At age 52, Karen Arthur started having hot flashes and low moods. So, she went to the doctor. Without much discussion and to her dismay, the doctor prescribed antidepressants and sent her home. But her instincts (and her body) were telling her that it was more than that, so she started digging. It didn’t take her long to conclude that she was undoubtedly, perimenopausal.
As a Black woman, Karen (now 58 years old) knows all too well the challenges we often face being treated competently and compassionately, when navigating medical and health systems – not just in the UK where she’s based – but across the world.
Motivated by her own experience with menopause transition, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that was being spurred by violence against Black people playing out for the world to see, Karen felt compelled to speak out about what she was going through and its impact on her well-being. In the process, she’s become a bold voice for Black women experiencing menopause transition in the UK and globally.
Menopausing Whilst Black (and British)
As the founder and host of Menopause Whilst Black, a podcast she founded in 2020, Karen provides a much-needed platform that’s dedicated to addressing the unique issues Black women face as we navigate menopause and aging. In her discussions with guests, she sheds light on the lived experiences of Black women struggling with disparities in care (and concern) for our health and well-being – from both the medical community and the communities in which we live.
“George Floyd was killed at the end of May and then there’s Amy Cooper and her white tears… We’re in lockdown. I’m stuck in my house. I’m post-menopausal and still having hot flushes and I start to think about what I now know is ‘racial weathering’, and the cumulative wearing effect these things have on our physical and mental well-being. So, I’m like, how are women, Black women — menopausal Black women specifically — coping with seeing all of this playing out on top of their menopause symptoms? They don’t just take a pause, you know?”
Eventually, Karen came across a name for what she had been calling racial trauma – racial weathering – a term coined by Arline Geronimus, a professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, based on her research on racial disparities in health.
“Basically, racial weathering is knowing, experiencing, or seeing our people being racially abused, killed, murdered, subject to myriad micro-aggressions – all of that – and the cumulative wearing effects it has on our physical and mental well-being. I was thinking about that then, but I didn’t know what it was called.”
As Karen explains, “I saw that Black women were supposed to start our menopause up to two years earlier and have more severe hot flushes. And I’m thinking, how is this not common knowledge? I don’t understand.”
That’s when Karen started her own research on menopause, so that she could better understand it and how it was affecting her. During her search, she was struck by how much more data there was that spoke to the experience of Black women in the US. In comparison, there was little to no research specific to Black British and Caribbean women.
To her disappointment, the only research she came across was from 2007, which was a meager survey of 22 women of color, of which only four were Black. To add insult to her injury, the focus of the research was limited to exploring why women of color were not taking up hormone replacement therapy (HRT) at the same rate as white women.
With such a small sample size and limited scope, the research didn’t even scratch the surface of the distinct and varied experiences of women of color navigating menopause transition, let alone Black women. Motivated by curiosity and a gnawing frustration, Karen decided to do a “simple” online survey on the menopausal experiences of Black women based in the UK, and promoted it in her newsletter and across social media.
When she closed the survey just a few days later, to her surprise, 235 Black British women had completed the questionnaire…she knew she was on to something.
The Intersect Between Menopause, Racial Weathering and Black Women’s Health
Karen’s online survey featured two key questions: 1) Were their menopausal symptoms worse during the lockdown; and 2) How have their symptoms changed, if at all, following the Gorge Floyd killing and Black Lives Matter protests?
Why these two specific questions? Informed by the overwhelming weight of her own experience, Karen was fundamentally looking to validate how she was feeling managing post-menopause stresses, like hot flashes and anxiety, while processing the racially-charged atrocities that were fueling the Black Live Matters movement.
But based on the survey responses, she was surprised to learn that many women hadn’t really thought about the compounding of the two issues — until she raised it.
“Many women have not considered that they are allowed to feel a certain kind of way about the fact that people who look like our husbands, sons, and our brothers, are being murdered and the police are getting away with it… They don’t know that they’re allowed to be upset because it’s not directly or personally related to them. But the reality is, it’s all a lot to handle and take in, and we as women are not taking time for ourselves.”
She also asked where women were getting their menopause-related information and was disheartened, yet motivated, by the responses.
“For some people, I was giving them information for the first time. They didn’t know about anything … They hadn’t had the conversation with their mother … they hadn’t told work because it was already hard at work without this adding to the pressures of being Black.”
“Black Don’t Crack” and Why That’s Problematic for Black Women
Karen noted that throughout her research and in managing her own experience, once thing was reinforced: it’s hard to be a Black woman — much less an older Black woman, going through menopause. She believes that some of this has to do with the long-revered trope that Black women “age well”.
“You know the saying, “Black don’t crack”. It’s meant to be a compliment but it can actually be damaging. For example, when people comment on how Black women look younger than their actual age, it places them under undue pressure. It’s like, how can you look this young and yet be going through menopause? And in the workplace, it’s even more difficult. “
When asked what she hopes to accomplish with her efforts, Karen is resolute – she wants to inspire and rally Black women to advocate for themselves and be unapologetic when questioning their doctors about “information that’s being thrown at them as the right thing to do.” She also emphasizes that it’s OKAY to change practitioners if we’re not being helped.
“When menopause hits, we’re often faced with this binary choice of having our reproductive organs taken out, or taking HRT. And don’t get me wrong, for some, those may be the best options. But the problem is, the GP’s are ill-equipped to offer other approaches for managing. What if I want another means of relieving my symptoms without drugs? Where are the resources to help with that?”
Making a Difference Through Menopause Whilst Black
“I had no intention of starting the podcast. I had no intention of starting anything, but George Floyd put a fire in me. And in the questionnaire and subsequent follow-ups that I had, the last thing I asked was, ‘is there anything you want to add?’
The response was almost unanimous – there needs to be a podcast.
When I asked which Black British woman is standing up and saying, ‘I’m menopausal’? Most responders said, YOU.”
So…she bought a mic. And although it took her a month after that to actually pick it up, the rest history.
One year later, Karen recently wrapped up the second season of her Menopause Whilst Black podcast and is already planning the line-up for season three. While she continues to fund most of the production out-of-pocket, she loves what she’s doing says it’s become a passion. More so, she believes in the value of her work and is motivated by the affirming impact of having Black voices as part of menopause-related discussions.
“Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu said something like, ‘My ancestors did not go through what they went through for me to be quiet,’ and I was like, Yes! That’s it. That. Is. It. We didn’t come this far, just to come this far.”
Fortunately for us, the podcast appears to have just been the launching pad for Karen’s growing influence and advocacy calling for more research and support related to Black British women’s health and well-being. Since starting the podcast, Karen’s been featured in several major publications including, British Vogue, The Telegraph, The Guardian and Good Housekeeping, to name a few.
Amidst all of this, she reminds us (and herself) of how important it is to be gentle with ourselves – a resounding theme that she’s taken from her research and conversations with other women. “We have to put self-care first. You can’t pull from an empty cup.”
And we did not come this far to stop.
Karen Arthur is a London fashion designer and campaigner, and founder of the Menopause Whilst Black podcast. You can listen to the podcast on Apple and Spotify and follow her on Instagram @menopausewhilstblack and @thekarenarthur.