Black, Menopausal, And Opinionated: Karen Arthur
British Vogue, 2020
How podcast host Karen Arthur found her voice talking about menopause.
Scrolling through the results of a Google image search for the word “menopause” isn’t unlike diving into a pixelated sea of despair. It’s a rather woeful corner of the internet, awash with photos of silver-haired women fanning themselves (seemingly with whatever they can find), clawing at their abdomens with angst, and sweating. Lots of sweating. All of these women appear miserable, and not one of them is Black.
This myth may have been penned and illustrated by the patriarchy long ago, but it still circulates today as a reminder to women that our value is no more than a measure of youthfulness and fertility. This is why when we enter the inevitable and uncontrollable post-reproductive phase of female existence, we’re shown a grim fate of dispensability, while the Black women among us are erased from the narrative entirely. It’s a tired tale of sexism, race, and gender-based discrimination and control — one that podcaster Karen Arthur is now retelling through the lens of Black British women who, like herself, have found themselves drowning in a cyber ocean of white menopausal faces in an attempt to seek guidance and support.
In her recently launched podcast, Menopause Whilst Black, 58-year-old Arthur sets out to subvert the stigma we’ve been conditioned to accept about menopause. Using real stories and considered language (symptoms are “experienced”, for example, not “suffered”), Arthur speaks directly to and with Black menopausal women who neither see nor hear themselves in mainstream conversations on the topic. By demedicalising and demystifying this transition in all its disruptive, foggy, painful, female glory, Arthur wants listeners to feel prepared rather than afraid; validated rather than forgotten. Instead of settling into the quiet, solitary silos society has carved out for women as we age, Arthur reminds her peri and menopausal counterparts that they do, in fact, have choices. They can choose to be visible, to speak up, to express their joy, and to connect with one another — especially considering there are 13 million other women going through it in the United Kingdom alone. And while she recognises that menopause undoubtedly comes with its physiological discomforts, mental challenges, and hormonal vulnerabilities, for Arthur, it has also been liberating.
“Menopause has gifted me with this voice I didn’t know I have. I’ve always been loud, but not opinionated because I had always acted in a way that I thought I was supposed to act whether it was for the man I was with or in the workplace,” Arthur says, explaining how she no longer adheres to restricting social decrees of ‘ladyhood’. She’s harnessing that newfound voice to drive a more open, honest, and inclusive dialogue surrounding menopause in the hopes of offering women and those that care for them — their children, their partners, their friends, and family — tools to navigate this unfamiliar life terrain. “The more we hear stories that resonate with us, the less alone we’ll feel. And six years ago I felt completely alone, so I created the podcast so that women wouldn’t feel how I felt back then.”
Arthur was already the wearer of many hats before adding podcast host to the list. She’s an educator, fashion designer, dancer, parent of two, grandmother of one, and daughter to a Barbadian mother. Arthur is also the founder of #WearYourHappy, a social media campaign that emboldens women to use their wardrobes as a vehicle for self-expression and positivity. A genuine force of creativity, she knows how to swathe herself in multiple patterns at once with a laugh that is felt as much as it is heard. Arthur is not afraid of bringing her full self into any space: opinionated, Black, and menopausal, with remarkable confidence that she’s cultivated over time.
Six years ago, when London-based Arthur stopped having her period at age 52 (according to the NHS, menopause usually begins between the ages of 45 and 55 with the average in the UK being 51), it wasn’t just her body that was undergoing tremendous change. After 28 years of teaching, it was clear that her position as the head of house in a large secondary boy’s school was no longer serving her. At the same time, Arthur’s two daughters moved away to pursue work and studies. With her children no longer around, the house fell silent — and so did she. Arthur absorbed the icy darkness of winter to the extent that when her boiler broke, she saw no point in fixing it: “I convinced myself I couldn’t afford it but that’s not the truth,” Arthur admits. “The truth is that I was heading into a period of depression and I didn’t know it. And so I didn’t care because I didn’t feel that I was worth heat.”
Months later, Arthur was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Then, after deciding to leave her career, she lost her aunt unexpectedly. The former teacher went into therapy to help her work through this turbulent period of her life — one that was punctuated with menopausal symptoms like tingly legs, hot flushes, and the nagging sense that she was going mad. But as a result of finally shifting her focus inwards, Arthur began to see menopause as an invitation for self-discovery despite the limited healthcare and informational resources designed to address her specific needs as a Black woman in her 50s. She was coming into her own and wanted to bring her entourage along with her, gathering them for an unfiltered discussion about aging complete with food (that’s the mother in her) and worksheets (and the teacher). She and her tribe started to exchange their own reflections, filling the gaping hole where accessible menopause education and support should exist. And so a seed was planted that evening: “There’s something about being heard, and feeling heard by someone that gets you, that’s just the best thing.”
