Q&A with Nina Kuypers, founder of Black Women in Menopause

Nina is the founder of Black Women in Menopause, a safe space for black women to discuss their experiences of the menopause. She spoke to me about her own experience, and what let her to set up the network.

SG: What inspired you to start the Black Women in Menopause network?

NK: I first became familiar with the term menopause, or perimenopause, about two years ago. I was 45 and I’d been to the doctor’s for a routine blood test, because I have a blood disorder. She looked at my blood test results and said, “oh, you’re in perimenopause.” That was it really. I came out of the practice not having been provided with any basic facts or even an information sheet. That’s partly down to myself, because I didn’t really question it at the time. But at the same time you would hope, with their duty of care, that the doctor would give you some information about what perimenopause actually is.

For me, it was like I had heard what she said, but I didn’t really take it on board or probe for more information. I’ve always been quite aware of and understand about certain medical things, and I’d briefly discussed with my mum about menopause, but it wasn’t something that we’d ever got into a massive, meaty conversation about. Maybe I was slightly naive myself, but you’ve got so many things going on in your life that I suppose it wasn’t my priority at the time.

After the dust had settled a bit though, I started to do a little bit of research about what perimenopause is. I’m now post-menopausal – it’s been more than 12 months since my last period – and I started delving into it properly last year. That was when I found that there’s actually not a lot of research out there in terms of me as a black woman experiencing the menopause. Most of the research has been conducted on caucasian women. I’m fortunate enough that I do have some research skills and could look further into how it could possibly affect me, and self-directed myself to find the relevant information, but all black women should have the right to a proper understanding.

When I went online, I also found great platforms out there that support women through perimenopause and menopause. But it was becoming clear that for myself, as a black woman, there wasn’t enough information or support.

What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in your experience, compared to white women going through menopause?

Everybody’s experience of it is unique and individual of course. But there are physiological differences in terms of hair and skin. Those have been the two main symptoms I’ve noticed, besides hot flushes. My skin is more dry and less elastic with the reduction in hormones, and my hair is more coarse and dry than it was in my youthful days. But if you try to discuss that within particular groups, they’re not able to provide you with what is needed because of that lack of knowledge of different ethnicities and cultures. Even without the menopause, if I went into Boots for example, there might just be a small shelf for black skincare or haircare products, compared to me specifically going to a black hairdressing shop.

I think there is also a cultural barrier in how much menopause is spoken about – again, speaking from my own personal experience. I’ve been quite fortunate to understand those potential cultural differences, but many black women facing that unique journey possibly have less preparation, and silence and stigma is a huge barrier. I’ve spoken about this with a consultant in London, who believes black women are more likely to have little or no knowledge [about the menopause], and I can definitely believe that.

There are also differences even within that term ‘black’. So, for example, some research has found that African women will experience menopause at an earlier age than their Caucasian counterparts. But in, let’s say Barbados, it will be slightly different.

Is representation another big issue, in terms of the women you see speaking about the menopause publicly?

Education is a huge part of providing people with that platform, regardless of ethnicity and socio economic factors. The more I delve into it now, even though it’s becoming more of a topic to discuss – which is great – if you look at the profiles of what type of women are speaking up about menopause and its effects, it is still very white. It was great to see that Michelle Obama has spoken about it, but that feels like one grain of sand on all the beaches in all the world.

The other thing about it being framed as an issue largely for white, middle class women is we’re seeing menopause becoming more of a payable service, with expensive products and treatments, so it’s becoming unaffordable even if we are shouting out about it more.

What do you hope to achieve through the network?

The main issues that come up through our Twitter and Facebook network are that lack of knowledge and lack of support – that there’s nothing out there for black women to be supported with their experiences, values and beliefs. That’s what I’m hoping to do, to create a safe place for them to openly discuss and connect and be supported. That is the ultimate goal, as well as raising awareness, educating, and improving women’s knowledge and understanding about it. None of us are experts, but it’s like anything isn’t it – the more people that you get together and talk about something, you’ll find people suggesting “try this” or “try that”.

It started out on Twitter as a pebble, which obviously caused a ripple. Initially I just wanted to know if there was anybody else out there going through the menopause as a black woman. Now another black lady and I have a Facebook page for black women in menopause, and we’ve got a private Facebook group as well. We’re just starting out on there at the moment, it’s still in its infancy. Hopefully in time, by scattering some seeds, that will have the gradual compound effect of more black women being educated and support through this time in their life.

When I say it’s for black women, it is predominantly for black women, but at the end of the day anybody’s welcome. But at the same time, it’s a safe place for black women who have been accessing the great platforms that are already out there but perhaps not felt able to ask a certain question or whatever. Everybody’s unique journey is individual, but black women are already at increased risk of health issues like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes, and research still doesn’t really understand why. When you add in the risks associated with menopause, and that lack of knowledge or understanding, it just increases the risks. I’m personally scared for myself in terms of developing osteoporosis or sarcopenia. But I’m also fortunate that I am educated in exercise and nutritional science, so I’m aware that I need to have enough vitamin D and physical activity to protect myself. Not every person is even aware of that.

What more needs to be done to ensure black women have adequate information and support?

Research is really the big thing. There’s only ever been one study within the UK about black women and menopause back in 2007. They only had 22 participants from BME backgrounds, and around 15 were actually black. That’s not reflective or representative of the UK population. That’s why I think more research is needed on these ethnic and cultural differences, because most of it so far has only been conducted on caucasian women.

You can find out more and get involved with Black Women in Menopause on Twitter and Facebook.

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