‘My journey was long and lonely – but I’ve come out of the menopause far stronger’: A courageous admission by Hollywood actor Naomi Watts, whose symptoms began at just 36
- Naomi has talked frankly about the alienation her menopause brought
- READ MORE: Experts reveal the overlooked menopause symptoms which no one talks about
It is perhaps surprising to learn that one of Hollywood actor Naomi Watts’ favourite old shows is Golden Girls, the sitcom about four older women who share a home in Miami.
‘I always loved the idea of a group of older ladies coming together to live and support each other during the second phase of their lives,’ she says.
‘But what’s so incredible is that the visual representation of these women is “little old grandmas”. They’re supposed to be in their 50s! I’m 55 now.
‘Visually, I think midlife perceptions are changing. But also, we’re living much longer now. We have a lot of life ahead of us after menopause. What a shame it would be to pack it in and ride off into the sunset in our 50s.’
Times have changed, and for once it’s in a good way. For far too long menopause has been a solitary journey and menopausal women perceived as end‑game ancients.
Naomi Watts is an award-winning actor, producer, activist, and founder and chief creative officer of Stripes, which creates science-based products for midlife women
Now, menopause is starting to represent a passionate, strong and ambitious global tribe, and a badge of honour, rather than a stain of shame requiring a spell in the ducking stool to eradicate.
This week, I’m travelling to New York to launch the U.S. arm of campaign group Menopause Mandate at the Women in Work Summit, and am over the moon that Naomi, whom I’ve known for two decades, has agreed to be co-chair.
Others include actor Julianna Margulies, known for her starring roles in ER, The Morning Show and The Good Wife, and Dr Sharon Malone, who has discussed menopause with former First Lady Michelle Obama on her podcast.
Naomi is an award-winning actor, producer, activist, and founder and chief creative officer of Stripes, which creates science-based products for midlife women.
Her frankness about her menopause means she is also opening a metaphorical door for millions of women to speak about their own transition.
She brilliantly describes the confusion and alienation that we can all feel, especially as her symptoms began when she was 36.
‘My menopause experience came much earlier than that of my peers, and at a time when I was more focused on starting a family than I was about ending my reproductive years,’ she says.
‘It was a bit of a mind game to try to navigate when I’d never even heard the term “perimenopause”.
Kindred spirits: Naomi (left) and Mariella want to empower all older women
‘There were all kinds of symptoms I never knew were part of this hormonal change, and at the time I felt like I had them all!
‘Sure, hot flushes and night sweats were a thing; I remember my kids asking me if I’d wet the bed because I’d woken up soaking.’
But, she says, there were also the symptoms no one talked about — anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, hair thinning and severely dry, itchy skin.
‘I felt like I was losing my mind, and I was definitely losing what it felt like to be “myself”. I’d been in my body for 36 years. Until then, I thought I knew myself pretty well. It was incredibly isolating to feel so out of control.
‘I’m certain if there were more information at the time, more resources, my transition would have been much easier.’
Premature menopause (before the age of 40) is experienced by one in a hundred women, and needs far more recognition.
‘Statistics make people panic if they are seen as abnormal, or less than average. We need better education so that people can make the best use of their time with their doctors and come in well prepared,’ says Naomi.
‘At that time, there was very little conversation about the topic, and the whole thing was riddled with shame and confusion.
‘Once I knew that others felt the same way, it not only gave me the fuel I needed to help heal myself, but also the charge to help change the conversation out there.
Naomi has described the confusion and alienation that all menopausal women can feel, especially as her symptoms began when she was 36
‘Since I launched Stripes a year ago, we’ve made amazing strides in smashing the taboo, moving the discussion forward, reducing the stigma.
‘My wish is that my generation is able to end the silence and create a world where menopause is an accepted natural phase of life, which it is.’
My own menopause was unpleasant but, relatively speaking, textbook. I suffered from two years of anxiety and sleeplessness beginning aged 49, punctuated by just two (but nasty) hot flushes, resulting in a diagnosis of perimenopause, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), on which I still survive to this day.
