Darcey Steinke is the author of six books, five of them novels and the most recent, from 2019, called “Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life,” a memoir that blends her personal trip through menopause with extensive research. Focusing on how menopause has historically been seen as an end to a stage of life and causing older women to be marginalized, it’s a brilliant work that’s vindicating for anyone who has been through menopause and a must read to open minds on how it could be viewed. Steinke, who is nothing if not frank, has a refreshing take on how menopause should not be seen as a condition needing treatment, but rather as another stage of life, just like puberty, and celebrated as such.
Steinke is 59, and teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University, at The New School and sometimes at Columbia University School of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband. Generations Today spoke with Steinke in late September.
Generations Today (GT): You began this book as a diary of your hot flashes, to figure them out. How did you decide this book had to be written?
Darcey Steinke (DS): I was working on something else when I started to get hot flashes and was sort of horrified, and confused. I didn’t know a lot about menopause when it started and decided to keep a journal of my hot flashes. I had heard of them in a one-dimensional way, but actually they are so nuanced, sometimes my stomach is hot sometimes my head is hot, I get a weird aura. I knew when one was coming, like people have auras around epilepsy, and decided to keep track.
I found out about how whales go through menopause, too, and was interested in writing in a more raw and real way about what happens to the female body as it is aging. There are very few books about menopause that I liked, some are downright wrong, and some are just badly written or negative, but at the same time overly cheerful. They’ll say it’s horrible, and to go on hormones, but then it’s great. There’s very little parsing of the complicated process of aging. . . . I tend to write books because I want to read a book about that topic.
GT: One of my favorite parts of how you wrote this book was the way in which you deftly wove feminism, the patriarchy and misogyny throughout, in upfront, sexual and unexpected ways. Can you talk a bit about how menopause is an issue best viewed through the lens of misogyny?
DS: That’s what I found the more research I did, for instance even on the Mayo Clinic website, the way they talk about the body is so negative, using terms like “senile ovaries,” and “atrophied vagina.” There has to be a better way without so much negativity. The medical field seemed really convinced that menopause is a death.
The medical world was developed and run by men, and medicine is still by and large a male institution. What bothered me in my reading about menopause is how it’s being put through filter—a medical, cultural, filter—it is more about how men feel about aging female bodies. There’s some love and cherishing, but mostly it ranges from being afraid to being repulsed. Not because we’re repulsive, but because men are worried about aging and have to project that fear onto aging female bodies.
It bothers me how menopause is put through filter—it is more about how men feel about aging female bodies.
A lot of misogyny around menopause is hard to peel off because it’s been going on for so long and is so intense. So many women have internalized misogyny, they think the process is evil, and that they’re bad—that they’re washed up crones.
This is ridiculous. . . . We really need to work on it. Menopausal women need better medical support but also support from family, and friends, because as it is now is so nasty.
GT: You also spend time on how our society glorifies coming of age, especially for girls, and the concentration on how their sexuality is tied directly to their worth. What does this mean for menopausal women?
DS: My opinion on menopause is that it’s no different than puberty or birth—it’s a female life process. Men are interested in puberty and birth, but much less invested in menopause. That’s a big problem.
Then rather than women feeling affirmed by culture as they are going into this important phase, you’re told or made to feel like you’re going into a terrible deadened phase. My daughter didn’t want to get her period, partly because of all that implies—being objectified can seem hard and weird. But still puberty is embraced by culture. The level of interest our culture has in teens is really off the charts. Compared to how it feels about 50- or 60-year-old women.
GT: One unique part of your book is your research and writing on whales as some of the only other mammals who experience a similar stage of life. Can you tell our readers a bit about that connection?
DS: That was what drew me into the book more deeply and through my own transition. There was an article in the New York Times Science section about women and female killer whales going through menopause . . . and I read an article in Nature that explained not only how they go through menopause at ages 45 or 50, but also, they become leaders of their pods, and their families, and during times of scarcity they know where the salmon is. They help younger whales, they help jell the group in a societal way. It linked whales to when we were hunters and gatherers; the person with the best knowledge was the oldest.
