Doing Menopause the Chinese Way: Speaking Hormone Truth to Beauty

When I was asked earlier this month to give a lecture on hormone testing and balance, in Guangdong province, China of all places, I leaped at the chance with absolutely no idea what lay  in store. I had been invited by the inimitable Virginia Hopkins, co-author of  the John Lee go-to books on menopause (What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause, etc.(www.virginiahopkinshealthwatch.com). According to Virginia, the Chinese were becoming more interested in hormone testing and bioidentical hormones, having been made wary of synthetic HRT use after its greater risks than benefits were revealed in the landmark Women’s Health Initiative (WHI).

Images of balance are everywhere in China...spiral incense in a Macao temple

Images of balance are at every turn in China…spiral incense infuses the spirit at this ancient Macao temple.

So I figured I’d be preaching to the choir with my message of optimal health and aging through hormone balance and bioidenticals. My instructions were to keep it simple: women in China were only just getting into this and may not understand the mechanics of what hormones do. To be fair,  there are still hundreds of thousands of women in this country who are  still on HRT or are afraid to use hormones of any kind since the WHI, even though we now know that bioidentical (BHRT) alternatives have fewer side effects and can bring real relief. (for scientific resources visit: http://www.womeninbalance.org).
For a couple of weeks before the trip, I labored over my powerpoint, studying everything I could find on menopause among Chinese women, and learned that we all apparently suffer from similar symptoms, although hot flashes did not appear to be as common to our counterparts in the land of the dragon, as “menopausal melancholia,” worry, or rheumatism.
When in China you see women and men doing Tai Chi everywhere in the public parks and along the rivers...these are time tested paths to finding balance

When in China you see women and men doing Tai Chi everywhere in the public parks and along the rivers…these are time tested paths to finding balance that were here and will be still when the big Macs and botox are long gone!

I also queried my GP at Kaiser Permanente who grew up in the north of China and told me that women in her country don’t talk about the menopause and are expected to “step up and get on with it” when they feel unbalanced, sad, or out of sorts during the change of life…Dr. Xi also told me that weight gain was becoming much more of an issue in China as fewer people walk or bike to work, and choose MacDonalds or KFC (ugh!) over the traditional fresh fish, fowl, rice and vegetable fare. My doctor got a bit emotional as I left the clinic exhorting me to in my lecture help her countrymen comprehend that menopause is a significant life change that should be treated with a greater dose of natural medicine, compassion and understanding.  I took her words to heart and accepted it as my great challenge. After all, I would be working with an interpreter named Wen, who learned his english from American movies (an impressive feat given that he had mastered our language, slang and all), and was just learning about hormones.  I had sent him my powerpoint well in advance and once there gave him a crash course in hormone balance 101;  he could relate he told me …. his great aunt was driving  herself and the whole family crazy with her memory lapses and melancholy….they loved her very much he said. and needed answers. Though Wen got the message thanks to his dowager aunt, and I might add did a masterful job of translating, I cannot guarantee that my audience did in full, and not because they are not open to the subject of optimal aging, but because the more compelling message for the well to do, fast moving entrepreneurs of the new China is about youth and beauty. My job was to help them connect those dots to speak hormonal truth to beauty.

Candace and Dave aging to the fullest in the fastest growing economy in the world...if you can see them, the towering buildings behind us in the pic were ALL built within the last 10-15 years!!

Candace and Dave aging to the fullest in the fastest growing economy in the world…if you can see them, the towering buildings behind us in the pic were ALL built within the last 10-15 years!!

The evening of my lecture we had been treated to a grand banquet attended by VIP clients of the Biotechnology company hosting me…these were extremely wealthy women of uncertain ages, who as they swanned into the banquet room provided much to marvel at given their almost too-perfect beauty….after being introduced to me as their speaker and guest of honor flown all the way from America, they nodded politely and proceeded to inspect the contours of my face and discuss their findings in rapid fire Chinese as I sat there clueless…I finally gathered from my interpreter that they were trying to guess my age…. “but I don’t mind telling them how old I am,” I said….but before I could brag on 64 years sans botox, he politely shushed me….”No, I’m sure they would much rather guess.”

Following my hormone lecture in China I was treated to my very own 5 minutes of fame...

Following my well-received lecture in China I was treated to my very own 5 minutes of fame…

Well I never did learn what age they decided on but as they did smile at me often and gave me the universal thumbs up, I evidently met with their approval, though how I escaped censure in their eyes for not having perfectly planed skin and a smooth lineless neck is beyond me. Maybe they were just being polite. Or maybe I’m just lucky (so far, so good).  My own strong impression insofar as the Asian approach to balance, health and BEAUTY goes, is that the latter is of much more pressing importance to the modern Chinese woman, particularly in terms of how young one appears to be vs. how healthy one actually is! As long as you look young who cares how healthy you are?

