk, cash­mere cardi­gans, cot­ton gauze check shirts, midi-length A-line skirts with pock­ets; and what there is no point in try­ing on — day shoes with heels higher than two inches.

Am I there yet my­self? In this serene, self-ac­cept­ing su­per-sorted-out space? Do I prac­tise what I preach? Not quite. It is prob­a­bly time for me to get a grown-up hair­cut, for ex­am­ple. But I can­not quite make the leap yet.the jeans I can no longer fit into, I know I need to make a cer­e­mo­nial fu­neral pyre for them (or bet­ter, give them away), but have not yet got around to that ei­ther. I am, though, look­ing for­ward — kind of — to be­ing in my sev­enth decade, to get­ting out of my nei­ther-here-nor-there fifties.and to com­port­ing my­self as an older, el­e­gant and not com­pletely asex­ual lady.

This is an edited ex­tract fromthe Hot topic: a Life-chang­ing-ap­proach to the Change of Life, by Christa D’souza (Allen & Un­win), $28.

“Cer­tainly the HRT worked won­ders on the hot flushes and the sleep­less­ness and the feel­ings of doom. But it didn’t give me back the body I had lost.”

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