How the French master the menopause
‘They can replace hands and lungs, they can fit pacemakers, but they can’t do a damn thing about hot flushes,’ laments the lead character in the new French hit film Aurore, or I Got Life! to give it its English title. My first reaction on hearing this was: ‘Do French women even have hot flushes?’
I moved to France almost 18 years ago and unlike Aurore, the 50-year-old menopausal star of the film, my French friends have never suddenly ripped off their T-shirts off to cool down mid flush, or, now I come to think of it, ever mentioned ‘la ménopause’. For them it was just a physical function that was best kept private or even ignored. Until now.
Because this spring a spate of French films on release in both France and the UK have made the menopause a rather, pardon the pun, hot topic. Inspired by the movies, in cafes and restaurants, on radio debates and TV panel shows French men and women are talking openly for the first time about menopause and what it means.
As the film’s lead actress Agnès Jaoui (the Julie Walters of France) asks her daughter in the opening scene of the romantic comedy Aurore: ‘When I had my first period my mother said: “now you’re a woman”, now I’m not having them, what am I?’
On screen, Aurore deals with the double whammy of menopause and becoming a grandmother by starting over again and refusing to be pushed aside. A chance encounter with the first love of her life has her hoping for a better ending than everyone around her predicts – from her doctor who helpfully tells her that after the age of 30 it’s all downhill for women, to the lady in the employment agency who concludes that at 50, women are cast aside, consigned to the scrap heap.
Juliet Binoche’s return to the screen, aged 54, in Let The Sunshine In, is similarly about searching for another shot at love in middle age. And last year, the gorgeous 65-year-old Isabelle Huppert starred in Things to Come, an exploration of how a woman of ‘un certain âge’ copes with change – including, yes, the change. Nothing less than a French revolution is under way. Although rarely discussed, the attitude to the menopause across the Channel has long been different to our own.
For while in England women sometimes seem to see the end of their fertility as the end of life as a sexual being, here in France this stage in a woman’s life is, these days, often about shaking things up and having more sex, not less.
The catapulting into public view of Brigitte Macron must surely have contributed to reframing the conversation about older women and sex. While she might not be the most popular first lady, with her leather leggings and ultra-short skirts she is at 64 unapologetically aiming for a sexy aesthetic rather than a demure one.
A Parisian friend of mine, whose children were at the school Brigitte Macron taught at, says she will never forget the first time she met her. ‘We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing tight leather trousers and stilettoes and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. I have no idea at all what she said, I was just utterly mesmerised. It is not the kind of school where teachers wear leather trousers! But she looked incredible.’
Mme Macron is not alone in refusing to equate her more mature years with a more sedate style or approach to life.
A French friend of mine called Marie-France recently got divorced from her husband of 22 years. Their marriage had been a sham for a long time, but they stayed together for the sake of the children. Once the kids left home they decided to split up and sell their apartment in central Paris.
With the proceeds Marie-France, now aged 55, bought a home in her native Toulouse as well as a pied-a-terre in Barcelona.
‘There are two of me now,’ she tells me. ‘The divorced mother who lives in Toulouse where she welcomes her family home and the woman who spends her weekends alone in Barcelona. I know which one has more fun.’
Marie-France says she feels lucky that her menopause coincided with her divorce. ‘I think within the confines of a barren, dull marriage it might have really affected me badly. As it was, it was part of a new direction in my life and actually spurred me on to greater things.’
Her symptoms are in the main hot flushes so she always carries an Evian spray in her bag. She also gets her doctor to prescribe an oestrogen gel called Oestrodose, HRT in gel form, which she applies daily.
French women are extremely open to HRT. Every single friend in France I spoke to about the menopause said she was either taking it or would do when the time came.
Unlike us Brits. Dr Anna Marie Olsen works for French dermatology guru Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh who has offices in both Paris and London sums it up: ‘The difference is that European women are more open to bio-identical hormone therapy and that does make a difference.’
My friend Marie-France continues: ‘But to be honest I feel better than I have done in years, more at ease with myself and looking forward to my future.’
The fact that age is no barrier to sexiness in France means that for most women the menopause has little or no bearing on a woman’s desire to be attractive (and attracted to) others. I remember once chatting to an elderly lady who was buying underwear in Galeries Lafayette in Paris. I guess she was in her mid-sixties. I asked her why she bought lingerie. ‘To be sexy,’ she replied.
The simple fact is that sex is not linked to fertility in French culture. In fact, according to Chantal, a married friend of mine who is going through menopause, lack of fertility can actually make you feel better about sex. ‘Having sex for the sake of having sex has made me feel young again,’ she says.
That sentiment is echoed by the psychologist and therapist Marie de Henezell, who has written a book called A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex After Sixty. ‘The heart does not age,’ she says. ‘Try to think about the body you are, not the body you have. Develop your ability to be erotic and seductive. An inner youthfulness can be sexier than youth itself.’
