‘Fighting the Middle-Aged Spread’ – Where Are the Stories That Say Gaining Weight During Perimenopause is NORMAL?

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Women are generally expected to fight the weight gain that often accompanies perimenopause. But should we really feel we have to? Sarah Lang looks into it

Do an internet search for perimenopausal weight gain, and most of the hits are about ways to fight, battle or otherwise combat it. The subtext: you need to become a fat-fighting warrior!

The titles and subtitles of articles include ‘The Secret to Combating Perimenopause Weight Gain’, ‘Stop The Middle Age Spread’ and ‘Act Now To Reduce Perimenopausal Weight Gain’. Some use the term ‘mene belly’.’ Don’t ‘let yourself go!’

But where are the stories encouraging women to, if not necessarily embrace perimenopausal weight gain, to accept that it happens? And that, if it happens to you, you don’t have to feel embarrassed by it.

Some quick background: perimenopause is the period (pun intended) of time that lasts from when your menstrual cycle first becomes erratic, up to the point when you’ve gone 12 months without having a period. The average age of onset is 45, and the average length is four years, but it may last a few months or as long as (yikes!) 10 years before menopause hits.

Many women who enter perimenopause find that, even though they’re eating and exercising the same way they used to, they gain weight and can’t lose it like they once could. They can’t fit the same clothes. An article published by the U.K’s National Health Service says “it’s been proven that menopause leads to weight gain. Your body’s fat distribution also changes during the menopause. You might have more fat around the waist and less fat around the hips and buttocks.” Some call this ‘redistribution.”

Perimenopausal weight gain is really challenging for women to whom being a certain size is very important, or even part of their identity. Kirsty, a 45-year-old Wellington business exec, says: “It’s awful waking up one morning and suddenly your arse has dropped and spread – and your tummy, your body shape and your weight have changed – even though you’re doing all the right things. Argh!”

Kate*, a 45-year-old counsellor from Northland, has experienced perimenopausal weight gain. “I was shocked that, when I Googled it, everything I found explained that it’s caused by hormone changes then said ‘you need to limit what you eat’ and gave very hackneyed ‘diet to lose weight’ advice. So, I’d say this is definitely a feminist issue. Basically, it felt like a new frontier for the world to tell me to lose weight and admonish me for eating with pleasure. I went to a birthday party on Saturday and was feeling crap about not having anything to wear – my main issue with the weight gain is wardrobe restrictions. Anyway, it was affirming to see that a lot of the women there had thicker waists.”

How common is perimenopausal weight gain? Dr Mary James provides some information in her ‘Demystifying Perimenopausal Weight Gain’ story. “Gaining weight in perimenopause is extremely common,” she writes. “Nearly 80% of the women who took our Menopause & Perimenopause Quiz last year reported moderate to severe weight gain as a symptom. Perimenopausal weight gain feels different for many reasons. The excess pounds seem to go on more easily and are much, much harder to lose – no matter how often you diet or exercise. Excess weight in perimenopause appears without explanation and quickly becomes another obstacle that prevents you from feeling and looking the way you want to at this sensitive time in your life.” But with that said, the bulk of the article is about how to prevent and combat perimenopausal weight gain, urging us to “act now”.

A disclaimer: you may be among the women who don’t experience perimenopausal weight gain

The… science?

You might have heard it’s all about hormones. How do they come into it? Liz Sauchelli – who has written an article called ‘The Secret to Combating Perimenopause Weight Gain’ – spoke to Dr Barb Depree, director of the Women’s Midlife Services at Holland Hospital in the U.S. Basically, during perimenopause, your estrogen levels start to fluctuate, so your body starts to look for an estrogen replacement and finds one in fat. “Fat is a source of estrogen,’ DePree said. ‘So the body is very efficient in providing a ‘replacement’ [and] the body deposits fat very readily, especially in the midsection.” However, the majority of this article is about ‘stick to whole grains and greens, stay hydrated and exercise’. 

