There is a stereotype in theatre that describes certain types of older women with authority in costume. They are criticised for being irritable, institutionalised and over-protective of their department. They are perceived as having lost their intellectual flexibility, becoming stuck in their ways and obstructing progress.
I confess that in my public commitment to avoid this fate I have been guilty of perpetuating the stereotype, envisaging that person as a dragon, guarding their costume department’s treasure against change.
But I thought it resulted from costume professionals’ years of building self-protective mechanisms against the erosion of their budgets and authority. It never occurred to me that there might be something else going on.
Despite being a predominantly female profession, costume people are just as prone as anyone else to stay silent about menopause and perimenopause. Even though almost every woman in the world goes through it, the subject is still taboo. It has huge effects on our mood and emotional well-being, but we are reluctant to mention it for fear that legitimate complaints and concerns will be too easily dismissed by colleagues as purely hormonal.
There must be ways to acknowledge the effect this has on women without it becoming another stick to beat us with
I am not suggesting every woman of a certain age is experiencing the same thing, though I am concerned about undermining my fellow mature professional women. But time and again I speak to them about my menopause, only to discover they have been going through the same thing for years without my knowing anything about it. There must be ways to acknowledge the profound effect this has on women without it becoming yet another stick to beat us with, and the first step has to be speaking openly and honestly about it.
So, a message to men and younger women who have not considered it: there will be women in your building who are living in an emotional fog one minute and wanting to burn the place down the next. Others may experience bewilderment at their exhaustion or sudden despair or, as one colleague expressed it, their “utter loss of joy”. They are trying despite everything to maintain a positive face and never, for a moment, to reveal what they are going through in case it is seen as weakness.
Our society does not value women at the best of times and older women even less so. Only this week, a surgical procedure was announced that might be able to delay menopause for 20 years. It interests me that, rather than acknowledge this life-changing experience by addressing the inequalities in our society that make this moment in a woman’s life so difficult, medical science seeks to delay it, effectively to silence it.
Last year the TUC published guidelines about the menopause as an occupational health issue, pointing out that it is still not really talked about or addressed in any way by many workplaces. As a predominantly female profession, costume is in a prime position to lead the way in making a change for the better.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek