It’s not unusual for women to shy away from discussing menopause, or even — due to the horror stories that surround it — dread its arrival. Salma Hayek is looking to change that. In this week’s episode of Red Table Talk, the 54-year-old shared her own menopause journey with Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith and Adriene Banfield-Jones, pushing back on the idea that it's an "expiration date" for women and asserting instead that "[women] can kick ass at any age."
Hayek says she first noticed symptoms of menopause in her 40s and was directed to answer a form at her doctor's office which asked “terrifying questions” about whether she was "growing a beard," "crying for no reason," or gaining weight that “doesn’t go away no matter what you do" — some of which can be symptoms of menopause. The Oscar-nominated actress said she experienced classic symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings, but also some that weren't mentioned on the questionnaire.
"I’ll tell you what they didn’t tell [ask]: 'Are your boobs growing?’” Hayek said. "There are some women when you reach menopause they grow again and I just happen to be one of those women."
Dr. Soma Mandal, a board-certified internist, women's health expert and author of Dear Menopause: I Do Not Fear You! says that there can be changes in breast size. "Menopausal symptoms aren't the same for every woman. It is a highly individualized process that varies from woman to woman," Mandal tells Yahoo Life. "Menopause can cause breast changes. You may experience pain in the breasts, stretching or sagging in the breasts. This may cause some changes in breast size for some women, but not for all."
According to the Mayo Clinic, women often experience a "loss in breast fullness" during menopause, the opposite of what Hayek described. Dr. Tami Rowen, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in treating women with sexual health concerns, says that it's rare for breast size to increase. She says that Hayek may have been going through perimenopause, the transition period before menopause when hormone levels begin to decrease.
"[Breast] size is related to fluid retention in the luteal phase, which is related to progesterone," Rowen tells Yahoo Life. "Most people, they stop making as much progesterone because they're not ovulating frequency — they may be bleeding, but they're not necessarily ovulating." Menopause itself, Rowen says, is defined as 12 months without a period, and although it's a natural development in getting older, it's often accompanied by sadness and shame.
It's for this reason that Hayek was inspired to advocate for her role in the upcoming film Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard to be one that explores what it's like to go through the process. “It was conceived as a girl maybe in her 40s, but the truth is I said, ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Let’s a make it a woman in her 50s and I think we should make it about her having to do all this action while she’s going through menopause," said Hayek, who stars alongside Ryan Reynolds and Morgan Freeman.
“It’s a very important message because what we’re saying is that there is no expiration date for women — that has to go because you can kick ass at any age, you can hold your own at any age…We have the right to be loved for who we are, at the place that we are," she added. "We’re not just here to make babies, we’re not just here to baby the man, we’re not just here to service everyone around us."
Rowen says that women often take it as an "emotional gut punch" when they learn they're going through menopause, especially those still in their 40s. "People have such a reaction because it makes you so much more aware of your age...we tie periods to femininity and womanhood," she says. "I think that's why we don't talk about it. It's related to getting old and we don't like talking about things that imply aging." She also says it may have something to do with how intertwined fertility has become with womanhood.
"We value fertility as women — and we don't talk about that as much," says Rowen. "The only thing that compares to the emotional trauma of infertility is actually losing a child...that's been shown. The sense of fertility is such a huge thing. So even for most of these women going through menopause, they don't want to have children. It's got nothing to do with fertility. But it has everything to do with what you feel like you identify as: a woman."
Mandal agrees. "Unfortunately, menopause is still considered a taboo topic," she says. "It is almost as if a woman is considered to be past her prime when she approaches menopause. Much of this has to do with how we view women. Aging is not considered to be a good thing for women. From an early age, girls and young women are exposed to messages on television, social media and magazines about how to look, how to defy aging. Many women are therefore embarrassed to admit that they are approaching menopause or are already menopausal."
Hayek is hoping to disrupt that narrative, and Rowen thinks she just might. "Salma Hayek still gets to be a very feminine, very sexual being if she wants to be," she says. "She just happens to not be getting her periods anymore." Rowen says that continuing to talk about this is key. "The emotional piece to me is a social problem... I appreciate this idea of an expiration date, but the question is an expiration date for what? I have patients who are happily sexually active, doing great into their 80s and 90s."
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