Karen Arthur is a designer, a tutor and a wellbeing champion. In addition, as a result of calling out inequality in representation, insight and services in the menopause space, she has become a researcher and a catalyst for change with Menopause Whilst Black. We could have spoken to her for days! We hope we enjoy the wide-ranging conversation shared below as much as we did.
With love, the MPowder Team.
First, tell us a little bit about a little about yourself & the work you do.
I find it odd that, as we enter midlife, everything looks so boring. The images we see in the media look nothing like me or any of my friends. There is a beige dullness to it all. It’s like post-motherhood, past the approval of the male gaze, we’re nothing. We’re expected to disappear. To be silent. But I found my voice at 52! Before that, I wasn’t being me. I hit menopause and, as I came through it, it allowed me to be really honest about myself and who I am. I’ve another good 40-50 years on this planet. I want to curate it to be the way I want it. Which is why I do so much. People ask what I do and I’ll say;
‘I’m a fashion designer and sewing tutor. I’m an advocate of making conscious clothing choices to lift your mood – in encouraging people to ‘wear your happy’. And I’m a positive mental wellbeing champion, a stylist, speaker and writer. I’ll say yes to any new thing that interests me’.
What inspired you to start the initiative “Menopause Whilst Black”?
- Being in lockdown as Black Lives Matter became a global issue instead of one that only black people seemed to care deeply about.
- Experiencing collective grief and wondering how other black menopausal women were coping with symptoms whilst watching more people who look like our brothers, sons and partners being murdered - and their killers walking free.
I knew that stress exacerbates menopausal symptoms and started thinking on how racial trauma affects black women’s menopausal symptoms further. I wanted to learn more so decided to google ‘menopause' and, because I think in images rather than words, I looked for the images depicting it. The results served up made me so angry I ranted on video. About the lack of diversity. About the stereotypical view of the life-stage.
'Looking at it further, it wasn’t just the media depiction of menopause - it was right down to the research. It simply didn’t address women like me. Black. British. Or if it did, it was so out of date it was laughable. So I decided to conduct my own'.
My original plan was to look at racial trauma and its impact on menopause symptoms. So I started a survey. Women were thrilled to be simply asked. To have their experience captured. But I’m also finding a real split in the way people respond. Some people haven’t thought about the link between race and menopause at all before. Others speak of ‘racial weathering’ impacting on everything - the effect of constant micro-aggressions on their physical and mental wellbeing.
I didn’t talk to my mum about the menopause. But how we learn about it is really important. There is simply not enough ‘loud and proud’ out there. It is women-related too, not just race-related;
‘In an ideal world, the menopause landscape would represent all women. People wouldn’t assume ‘white’ is the default. It would be normal to go into a surgery and have a conversation that is race-specific, a conversation that includes and represents you.’
You wouldn’t have to go onto Google to navigate it, alone. There would be a clear link between mental health and menopause. There would be support from the start – perhaps a specific body or leaflets to provide the right kind of help.
I believe our generation will change things. I don’t want my girls not seeing themselves represented. I want them to know that all things are possible. You can leave the job you don’t like and thrive. You can go into therapy. You can speak up for yourself. You can leave a toxic relationship. You can always tell someone they can do it. But show them, DO it, and they’ll really see. Menopause Whilst Black is important - black millennial women need to know there is information out there, to guide them. And to know it’s not the end.
Your research is capturing the experiences of black women who are peri/menopausal. What are you learning? And how do you hope to help black women going through menopause?
The symptoms are largely the same. Too many to mention. Statistics indicate that black women start menopause up to 2 years earlier and experience menopause more severely - but that will be down to a number of factors beyond race.
And the menopause sector is interested in the results. And that interest is well meaning. But that isn’t enough. People don’t understand why they didn’t notice the lack of diversity. It is a big topic. And it needs big action. We need to have some proper, deep, uncomfortable discussions. This is about who you work with. How you find them. Who you put on your panels. Who you involve in your research. We could all benefit from anti-racism training. There's a lot to unlearn before we can start building for the better.
'But in terms of what I want to achieve, I want black UK women to feel seen and heard. I don’t want any more black woman to go through menopause feeling as I did 6 years ago, utterly alone. I want to open a conversation about diversity in the menopause landscape which isn’t just about box-ticking or a well-meaning Benetton ad. And I want young black women to see older black women thriving honestly and know that they can live their best lives until they die.'
You also work with women in helping them rediscover their identities and influence their moods in midlife through the joy of fabric. Talk to us a little about how your work with ‘Wear Your Happy’ came to be.
Nobody made the link between my depression and menopause. Looking back on it, the depression started to show itself in my relationship with my clothes. I have a particularly massive dark hued hoodie. I’d wear it with trousers and with my hair down. If I went out I’d put my locs up and keep myself to the side of the road. I’d left my career. Then my aunt passed away. I felt full of shame. I remember (finally) going into therapy and thinking I’d be talking about the loss of status from leaving my teacher post but I ended up working through the shame I felt for feeling angry at my aunt for being ill. Without a job, everything kind of rushed in. I had the space, for the first time, to be sick. And to slowly get better:
'I found myself wearing my aunt’s clothes when I missed her the most. When I missed my mum who lives 80 miles away, I would wear clothing I’d nicked from her too. Those clothes stored memories. Fabric carries stories. And it started to inform how I dressed. I’d make a conscious decision to wear those stories on days I needed them.'
I believe material can deeply influence how you feel. From the feeling of lace and silk on your skin to adapting the patterns and clothing of people you want to keep close. That, for me, is ‘Wear Your Happy’. It works. It keeps those people close.
How has you’re your relationship to your body, your mind and your cycle influenced your outlook towards work and life?
My body has changed physically and I have learned to love it more because it works well and I'm healthy. I’m happier now. What I thought was happy was 'surface happy’. Menopause taught me to be honest with myself - to ask myself, is this my ego? What is going on here? It’s a journey of self-discovery.
How do you define success for your business and yourself individually?
Doing something that I love every day that is creative and allows me to have freedom.
Has your definition of success changed over time as an entrepreneur and individual?
Yes. I used to think it was about being really busy and making a shit ton of money. Success is being able to get up every day and know that I’m doing the best I can with what I have. It’s different on different days.
What correlation, if any, do you see between age and ambition?
None. The word ambition has negative connotations for me. It feels like a hard driven word. I prefer the term aspiration to dream.
'We all have dreams. Perhaps age can make them bolder and more urgent. But also age means that you give it a go because there’s less to lose.'
What are your aspirations for your business and self over the next 24 months?
More sewing beautiful clothing for wonderful women. More teaching people how to sew. More connections with interesting humans. More freedom to play with my grandson. A podcast. A book. A move to who knows where?
What do you wish your younger self had known about:
Life. People pleasing is a recipe for disaster.
Love. Turn it on yourself first. Then look outwards.
Health. How you feel is more important than how you look, but keep moving your body.
Work. Don’t tie your worth to your job title.
What would be your key advice to women transitioning through menopause today? And what has worked / is working for you?
- Get silent.
- Drink ya water.
- Move every day. Walk outside amongst nature if you can.
- Speak gently to yourself on a daily basis.
- Stop doing things you don’t want to do just because you’ve always done them.
You can find more about Wear Your Happy here and follow the research initiative Menopause Whilst Black here. We’re also really looking forward to introducing Karen’s philosophy, in all its beauty, as part of our Expert Series. Details of her Wear Your Happy Workshop will be shared very soon.