There’s lots of confusion as to why menopause was selected in the Darwinian sense. So around age 50 female whales get so important to the community. First, they are fertile and have children and then they are grandmothers and community leaders. So this idea was very exciting to me, that whales have this model of menopause that was really inspiring.
I know there are amazing older women. But I had a lot of trouble grabbing onto something that could give me hope during menopause. I grabbed onto whales. I thought, this is going to be my menopausal model. This fantastic creature is not deciding to get plastic surgery, or medicating themselves, or feeling terrible about themselves, but getting shit done! … It really excited me, as a model for menopause and a model for aging, too.
I’m going to be 60 this year. And I still struggle with it. Not so much about my body, I take care of my body, it’s more like for me the idea of the future, and what is next? Are there interesting things to continue to do? Mostly I say yes, I like the idea that if you can’t be young, you can be new.
‘I don’t think staying the same is a very good strategy for menopause.’
GT: The book also covers the secrecy, shame and stigma that remains around menopause. How does that connect to the dearth of research and to treatments that are geared toward retaining a woman’s sexuality?
DS: When people have physical problems, or what they consider problems, I want these things redefined not as problems. Hot flashes, even sleeplessness. I’m not saying people shouldn’t get help for these things, but they shouldn’t be defined as problems. These symptoms are part of a passage that’s quite important.
I don’t think staying the same is a very good strategy for menopause. I’ve never experienced it to work. I’m not for or against hormones, women are judged enough and that’s your personal choice. What bothers me is what they imply. People lump them in with staying young and having a sex life just like you had or beyond—these are not great ideas.
It’s better to go with the change, and try to be honest about it. Have conversations with your partners and people in your lives, there are changes and you are a different person. Instead of feeling ashamed about not being the person you were, try to live into this new person that you are now and try to figure out who this new person is.
If you feel your aging female body is not as good as a fertile body, your life is going to be really hard. It’s important to work on those things rather than doing the more cosmetic things we think about for aging.
GT: And how might this issue be connected to profits and Big Pharma?
DS: It’s not just Big Pharma now, it’s also the way social media skews everything toward menopause cures . . . In their efforts, of course Big Pharma acts like menopause is a problem, women’s bones are falling apart, their skin is sagging, they want to sell cures for it. It’s capitalism.
The sad thing is that women’s bodies are a place where companies can make money by women feeling bad about them. Makeup, face cream, we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves to get nice face cream. We’re told we’re acting on a deficit. We’re fine the way we are, hot flashes are normal, wrinkles are normal, they’re normal parts of the life cycle.
GT: Can you talk a bit about how, as you mention repeatedly, “no one wants to hear about menopause.” There seems to be a bit of movement in that direction now, with other books coming out, etc.
DS: I hope so, there’s my book, and other new books on it, that’s good, we’re doing OK, but in places like Great Britain, they gave a big chunk of money a couple years ago to menopause education, with billboards, and more companies understand they may have menopausal workers, they have cold rooms, they’re not letting employees make fun of women having hot flashes, there’s more openness to make the lives of menopausal women better, and more acceptance.
My feeling is I want it to be like when we do sex education in school, we do menopause. They don’t act like it’s part of the female lifecycle. We need to normalize it. We need to talk to our daughters and sons when we’re going through it. I’m worried about the way some would let kids make fun of them for having hot flashes. We shouldn’t let ourselves be treated badly because we’re going through a physical process. We need to stick up more for ourselves in domestic spaces.
Photo by Abbie Hornburg.
Darcey Steinke’s recommended reading on menopause:
- Germaine Greer: “The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause” (Random House, first published 1993)
- Colette: “The Break of Day” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, first published 1928)
- Dana Spiotta: “Wayward” (Alfred Knopf, 2021)
Alison Biggar is ASA’s Editorial Director.