'French Women Don't Do Menopause' - is this really the case?
Amidst claims that French women experience fewer symptoms, Celine Naughton investigates whether La Ménopause is really so different
First it was French Women Don't Get Fat, the bestseller by Mireille Guiliano that purported to explain why les femmes françaises manage to eat as many baguettes and pastries as they want, yet stay so slim. Dubbed the 'French paradox', it spawned a literary genre that includes French Women Don't Get Facelifts, French Children Don't Throw Food (they do - I've seen them) and Chic and Slim Toujours: Ageing Beautifully Like Those Chic French Women.
And now we have a new stereotype to make us Irish women of a certain age smart even more at our Gallic cousins: it's been reported of late that French Women Don't Do Menopause. Well, of course they do - they haven't quite managed to change the actual laws of nature - but apparently they do it better, faster and with fewer symptoms than us. In fact, they make it look like a breeze, a slight inconvenience from which they emerge just as confident, slim and desirable as ever, perhaps even more so.
Older French women are sexy and they know it. Think Juliette Binoche (54), star of 2017's Let the Sunshine In, a romcom about an older woman looking for love; model/singer and former First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, (50); Catherine Deneuve, the face of Louis Vuitton (70); and First Lady Brigitte Macron (65), famously 24 years older than her husband and bringing her signature glamour to the world stage in short skirts and skinny jeans.
How do these bombshells apparently 'traverse' La Ménopause like it's a walk in the park, while we get mired in the horrors of hot flushes, night sweats and hair thinning - not forgetting mood swings, wrinkles, urinary tract infections, loss of libido, weight gain, insomnia and varicose veins. And if that isn't enough to be getting on with, there's anxiety, depression and forgetfulness... and then we become invisible.
One difference is that French women are very open to using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to keep symptoms at bay. We Irish on the other hand have barely touched the stuff after a 2002 Women's Health Initiative study claimed HRT was linked with cancer, heart disease and stroke. Despite the fact that the study was fundamentally flawed and widely misreported, Irish GPs are still slow to prescribe HRT.
"Overnight, demand plummeted and by 2010, we had gone from writing over 1,400 prescriptions a year in one clinic to fewer than 400," says Dr Shirley McQuade, medical director of the Dublin Well Woman Centre. "It's only now starting to gradually increase again. We're up to just over 400 prescriptions a year in the same clinic, but GPs are still reluctant to prescribe HRT, and there's a lot of ignorance out there about it."
However, when it comes to how much sex we have before, during and after menopause, Dr McQuade suggests there's little difference between us and the French - we just don't shout about it.
"Irish women rarely brag about anything, least of all their sex lives, but there's no reason to believe they're less active in older age than French women," she says. "I had a 76-year-old woman in the other day looking for something to alleviate vaginal dryness, and she's not the oldest client we've had."
One of the things that attracted French fashion designer Delphine Grandjouan to Ireland was, she says, the openness of the people. Having moved from her native Brittany to Tralee 25 years ago, she's had plenty of time to observe and compare.
"In France the need to conform is drilled into you from the moment you're born," she says. "It's why French women take such care to appear effortlessly groomed, as if it happened all by itself. They don't want to look like they've tried too hard because that would make them look desperate. Irish women on the other hand are strong and intuitive, and they're not afraid to laugh at themselves."
Could it be that we Irish women do ourselves a disservice by comparing ourselves less favourably to the French? I consult Irish woman Niamh Costello who lives and works on the Cote d'Azur, where she runs Nerc Concierge, an events, property and lifestyle management company, and is married to a French man. Having observed French culture and customs first hand for many years, the mother of one says we shouldn't believe all we hear.
"We think that French women have it all - great figures, great sex lives, great lingerie, great clothes and great food - most of which is true, but there's more to it than that," she says.
"French women spend their lives after the age of 25 on diets, and a huge number over 40 rely on anti-depressants. Half of relationships fail and usually it's the woman who's left behind. They have an expression, 'A man never falls into empty arms'. With such a high rate of separation and divorce, women often feel they have to be in a permanent state of readiness to be back on the dating scene.
"As for HRT, not only is it easier to access in France, it's virtually free of charge. In Ireland you pay €35-€70 to visit a GP for a prescription. In France you pay €20-€40 and you are refunded all of it bar €1, and medicine, including HRT, is reimbursed.
"However, while the uptake of treatment is high, it's not a subject you hear in everyday conversation. In France, sickness is largely seen as a weakness and therefore French women would be very slow to open up about menopause. They may not show their feelings, but you can bet your life they get the same symptoms and it must be a killer to try and hide it all the time."
Grandjouan - known for her bespoke ready-to-wear pieces (delphine grandjouan.com) and award-winning bridal collection (houseofdelphine.com) - says that when her time comes, she'll be ready to embrace menopause.
"I see menopause as a time of empowerment for women, a spiritual awakening," she says. "Now in my 40s, I feel more connected with myself than I was in my 20s. I am an artistic person and work took everything from me. Now I give myself the right to do what I want and be who I am. I feel an inner change in me, a kind of restlessness.
"When you have a question inside you, as I do, answers start to come. A rope falls and you start to climb and emerge into a new place where you stretch and embrace life in a new way. I am travelling towards menopause and when I reach it, I will be ready because I will have connected with myself in a true sense. It will not feel as if something has been taken away from me, but rather something that's gifted to me. I will be more of a woman, free to be myself, and I am not afraid."
French vs Irish: the myths
Is the grass really greener for menopausal women in France? Let's separate the facts from the fictions…
French women don't get fat - True
"That's because they're on diets from the age of 25," says Niamh Costello, while Dr Shirley McQuade points out that they tend to smoke a lot more, which can affect appetite. "In French culture, it's a sin to put on weight," adds Delphine Grandjouan, "unless you reach a certain age, when some women will allow themselves put on a few extra pounds to avoid wrinkles."
They take more HRT than we do - True
The treatment is much cheaper to access in France.
They have more sex than we do - False
"There's no evidence that Irish women are less active than French women long after menopause," says Dr McQuade. "We just don't brag about it."
They are more confident than us - False
"French women are guarded and worry about what the neighbours say," says Delphine. "Irish women are strong, intuitive and unashamed."