Beauty above all and in every way, however it is achieved...

Making up for Mao time: an extreme example of glorified beauty perhaps, but extremely glorified it is!

To be fair, these observations should apply only  to the swath of life I happened into as a hormone health educator, and surely do not reflect your average menopause in China, but I never met a woman who wanted to talk menopause…the buzz word is beauty.  I have reasoned that this trend towards perfection is in a way making up for Mao time, that draconian period known as the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao leveled society and made everyone equals – equally poverty stricken, equally miserable, equally drab…. thus modern China’s fixation with youth, sexiness, passion, and everlasting youth makes some sense of the irony!

The day following my lecture I spent nine straight hours at the 10th annual International Beauty Symposium crammed full of thousands of flawless faces presumably seeking some guarantee of looking that good forever….judging from the multi-billion dollar industry they had going in umpteen massive exhibition halls,

Thousands flocked to find everlasting beauty at the International Beauty Symposium...but the expo halls were filled with cigarette smoke and I felt ten years older not younger by the end of the day!

Thousands flocked to the International Beauty Symposium but the crowds and cigarette smoke had me feeling 10 years older not younger by days end!

there appeared to be no limit to what women will do to remain youthful…reconstructive surgery of eyes, chins, cheeks, laser skin resurfacings, fillers and botox, robotic “tightening” technology of every imaginable sort, face lifts, bottom lifts, “rehabilitative pelvic repair” are about as common in China as getting braces in this country!

Whatever type of reconstructive tightening technology you're looking for from skin to pelvis ...the sky is the limit at the International Beauty Symposium

Whatever type of reconstructive tightening technology you’re looking for, from skin to pelvis, sky’s the limit at the International Beauty Symposium

Thus the challenge of speaking about natural health and balance. I suspect that the many women I spoke with or who attended my lecture were not quite as concerned about looking great for their age and  would rather have you believe they look great AND are at least 20 to 30 years younger than they really are… but then we’ve got plenty of that fountain of youth thinking over here too!  I am still sorting my own contradictory thoughts and feelings on this one ….talk to me in 10 years!

Cruising down the Pearl River, Guangzhou China...talk about dazzling beauty!

Cruising down the Pearl River, Guangzhou China…talk about dazzling beauty!

Epilogue: Back home after travelling 14,000 miles in 8 days, I debriefed with the US Chinese rep for the company that sponsored my trip. Li told me that my talk was a smash success, that it “hit the target” and that they are moving forward to introduce hormone testing and bioidentical hormones in China. The powers that be are confident this approach will go over very well with Chinese women who “do not like to use strong medicine, but do like to delay aging.” Clearly. (Presumably they do not equate reconstructive surgery with strong medicine.) In the next breath Li revealed that she is worried she looks older than her years because she has so much stress in her life. I asked her why and she replied that it is because she must work all the time, thus has no time.  It is obvious that as China thrives economically, there is a new kind of post-cultural revolution deprivation: no time to rest and recover from the rigors of becoming the fastest growing economy in the world.  In the course of my conversation with Li, I had commented that practically every man I saw in Guangzhou seemed to be lighting a cigarette, and every woman (interestingly I only saw one female smoking) breathing in the side stream smoke…Li says that’s because they all work too hard and smoking helps them relax. I guess smoking has always been an excuse to take a break, but talk about rapid aging! You couldn’t ask for a better guarantee of wrinkled, sagging skin!

Toxic effects of cigarette smoking = rapid aging of skin in the men who smoke and the women who breathe in the contaminants of sidestream smoke

You deserve a break, but not this kind. Toxic effects of cigarette smoking = rapid aging

So we live and learn. It wasn’t so long ago that my husband grew up in a house with a father who was a 2 pack-a-day man, and I as a kid developed asthma from the suffocating smoke of Dad’s cigars. Times are changing and raising awareness is my job as a health educator. All I can hope is that I was able to get across the message that achieving true health and lasting beauty, no matter your age, is about practicing balance in all forms: hormonal, dietary, stress, exercise, lifestyle, spiritual… that you cannot get a shot that will undo the bad effects of cigarettes,  sidestream smoke, or other toxins, and there’s no laser surgery that can fix the rapid aging of chronic stress….perhaps we all have to learn in our own way, the hard way, but at the end of the day, it boils down to BALANCE!