It’s not that easy to find good research that properly explains perimenopausal weight gain (health research is sexist, but that’s another story). What part do our hormones, and what part do any decreased levels of physical activity, play? Is it 50/50? 80/20? Does it vary from person to person? What about ageing and genetic factors?

Maddy*, a 45-year-old teacher from Christchurch, says: “It’s not easy to find actual research-based information on how our body responds to the changes in hormone levels. For instance, we’re told that we’ll automatically gain weight [during perimenopause] because our body metabolism changes, when in fact researchers have shown that there’s a drop in [physical] activity which is a huge factor. We need to be mindful of our health and fitness so we can still do what we want to in the future. That’s a truckload higher on the priority list than ‘Look trim!”

Chloe, a 47-year-old lawyer from Auckland, has also done some personal research on perimenopausal weight gain. From her understanding, both hormone changes and a decline in physical activity can play a role. “We’re bombarded with the retain-your-looks messages rather than work to retain your health/movement etc,” Chloe says. But she doesn’t think the focus should be on looks. “In saying that, I don’t like the opposite stuff when people push back: like ‘accept your middle-aged spread, that’s what happens, you can’t do anything about it’… because that’s not right either.” As in, there are health reasons to not gain too much weight.

No one is trying to discourage women from having a healthy lifestyle with enough physical activity. Still, the notion that we’re expected to eat less and exercise more than we’ve ever done to ‘fight the middle-aged spread’ makes this a feminist issue. Blame and shame can creep into this – you know, worrying others might think ‘oh, she let herself go’. But why the f**k should we feel embarrassed about our bodies? Why should we have to dress a certain way to cover up our tummies? Why should we have to really restrict our diet?

Some peri-menopausal women make separate meals for themselves and another for their family, then they have to ignore the pasta bake while they contemplate their salad. Also, somehow women are meant to do this, and deal with other perimenopausal symptoms, while we’re busy with our jobs, kids, finances, housework, the mental load etc.

This is also about modelling our attitudes to our bodies to our daughters and other girls. The “I must lose weight” message isn’t helpful at a time where many of them are self-conscious about their bodies.

So is there any way we can say ‘screw you’ to any embarrassment, and work toward accepting perimenopausal weight gain? Can we try to stay healthy while also practising body acceptance? Yes, it’s goddamn hard in a society like ours, but you can adapt, says Mel, a 47-year-old speech therapist. “There have been big changes in my body [since perimenopause began]. Before that I’d always been pretty skinny. I’m still getting my head around it: changing the type of clothing from what I used to like, and wear more comfortable clothes, such as high and elasticated waists, plus following fashion via normal-sized women, and continuing to do sports which make me feel strong. These have made things more tolerable for me.”

Find yourself a good doctor. Pam, from Nelson, says: “I’m ‘only’ 41 but have been in the throws of perimenopause for two years. A 10kg weight gain and a sudden apron [layer of abdomen fat] within six months. Until I got treatment for endometriosis, and my gynaecologist said I’m in peri-menopause, my GP had just said I need to eat less and exercise more. Helpful!” Multiple women say many GPs aren’t great at dealing with perimenopause at all, let alone the weight-gain aspect.

Charlotte, a 46-year-old writer from Wellington, says “hope your doctor is female and older to understand what you are going through. Otherwise, it’s a struggle to be heard. Apparently stress and other issues come into play when hitting perimenopause, but, again, [there’s] so little info available. My body shape has definitely changed. Not for the better, but as long as I can keep active doing the things I love – surfing, hiking, biking etc – then I’m okay with it. The other side of the weight gain is the weird feeling of giving less and less of a f**k about this stuff the older I’m getting. I’m less interested in what others think of me, [which is] liberating.”

Patrida Sutton, a 50-year-old from Auckland, puts it  best. “No one has a go at a middle-aged cat whose tummy starts losing its tone and becomes saggy and pouchy, yet women are treated like it’s a personal failing when their bodies age similarly. Why are we more accepting of other species’ natural ageing than of our own?”

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