Saturday, 11 October 2014

The things we don't discuss II ....

Over a year ago, I wrote a post called "The things we don't discuss...", where I talked about the ways in which menstruation is largely treated as unspeakable within swimming (and elsewhere), with the exception of whispered conversations between women about how to keep all evidence of menstruation hidden. This post follows up that earlier one by focusing on a second unmentionable - the menopause. Unlike periods, the menopause is quite commonly discussed in everyday society, although in very limited ways. It exists in popular discourse as the end to a woman's reproductive potential; the threatened end point of the presumed have-it-all postponement of reproduction. It's also commonly caricatured via common symptoms such as hot flushes, and women are exhorted to turn to hormonal therapies to keep them looking and feeling young (although we're also supposed to also negotiate the unknown risks of taking those hormones). It is widely represented in popular media, medicine etc as a disaster for women - the end of reproduction, and of desirable womanliness; it tends to be medicated as an illness, rather than as a natural part of a woman's life cycle.

In swimming, I've heard very little about the menopause. This in part reflects the relatively limited numbers of menopausal and post-menopausal women in the sport, but also the silence expected both within and outside of swimming about all things menstruation-related. When it is mentioned, comments usually refer to either (a) potential freedom from menstruation and its management and concealment; and (b) the imagined warming effects of hot flushes on cold tolerance. This latter in particular is misguided, since hot flushes are unpredictable momentary incidences rather than a consistent increase in core temperature. Furthermore, while medical science seems unsure of the precise mechanism, they are generally agreed to be a temporary disruption to thermoregulatory systems caused by falling oestrogen levels. As I head determinedly into the menopause now, one consequence of this that I have noticed is the increasing unpredictability of my response to water temps. This has made it hard to judge or predict my condition in the water, and I have had several experiences recently of suddenly becoming extremely cold at temps that have never been a problem for me in the past. The suddenness of the cold is also at odds with the much steadier fall in perceived body temperatures I have previously experienced. I don't know, of course, if my core body temperature is falling or whether I'm just 'feeling the cold', but it seems important to err on the side of caution, especially since I now do most of my outdoor swimming alone.

The many popular texts on managing the menopause love to advise women to swim - good for the joints, keeps your weight down, relieves stress, blah, blah, blah. This is all basic lifestyle advice - well-meaning, but rather bland, generic and presumptive. But I haven't been able to find much on the menopause and the more extreme end of endurance sport, except for the a few rather patronising news articles about older female athletes, the tone of which is primarily one of surprise that women don't sit down and start knitting as soon as they stop menstruating.

So I'm not sure yet what difference the menopause makes - maybe not much, maybe quite a lot. We'll see, but it is a conversation that female swimmers could usefully have with each other and in public settings. These bodies of ours are nothing to be ashamed of. As with menstruation, it would also be interesting to think about what difference swimming makes to the menopause as a process and experience. I wrote before that past long swims have had a profoundly positive effect on my hormone regulation for months post-swim, so there's no reason to think that it wouldn't also affect the menopause, although whether positively or negatively remains to be seen. I'm also exploring what changing nutritional and recovery needs I might need to address; I don't know whether it's ageing generally, or the menopause specifically, but I'm certainly noticing a slower recovery time these days.

It would be great to hear about other women's experiences. Everyone's body is different and there is no single truth to any of these experiences, but if we don't talk about it, we'll never learn more.