Contemplating the message of balance at ground level beneath the third tallest tower in the world: Guangzhou City

Contemplating the message of BALANCE at ground level beneath the third tallest tower in the world: Guangzhou City, CHINE

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8 Comments

Filed under Women's Health & Happiness

8 responses to “Doing Menopause the Chinese Way: Speaking Hormone Truth to Beauty

  1. Kyle McAvoy

    Candace, I am sure that you made an impression on a wide variety of Chinese women but it sounds like there is quite a cultural disconnect indeed! ah, small steps….just like the Women’s Movement in our country back in the 1960’s..and each woman will choose her own path to balance. But I am thrilled that it was YOU who gave them their first exposure to hormone balance . I would have loved to have been a ‘fly on the wall’ to hear their comments and reactions to your talk: one can only wonder! Well done, my dear friend. Now get some sleep and get yourself back to balance.

    • candacebwell

      Each woman will choose her path yes, and I predict that ultimately the Chinese fascination and acceptance of artificial beauty will swing back to the more natural approaches that are so much more akin with their thousand year old chinese medicine……the first step is raising awareness and finding a message in sync with what they already do… like the Tai Chi so universally practiced and use of herbs like Dong Quai used for centuries to naturally relieve symptoms of menopause ….by rights there should be a happy synchrony between natural hormone balancing practices and those the Chinese intrinsically know and practice….

  2. Way to go Candace! A daunting assignment taken on with courage and grace. A pebble dropped into the pond is a beginning.

    I remember going to my first A4M conference in Las Vegas many years ago, and being horrified at all the mask-like, stretched-out faces with bizarrely plumped lips set atop skinny, hobbling, arthritic bodies. The message of wholesome foods, exercise, sunshine, hormone balance and stress management did not resonate with that group, at that time, but today it’s a major part of the conference. It would be safe to say that today in North America the majority of women over age 40 are at least aware of these concepts.

    • candacebwell

      Well we shall see what happens..it would be very life affirming if they do move forward with hormone testing and bioidenticals in China….and much more resonant with their understanding and practice of herbal medicines which over a thousand years is so deeply ingrained and universally used…these things have a staying power that face and jowl fillers seriously lack….

  3. candacebwell

    A comment from my good friend Pamela who single handedly launched the Seventh Woman Foundation, one of the few non-profits dedicated to educating about Prevention of breast cancer through hormone balance. She has traveled extensively in China: “It was with great anticipation that I read your blog on your China trip – And how you acculturated in those few brief days “in country”. Ur understanding of the Chinese culture was a shock to you but a confirmation to me. THEY ARE OTHER! They are coming out of not years, not decades, not centuries, BUT eons of repression and poverty and stolen youth. It is hard for we Westerners to understand the mentality of people groups who have been repressed for EONS and now have economic freedom. Funny, these are the cultures with the ‘long view’ who are not into hormonal fixes but cosmetic fixes — down to tightening the vagina! I sense it was a shock. I also congratulate you and Dave for a beautiful presentation in this posting. I hope there was a day r two alone together to stop reeling from the realities of lecture circuit and experience Old CHINA as we will never really understand it.

  4. candacebwell

    A comment from Dr. David Zava the scientist/biochemist who founded ZRT Laboratory, one of the premier hormone testing labs in the country:

    “I read about your China excursion-nothing surprising with the resurgence of the Ming Dynasty. I remember Jonathan Wright once saying in a lecture that the Chinese were the first with HRT-they had young women pee in special pits, dried the urine, encapsulated it, and gave it to the Chinese royalty to keep them young and healthy. Aging prevention is where it’s at all over the world, and has been forever. Hormones rule!”

  5. As usual, your article was so well written and virtually took me with you as you traveled. How sad that these women are so wrapped up in maintaining a youthful look but not really interested in their health. I hope that your message was one they’ve given some thought to by now and that, as the doctors there begin to advocate natural hormone balance, they’ll begin to realize the importance of taking care of their bodies and not simply their appearance. I’m so glad you and Dave were able to bring this message of health and hope to them! Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story 🙂 Let’s get together soon!

  6. candacebwell

    Fingers crossed that the message of health and beauty from the inside out vs. outside in will resonate with the intrinsic understanding the Chinese have of herbal medicine and healing…we in the West after all have much to learn from them and indeed so many of us use herbs like ginseng and dong quai to relieve symptoms of fatigue, mood swings and the other all too common symptoms of menopause that are such a bummer until detected through hormone testing and corrected with natural hormones and the neceessary lifestyle adjustments….as I continue to process my experience in the Far East I am beginning to think that the reason Chinese women have gone the artificial beauty route is that they don’t actually know much about natural hormones ,,,,and how much better that approach is to not only looking like you want to look but FEELING like you want to feel…young, vibrant, ready for whatever comes, making the most of life! That’s what makes you so beautiful, radiant, and funny Tina, that is what makes you a survivor…you are the lesson, I do my best to be, and in so doing women like us get the message across….even all the way to CHINA!!!

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