But the entire thing, in the same way as Naomi’s menopause, opened my eyes to the fact that this whole experience was brushed under the carpet like a family scandal. We didn’t speak or learn about it, ergo millions of women were needlessly suffering.
It was hard enough feeling that I was being grumpy with a husband and trying to conceal symptoms at work, but how much harder to be uber-famous and have your every move watched.
‘It’s an interesting thing to go through something very personal while in the eye of public scrutiny, which comes with my line of work,’ Naomi says.
‘Any personal challenges I may go through seem to be amplified and put out there for the world to have an opinion on.
‘Remember, I was young for this transition, and my friends appeared as though they weren’t ready yet to have these types of conversations.’
Perhaps menopause campaigning is a natural transition in our friendship. Naomi and I met many years ago at a dinner in London hosted by a mutual friend, stylist Anna Bingemann, and I instantly recognised a kindred spirit.
Since then, both for work and pleasure, we’ve frequently found ourselves in the same hotspots, from the Cannes Film Festival to West London and downtown New York.
She believes premature menopause (before the age of 40), which is experienced by one in a hundred women, needs far more recognition
The thing that’s striking about Naomi is her down-to-earth nature, lack of vanity and lively sense of fun. She’s instantly inclusive (unlike so many in her film star firmament), and she really is that oft-quoted cliche of ‘a woman’s woman’.
When she called to ask about my book Cracking The Menopause and campaigning in this area, and then invited me to help advise on Stripes, I couldn’t have been more delighted.
Last year I was invited to a hotel in the Hamptons for a brainstorm around the subject.
Over those days we discovered even more common ground as we researched how menopause ended up becoming such a maligned episode in women’s lives, and how we can change that with positive messaging.
Naomi and I both recognise the importance of women coming together to achieve this.
‘We’re not meant to exist alone. We need our tribe, our trusted community that helps to boost our well-being and support us through the good and difficult times,’ says Naomi.
‘And we need those trusted advisers who we can be completely vulnerable with, but can also bring a laugh, because — let’s be honest — a good laugh can be the much-needed breath of fresh air.
‘Every individual needs a sense of belonging. Menopause has highlighted that more than any moment in my life.’
Key to our friendship is also our shared focus on how we can work together to change attitudes.
Until recently, menopause was a dirty word. I first wrote about it back in 2015 when I started taking HRT and realised that the treatment was still seen as dicing with death. Then I made a TV programme about it in 2018.
The impact of that still resonates, as women started to whisper, and later roar, about their stories to me in restrooms, at events and in my kitchen.
In 2021 my book was published and I spoke about menopause on TV, radio and book festivals.
Last year, I took it a step further as Menopause Mandate was launched in the UK as a group of like-minded campaigners seeking to dismantle the carapace of doom surrounding this transformative life stage. Now, we’re taking that message to the States.
The Hollywood actor is known for her down-to-earth nature, lack of vanity and lively sense of fun
It is thrilling to witness so many successful and high-profile women now standing up and proudly declaring themselves to be menopausal!
After all, there are around 18 million women aged 40-plus in the UK. We — and politicians and organisations alike — are finally realising our power.
In the U.S. they have many millions more women in middle age experiencing menopause — and with similar concerns.
For example, a recent Washington Post article by Dr Sharon Malone, one of our esteemed Menopause Mandate U.S. experts, pointed out that there are 55 million menopausal women over there, almost 75 per cent of whom report not receiving support or treatment. Sounds familiar, no?
Naomi and I have both worked hard for what we’ve achieved and we share the feeling that being able to improve other women’s lives because of our platform is a pleasure, not a chore.
I love her campaigning zest and ferocious fighting spirit; don’t be deluded by that diminutive, elfin frame, she’s a bruiser when it comes to what she believes in.
Even so, why has an actor and businesswoman with myriad demands on her time, agreed to be involved with Menopause Mandate?
