When I began finding errant hairs growing from my chin and neck, I plucked furiously. Then I called my mom to see what she does about this annoying cosmetic problem.
“On your neck? Huh.”
I tried her twin sister, who also had no personal experience with my problem.
I love them both, but there have been quite a few times when I’ve had to look elsewhere for womanly advice or tips. My mom is a thin, perfectly proportioned, white woman who looks younger than she is and who can walk into any dressing room and look gorgeous in whatever she tries on, which fits perfectly, of course.
I can relate to this experience in the sense that I am also a white woman.
For a long time, I turned to Oprah. Oprah’s like the big sister I never had, ten years ahead. She has an ample chest and curvy figure and dreads dressing rooms like I do. I don’t think I ever watched a show about unwanted facial hair, but there could have been one and, regardless, I’m sure she would relate. By the time her broadcast show went off the air, I was no longer watching daily, though I knew she was there if I had time and needed her. It’s not the same now. We don’t have cable and, in any case, her new shows and channel are a different enterprise, focused on spirit and big ideas – what I do all day anyway – and no help with wild sprouts of hair, so it’s been a while since I could really lean on her.
About 10 years ago, Oprah had a show on perimenopause, which is when I learned that word. Menopause is the time after all menstrual periods have stopped for at least one year. Perimenopause is the weird, sometimes decade-long time of flux between normal monthly cycles and menopause. It’s what a lot of women mean when they say “going through menopause.”
At the time that show aired, I had begun to experience regular migraines, trouble sleeping, sweeping mood swings, the intermittent grip of high anxiety, the aforementioned hair in fun new places, and some other things I can’t remember (bonus: memory is also affected by perimenopause). Before watching the Oprah episode, I had never laid them all out like that in a list because I didn’t think of them as related symptoms. They were just some of the various ways I was falling apart, health-wise.
Oprah knew there were a lot of women like me so she did a show, bestowing the word we didn’t know we needed in our vocabularies, and offering help. The doctor on the show that day commented that we often talk about estrogen levels but it’s actually the interplay between levels of various hormones that causes symptoms and problems. She had a handy PowerPoint-style presentation listing “too high” or “too low” slides with either estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone at the top, and symptoms below each one. When she got to the chart showing low progesterone, it may as well have said, “Deborah Lewis, this is your life.”
Seeing my nurse practitioner shortly afterwards, I said, “I saw an Oprah show and I think I may have low progesterone.” I recited the symptoms I’d previously thought were unrelated and she said, “I think you might be right. Let’s test it.” Then she wrote down the details of the Oprah episode so she’d be prepared when other patients inevitably came in to follow up on the show.
When I asked my mom about perimenopause and menopause, she didn’t know exactly when the change happened. It was masked by a medication she was taking and her cycles had simply stopped by the time she went off the drug. She didn’t remember any problems in the years before that. Neither did my aunt. Everything was smooth sailing in those dressing rooms.
As it becomes clear that I’m one of those women with a long perimenopause, a cornucopia of changes and fun new surprises, I’ve been missing Oprah, wishing for an old-school show on perimenopause, part two, “The Later Years.” Most of my close friends are younger than I am so I’m the perimenopause pioneer. As the eldest granddaughter on both sides of the family, whose grandmothers are dead, and whose mother and aunts cannot provide any useful information about managing this time, Oprah was the big sister I needed and still need sometimes.
Oprah’s the one who could frame expectations for what was about to happen, the one who could say with authority, “Let’s go to another store where the clothes are made for women like us.”