Early menopause and identity, social connection and future plans: Women’s experiences

Many of the women we spoke with mentioned that early menopause (EM) had impacted on their identity and body image, their sense of social connection to their peers, and their plans for the future.

Identity and body image

Several women spoke about how EM had challenged their ‘sense of femininity’ or ‘womanhood’, and changed how they saw or experienced their body. Loss of fertility, surgical removal of one’s ovaries or uterus (or breasts for women who had breast cancer), and a sense of ageing ‘faster’ following EM could all contribute to women feeling differently about their bodies and affect their sense of identity as women (see also Emotional impact of early menopause and fertility loss).

Linda had a hysterectomy and oophorectomy at 33 to treat her endometriosis, then at 39 had a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She reflected on how these experiences had affected her ‘sexual identity’ and sense of ‘desirability.’ 

Following spontaneous early menopause, Anna found changes to her appearance ‘quite confronting.’

A sense of ageing ‘faster’ than their peers impacted some women, both physically and emotionally.

Fiona shared the physical changes she experienced when she underwent breast cancer treatment and surgical menopause, and how she had ‘learned to live with’ them. 

Maddy shared her reflections on how feeling as though she was ‘ageing far too early’ had affected her self-esteem.

Some women did not feel any different after early menopause. Tracey said, ‘I certainly didn’t feel like not having my ovaries I would not feel feminine or not feel sexy… and it’s certainly not the case.’ Others questioned the idea that femininity was associated with fertility and youth, including Eden: ‘I suppose there are certain notions of what it is to be a woman and how your femininity is compromised by that, but my notion of self as a woman doesn’t reside in my uterus anyway.’

A couple of women recalled feeling less ‘feminine’ initially, but said their thinking changed over time.

Naomi reflected on how her sense of ‘womanhood’ had evolved since she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Yen-Yi discussed with her psychologist what it was like experiencing early menopause in a society that ‘over-emphasises’ youth.

Social connection

For many women, early menopause was an ‘isolating’ or ‘lonely’ experience because of a feeling of not being ‘normal’, and having no-one to ‘relate’ to. As Jenni said, ‘I feel like little bits of me are spread out across the whole lifespan … I don’t have a cohort to move through life with.’

Some younger women with EM found it difficult being around peers who were having children, still having menstrual periods, or simply not experiencing menopausal symptoms. A couple commented that few of their friends seemed to ‘understand’ what they were going through. Some felt ‘excluded’, voluntarily withdrew from particular friendships, or sought out older friends (see Impact of early menopause on relationships).

At the same time, older women’s experiences of natural menopause were not seen as comparable. Joanna reflected that, ‘the tales [older women] tell about the experience of menopause are often quite rooted in how their children are responding to having a crazy mother and how their husbands are, and all his sort of stuff. It’s all the things that go around it that you think, ‘That’s not around me. I should be back at work or dating or doing this and doing that,’ … the way it’s impacting their life is different.’

Alex, who experienced surgical menopause as part of ovarian cancer treatment, found it hard to talk with her friends about early menopause. She could ‘joke’ with her mum and aunties about menopause, but not ‘talk seriously’ with them. 

Some older women we interviewed who had wanted children but not been able to have any because of EM found that even when they reached the age of natural menopause, friends’ or colleagues’ grandchildren could become another ‘reminder’ that they were ‘different.’

Ella, now 50, reflected on what it was like once her friends began going through menopause themselves, and the isolation of being a woman without children surrounded by other women ‘busy’ with their families. (2 parts)

A few women commented that the ‘taboos’ they felt existed around the topic of menopause, EM and ageing could make it even more difficult to disclose or talk about, particularly outside one’s own age group. Debra contemplated the reasons she had not been more ‘open’ about EM: ‘it feels so private, even though I think it would be better if we did talk about it, and that’s why I decided to do this [interview]. I don’t know – I guess it is that idea that if I’m old, I want to keep that a secret from people. I don’t want [people] to know.’

Eden reflected on why she had not talked with any of her friends or female colleagues about early menopause.

Re-mapping the future

Many women reflected on how EM had prompted them to re-evaluate their future, or to think differently about themselves. As Maddy, who experienced spontaneous EM, said, ‘I feel different, like I’ve changed or something – and I probably have.’ Some women were still unsure about what the future held, particularly those who had experienced cancer, a number of whom were focused on trying to recover or stay well.

Kate, who experienced breast cancer and was undergoing hormone (adjuvant endocrine) therapy, wanted to ‘get back to a normal life’ but wasn’t sure what that would look like. 

Sylvia shared her reflections on trying to work out what ‘role’ she wanted to play, now that she could not have children.

Jacqueline described her experience of EM following removal of her ovaries as a ‘cocoon transforming into a butterfly.’

Further information

Talking Points (Women)

Talking Points (Health Practitioners)

Other resources: