Living Well Through the Menopause and The MenoMakers’ Handling Box.

How have women found information and advice about the menopause? Is it understood and discussed differently within different families or social and cultural groups? And how can creative activities and storytelling help people explore and communicate their experiences of the menopause in different ways, and improve wellbeing?

This project began with the Ideas Exchange ‘Living Well Through the Menopause’ which developed into the Experimental Partnership ‘The MenoMakers’ Handling Box’. In this project, the researchers wanted women to have a space for their voices to be heard and valued, to discuss a wide range of menopausal emotions and experiences: from loss and shame to freedom and relief. In recent years, there had been efforts to destigmatise women’s reproductive health and some discussion of the menopause in the media, but a lack of understanding and sympathy persists. The ‘Menopause Café’ initiative responded to this need for women to have a space to talk, but this project engaged women in a very different way. Talking therapies are not always appropriate: a focus on difficult feelings and experiences can result in increased negativity; and these methods can be exclusionary on lines of culture and language. Creative activities can help women communicate in a way that feels inclusive and safe: your hands are busy, you feel productive and positive, helping you to open up. Critical making offers a method of communication which is not based solely on verbal language and terminology.

illustration by Toya Walker

What did the project involve? 

During this project the team sought to explore:

  • How have women found information and advice about the menopause? Is it understood and discussed differently within different families or social and cultural groups?
  • How can creative activities and storytelling help people explore and communicate their experiences of the menopause in different ways, and improve wellbeing?
  • How can creative work produced by one group of women about their experiences of the menopause be used to begin conversations and improve wellbeing amongst other groups?

In September 2021 the team held a picnic lunch in the beautiful Maxilla Studios and Forest School gardens, a space at the heart of the North Kensington community. Fifteen women were invited – recruited by Lisa Nash through community organisations – to represent the diversity of North Kensington. The women were provided with lunch, materials to do a zine activity at the picnic, a goody bag of craft materials to take home and explore, and the team covered transport costs where necessary. The researchers then followed up with each woman a month later over the phone or zoom to find out what they thought of the various crafts they had tried, and the impact of the conversations at the picnic. This process allowed them to explore how different women think, talk and feel about the menopause, and the kind of activities that women want to engage in.

Following the picnic, Jessica Hammett, Lisa Nash as well as Vanessa Beck were awarded an ESRC IAA grant, and then Brigstow Seedcorn funding to continue the project.

In ‘The MenoMakers’ Handling Box’ the North Kensington group sought to co-produce on the proposed project and was made up of ten non-artists who reflect the diversity of North Kensington in its social, cultural and ethnic identities. The project also benefited from outputs and experiences of the Brigstow-funded libraries and performing arts work on talking about the menopause by Vanessa Beck. This combined research base resulted in the following themes and questions.

The project’s innovative activities and research methods aimed to display hidden voices and help women to develop their own voice in this life stage. From their previous research, the team knew there is an appetite for discussing menopause in creative settings, but they knew less about whether women are keener to enact or make menopause, talk about it, or do both together. There was also little knowledge about what methods and which artistic practices were most suitable for different groups of women (e.g. those represented by the diverse MenoMakers group) and their specific symptoms, including brain fog and (social) anxiety.

This project asked:

  1. Can representing experience creatively open different ways of understanding and discussing menopause?
    How can we use creative work produced by one group of women to begin conversations with other audiences?
  2. Out of the broad range of different activities and art forms, are there any that ‘work better’ and are more
    conducive to allowing menopause conversations to develop? Do different kinds of conversations emerge with
    different activities?
  3. What spaces are best for conversations about menopause? What kind of setting (established or new groups,
    formal, informal or natural environments) might be more conducive to allowing menopause conversations to
    emerge?
  4. Can safe spaces with opportunities to make, talk and reflect about menopause help voices to develop and be
    heard?

These questions were explored through the production of a Handling Box.