Chantal agrees. ‘At 51 I am now having the best sex of my life. I look back on my younger self and almost feel sorry for her with all her angst and insecurity.’
It’s not all plain sailing though. ‘There was one rather embarrassing moment when I had a hot flush in bed,’ she adds, ‘but I put it down to our exertions.’
But while French women generally don’t like to discuss the menopause, they will talk to their pharmacist.
According to my local pharmacienne the two most common complaints menopausal women come in for are hot flushes and weight gain — and in the treasure trove that is a French pharmacy there are pills aplenty that can tackle these symptoms. One brand is Acthéane, which contains a cocktail of ingredients including Arnica and Glonoinum, a nitro-glycerine, and claims to “ease menopausal discomfort”. Another popular brand is Ménophytea, which targets hot flushes with herbal ingredients including hop extract, flaxseed and chicory. Similarly a discreet enquiry will lead to PH-balancing, soap-free intimate wash and gels to deal with one of the most unpleasant effects of menopause, the fact that sex can become a little uncomfortable. Though the latter is, according to another friend of mine, ‘always the husband’s fault!’ firstname.lastname@example.org
And there’s not a single French skincare brand that doesn’t have an anti-rougeur (anti-redness) cream within their range — and an SPF 50 which, according to Dr Anna Marie Olsen, is essential for dealing with the three major areas of concern in menopausal skin: enlarged, visible pores, pigmentation and crepey skin. ‘But you need to use it every day, not just in summer,’ she warns.
My pharmacist says that actually a lot of French women are blissfully unaware that the menopause is happening due to their choice of contraception.
The coil, which is more common in France than in the UK according to a UN report, can hide the symptoms of menopause by lessening the frequency of your periods or even stopping them all together, as well as releasing hormones. The hormonal coil releases progesterone, a hormone that is also released when you’re pregnant, which along with oestrogen puts a stop to your periods. Some contraceptive pills and implants can have similar effects.
As my pharmacist sums up: ‘The fact is, once you find a method of contraception that works, while you are peri-menopausal (pre-menopausal) there is no need to change it, even if its main function changes from contraception to hormone replacement during the menopause. It can really make the transition much smoother.’
Another reason that French women may look and feel that they seemingly glide through the menopause could well be down to the fact that a lot of them have spent the last 40 years watching their weight. Research suggests that the higher your BMI (body mass index, which attempts to give a healthy weight range for your height), the worse your menopausal symptoms will be, especially hot flushes and joint pain.
The French obsession with weight is well documented, which might explain why, in addition to what they can find in the pharmacy, women who do experience the effects of the menopause look to their diet for a remedy.
My friend Marie-France swears by the gâteau pour la menopause, a cake made with seeds, ginger and nuts that is stuffed full of dietary oestrogens. She also avoids salt to reduce water retention and eats a diet rich in green, leafy vegetables.
Others turn to Dr Jean-Claude Houdret, a Parisian weight-loss and anti-ageing specialist based in Paris. He came up with the ‘Spoonlight method’, a mixed protein diet that helped the designer Karl Lagerfeld lose 42 kilos in 13 months.
He is also the author of the book Bien Vivre sa Ménopause (Live Well During Menopause) and his advice to the mainly high-end clients who visit him complaining of (i) bouffées de chaleur (i) — yes, even their hot flushes sound glamorous — is to use mainly natural methods. ‘Hydrotherapy (or water therapy), aromatherapy and above all herbal remedies will all restore equilibrium,’ he says. SEE SIDE BAR
Whichever methods they chose to deal with menopause – from herbs to HRT – discretion has always been key. When, in the new film, Aurore says the word ‘menopause’ in her ex-husband’s presence he covers his ears and makes a silly noise, much like a child being teased might. French men do still like their women to be mysterious, sexy and on a pedestal. Which is another reason this film is so ground-breaking.
Another French friend of mine, Sophie, said that when she went to see her doctor about dealing with the symptoms of menopause, his main piece of advice was not to discuss it with her husband.
And actually, perhaps this refusal to acknowledge the menopause explains in part why French women seem to have an easier time navigating this tricky passage of life. Rather than rolling over, giving in to hot flushes and accepting that, in the words of one English friend of mine ‘the war is over’, they are treating this certain âge as a golden age, full of possibilities – especially when it comes to romance.
So will this latest spate of films revelling in the menopause really succeed in permanently busting the taboo in France, or is this just a blip?
I can’t help but hope it’s the latter. After all, if maintaining the mystery for all these years is at least partially responsible for the positive associations that French women have with the menopause, who would want to change that?
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (Gibson Square) by Helena Frith Powell, priced £8.99 is out on 19 April. Order at mailshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019