Let’s face it, there’s never a good time to feel like “somebody put a furnace in [your] core and turned it on high” – especially when you are the First Lady of the United States, aboard the President’s helicopter, Marine One, dressed and ready to impress on your way to an event. This is how former First Lady Michelle Obama described having a hot flash in her podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast, going on to describe how, “everything started melting”.
Anyone who has experienced a hot flash knows the discomfort Mrs. Obama refers to, but what people who haven’t experienced a hot flash don’t understand is that the worst part is having to hide it to avoid embarrassment on the part of the person experiencing it and those around her. Even Meryl Streep would be challenged trying to disguise the characteristic bright red face dripping in sweat while wearing a perspiration-soaked suit!
About three-quarters of women get hot flashes, usually starting in perimenopause, which is the time leading up to menopause when hormones have started to change. On average, perimenopause starts around a woman’s mid-40s, but it may be earlier or later, and can last anywhere from a few months to 10 years or more. When hot flashes happen at night, they are called night sweats, and can result in a woman literally sweating through her sheets. Unsurprisingly, this can have a major impact on duration and quality of sleep for women who experience them. It can also result in chronic fatigue for women during daytime hours.
If it sounds debilitating, it certainly can be! So why does society pretend this natural change doesn’t exist? In her podcast, Mrs. Obama talks about how the whole system of the workplace doesn’t support women in the right way, and how we need to talk about cultural norms such as how women dress, and be aware of what is happening.
And it’s not just hot flashes-- women in perimenopause may also experience other physical and mental symptoms that can pose challenges in the workplace, such as mood swings, heavy (bleeding-through-a tampon-or-maxi-pad-every-hour) periods, and “brain fog” or forgetfulness. There are some things women can do to minimize the discomfort of these symptoms, such as dressing in layers, and making daily “to do” lists. But it’s also incumbent on employers to ensure a comfortable workplace for women, including manager training and reasonable workplace adjustments like temperature control where possible (hello, mini-fan!). In fact, menopause is largely covered under the Equality Act of 2010, so employers can be taken to an employment tribunal if they fail to take into account the potential impact of menopausal symptoms. But they can’t fix what they don’t know, so making perimenopausal and menopausal realities part of our narrative is important.
By shining a light on the often-ignored natural process of perimenopause and menopause that all women go through, Mrs. Obama has done us all an important service-- “It is an important thing to take up space in a society because half of us are going through this, but we are living like it’s not happening.” Word, Mrs. Obama. We need to get out there and share.