‘My menopause journey was long, confusing and lonely at times. But I’ve come out the other side feeling stronger, more myself and more confident in my own skin — even if it is still on the dry side!’ says Naomi.
‘I’m passionate about raising awareness and encouraging honest conversations for women, to make sure there is a community and a place for information to bring a sense of humanity to all of this.
‘The goal for Menopause Mandate is to share education and support, so all women, on all continents, can feel heard, valued and empowered.’
I have also spoken passionately about my irritation that female fertility is linked with perceptions as to our usefulness.
As I headed towards my 50s, I noticed that I wasn’t being invited to present the same programmes.
There was a sense that I ought to be grateful for my regular book show, and surprise that I might wish to take on more, rather than less, work as I headed into middle age.
Naomi’s campaigning zest and ferocious fighting spirit is evident when she’s working for causes that she believes in
Naomi has taken addressing this stereotyping to the next level by speaking out publicly against the traditional female Hollywood timeline that takes women from extremely youthful roles almost directly to playing grandmothers, with little in between.
Rather proving this point, in addition to a flourishing Hollywood career, she recently launched a business, is campaigning passionately and got married (to actor Billy Crudup).
Naomi and I both have two teenage children and agree that everyone needs to be educated, not just women.
‘Menopause affects over fifty per cent of the population, and indirectly touches everyone,’ she says.
‘It’s important to have the conversation with the men in your life, your children, and everyone who is affected so they can understand what changes are happening, what treatments are happening, feel empathy for what we are going through and help support.’
Interestingly, there is cross-pond expert consensus about HRT; that for the majority of women the benefits outweigh the risks. But the most important thing is that we have access to all information.
‘There is no one-size-fits-all solution for perimenopausal symptoms,’ Naomi points out.
‘Every woman’s experience is different. For me, HRT provided some much-needed relief from symptoms that made me feel like I was spiralling out of control and becoming someone I didn’t recognise.
‘I think it’s important for women to have the information they need and a doctor they can trust so they can champion a plan that is right for them. No two women are the same, no two solutions are the same.’
Naomi and I also cheerfully speak about previously squeamish topics with candour.
I am involved with a campaign tackling pelvic floor health — Squeeze The Day — for Always Discreet, the sanitary products brand; while the Stripes website has a Vaginal Wellness section that includes a hydrating gel called Vag of Honor (most women experience symptoms of genitourinary syndrome of menopause, such as dryness and discomfort).
‘It’s important to normalise all of the once-uncomfortable conversations,’ she says.
‘Women have dealt with so much shame, anxiety, fear, and confusion when it comes to our health. We need to break those taboos so women feel free to educate themselves.
Naomi has emerged from menopause more positive, more confident and optimistic about the future
‘We need to have the tough conversations, we need to do better for women, for our children, so they don’t have to start from scratch as we have. Women’s health in general needs greater research.’
I couldn’t agree more. At the heart of Menopause Mandate — both UK and U.S. — are the stories of real women who have experienced menopause symptoms that have forced them to leave jobs, suffer relationship breakdowns and even suicidal ideation.
All this against a societal belief that women in midlife are somehow lesser beings.
Naomi and I have both emerged from menopause more positive, more confident and optimistic about the future, not to mention empowered. We know how fortunate we are, but all women need to be this lucky.
‘When you come out the other end, you really reclaim yourself,’ Naomi says. ‘You know what you like, and what you don’t. You know what you want, and what might not be worth holding on to any more. You’re not afraid to ask for what you need any more.
‘With that knowledge comes confidence and control over yourself again. And that can be really powerful.
‘We are the generation of change-makers. We brought light to fertility issues, to normalising breastfeeding, and now to midlife and menopause. We’re not a generation who have just taken whatever cards we’re dealt. We make change. We make conversation. Hopefully, we make it better for the next generations after us.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
- Visit menopausemandate.com or menopausemandateus.com for more information.
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