It was ultimately George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020 that propelled Arthur’s growing interest in talking about menopause further into the public arena. As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered pace both on and offline in the wake of such injustice, Arthur, who often took to social media to discuss her own mental wellbeing, woke up to a flood of new followers, most of whom were white women. “It was like seeing your bedroom crowded with people standing there, looking at you, waiting for you to do something,” Arthur explains.
“My default mode is to become overwhelmed and run away, and then one day I was sitting at my kitchen table hand-sewing and I was angry,” Arthur remembers. “I was thinking, what are my other Black menopausal women doing, and how are they coping with their symptoms? How are they dealing with seeing people who look like our sons, our brothers, our relatives, our daughters, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others [being killed]? How are they coping with that on top of menopausal symptoms? On top of Covid? Menopause is a lot in itself. Being a Black person in a white supremacist society is a lot.”
So she set up an online survey to formally ask Black women across Britain these questions since, staggeringly, it hadn’t been done before. Arthur was already aware of and inspired by the trailblazing work of women like Diane Danzebrink, a psychotherapist, founder of the not-for-profit organisation Menopause Support, and creator of the national #MakeMenopauseMatter campaign which has already ensured menopause education will be included in the relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum as of July 2020. Arthur also looked across the pond to feminist activist Omisade Burney-Scott, who hosts the Black Girl’s Guide To Menopause in the United States (she also appears on episode two of Menopause Whilst Black). But even as menopause gained these stalwart global advocates in recent years who are rejecting discriminatory taboos, reiterating the influence of a good support system (both medical and social), and insisting upon the adoption of supportive workplace policies that address this normal physiological occurrence in women in the same manner as pregnancy and childbirth, the voices of black British women were not being centered.
With the responses of over 200 hundred survey participants under her belt, Arthur identified an opportunity to build upon this advocacy from a different perspective. Her podcast was created to be the home in which these stories could safely reside. As host, Arthur welcomes listeners of all backgrounds and takes them on a tour of the Black British female menopausal experience through an approach that’s personal, political, and powerful. “I didn’t realise it was so ground-breaking,” Arthur says. “I didn’t realise that two Black women from the UK talking about all sorts of things, menopause, and race, would be such a new thing.”
In the book M Boldened: Menopause Conversation We All Need To Have edited by Caroline Harris, Dr. Christine Ekechi — a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at Imperial Healthcare and spokesperson for racial equality at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — emphasises the need to even out any gaps in gynecological medicine, especially those formed due to damaging ethnic and racial biases. By collecting data specific to ethnic minorities, as Arthur has done, medical professionals can be better-equipped to improve outcomes for all women, not just those who are culturally valorised. In addition to understanding why, for example, there is a prevalence of debilitating conditions like fibroids among a significant population of Black and Asian women, there are also cultural issues to take into account. “[For] some women from ethnic minority groups they may not be as vocal about their menopause symptoms; this may be due to cultural habits but may also be due to how symptoms are experienced and in some instances normalised, such that they do not pose a negative impact on a woman’s life,” Dr. Ekechi writes. “The most important thing we can do is to listen and support women in the best way that we can. This will be different for every woman.”
Dr. Ekechi’s advice reflects the mission at the core of Menopause Whilst Black, which Arthur says extends far beyond menopause awareness. It’s about freedom from social mores that do a disservice to older women, celebrating womanhood in its most authentic form, and exploring the reality of what it is to be Black and female.
“This is bigger than the menopause. This is about living,” Arthur says. “I was brought up to believe you had to get a job, stick at that job, then retire from that job; find a partner, get married, have kids, all the stuff. But I don’t want that for my daughters. I want my girls to feel that they can do and be anything,” she says, adding that this can only be accomplished when leading by example. Thanks to menopause, Arthur is doing just that, and it looks nothing like Google’s anguished, defeated visual interpretation of this female phenomenon: “I’m living. I’m doing more now than when I was teaching because I’m doing what I want to do on the whole. I’m going in the direction that feels right for me. I listen to myself, I listen to my intuition, and I put my well-being first.”