Handling Box
This was designed, created and curated during six monthly meetings with MenoMakers, which included: creative work; interpretation; ‘living’ bunting (see below, ‘Tour’); links to online material (see below, ‘Online Resources’).

The handing box was developed over six sessions: four making and two curating sessions. Prior to this, the MenoMakers had experimented with a range of activities through the Brigstow Ideas Exchange and ESRC IAA projects. During four making sessions members choose one method to represent their menopause, and then designed and made a final piece to include in the box. They was also the opportunity to include poetry, prose or written interpretation, thus demonstrating different formats to voice menopause.

During the two curating sessions MenoMakers worked with a technician to design the box, and then curate the material. During these sessions they asked: How should material be arranged? Is further interpretation needed? How does the box connect to the online material?

The team audio recorded a reflective conversation, and during sessions they explored how different activities and spaces impact feelings, thinking and talking about menopause.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jessica Hammett (History, University of Bristol) is a modern British historian. Her current research examines women’s experiences of mental health and wellbeing on suburban council estates, using co-production methods. She is also working with a therapist to develop methods for participant and researcher care when working on sensitive topics.
  • Lisa Nash is a socially engaged artist/facilitator and arts programmer. Embedded in the North Kensington community she produced the Maxilla Nursery archive, documenting community action in the 1960s, and has worked closely with local community groups in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower fire, supporting recovery through wellbeing programmes in her role as Programme Manager for ACAVA.
  • Vanessa Beck (School of Management, University of Bristol) is a sociologist of work and employment and has extensive experience of researching menopause in workplace settings, using surveys, in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation. Her background is in researching those on the margins of the labour market, including older workers, those not in education, employment
    or training, and individuals experiencing unemployment or underemployment. She has worked with a range of trade
    unions, charities, statutory and private organisations.
  • Narinder Bansal (Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol) is an ethnicity and health inequity researcher. Her work explores the health experiences of diverse ethnic minority groups. She has experience of creating socially and culturally-inclusive spaces for co-produced research, and using storytelling and art to start difficult conversations.

What were the results?

Their work will come to an end in April with a launch event for the handling box.  A website for the handling box and project will be created.  And the researchers will write two blogs for Brigstow over the next couple of months. They are also co-writing a research article with their participants which they hope to submit over the summer. The progress of the project can be followed on the MenoMakers Instagram.

Tour
In the first instance the handling box will tour five organisations offering different types of spaces for menopause conversations: Hillfields Wild Women (tbc), Bristol; Fife Libraries; Chapel FM, Leeds; Dalgarno Trust, London; Newport North Community Hub. Following this tour, the researchers will continue to use the box in their ongoing menopause
research and engagement work.

During workshops participants will explore the handling box, be signposted to the online resources, and invited to share thoughts and experiences. Building on curated materials and voices, women will be encouraged to reflect on their own menopause story and find their own voice. The researchers will consider how the creative work can be used to support conversations with other audiences.

They will will then decorate triangles of fabric with stitch and felt on the theme of ‘what does menopause mean to you?’. These will be strung together with the MenoMakers bunting, included in the box. Activities have been tested and bunting making is ideal as it is accessible, quick but rewarding, and allows for focused making and discussion. The handling box will be a living exhibition – expanded and enriched with each viewing.

Online Resources
A Bristol Blogs website will host an online exhibition, including images of the handling box and oral recordings. Freely available resources will support other groups to talk and make: worksheets for creative activities, including materials lists and guidance; and Beck’s Talking Menopause Toolkit.

This will support new MenoMakers groups across the country, combining the successful model of Menopause Cafés with the finding that creative activities can make talking easier. Their ambition is to establish a nationwide craft happening.

Research article
Beck, Hammett and Nash will co-write a conference paper and an article for Research For All. This will outline the methods used and analyse how creative activities in particular settings can give women a voice to discuss their menopause experiences and emotions.

This project will also lead to a major research article exploring the most appropriate settings, research questions and disciplinary approaches to menopause.