A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
Christa D’souza on menopause.
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.”