The Countess of Wessex has spoken about her own experience of going through the menopause, describing losing her train of thought on royal engagements and feeling as if somebody had taken her brain out.
Sophie called for franker conversations surrounding the subject and more support for women as she became patron of the charity Wellbeing of Women.
The 56-year-old countess described hot flushes, memory loss and brain fog – all symptoms of the menopause.
Sophie is thought to be the first member of the royal family to discuss their own experiences of the issue at length in public.
She chatted with Sarah Jane Cale, founder of the Positive Menopause website, which offers information and advice for menopausal women, by video call last week.
Sophie said: “You know in the middle of a presentation when you suddenly can’t remember what you were talking about, try being on an engagement when that happens – your words just go.
“And you’re standing there and going, ‘Hang on, I thought I was a reasonably intelligent person, what has just happened to me?’
“It’s like somebody’s just gone and taken your brain out for however long before they pop it back in again and you try and pick up the pieces and carry on.”
Seeming to suggest her husband the Earl of Wessex had been supportive, she said: “The majority of men can be very empathetic.
Watch: Sophie - Menopause could be a celebration, not a shackle
“Again it’s about making sure that they have the knowledge to be able to, rather than if you say, ‘Please can I get a fan?’, without even questioning they will go, ‘Well of course you can’, rather than saying, ‘Why on earth do you need that, what’s wrong with you? It’s winter outside. It’s snowing. Why do you need a fan?’ – to be able to make that leap more quickly.”
There are approximately 13 million women in the workplace over the age of 40, but one in four has considered leaving their jobs when reaching the menopause, Sophie was told.
The countess discussed the importance of ensuring women still feel valued and supported.
She said: “Really we should be celebrating the fact that we don’t have to have periods any more – it should be a liberation, but it feels like a shackle.
“It’s described as something incredibly negative.
“Yes, it’s an admittance of the fact that we’re getting a bit older, we’re not as young as we were before, we’re not being, you know, to use the word ‘productive’, we are past that stage, and it’s quite a moment to admit it.”
The countess spoke of the “superficial” media pressure on women to appear skinny, beautiful and young-looking even while going through the menopause.
“We’ve got to be fit, we’ve got to be clever, we’ve got to be looking skinny, we’ve got to be looking beautiful, we’ve got look 25 years old for the rest of our lives,” she said.
“But unfortunately our bodies are going, ‘Well, you now, that’s fine, you can do all of that on the outside as much as you possibly can, or as much as you can possibly afford to’.
“But on the inside things are a little different, you know. The inside hasn’t been listening to social media, it’s just gonna happen.”
The countess, mother to 17-year-old Lady Louise Windsor and 13-year-old Viscount Severn, called for better education of girls, saying: “How much are young girls actually told at the beginning? Because I don’t remember having these lessons at all.
“When we’re told that we’re going to begin our periods, are we told that they’re going to end as well?”
In a conversation with Wellbeing of Women chief Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Sophie called for any taboo in talking about periods and the menopause to be broken.
“We all talk about having babies, but nobody talks about periods, nobody talks about the menopause, why not?” she said.
“It’s something that happens to us 12 times a year, it’s something that’s incredibly normal but it’s something that is hidden and I think it’s time to say enough, we need to bring this out on to the table and say let’s talk about this.”
The countess described hormones as “incredibly strong little critters” and urged women to seek “help and talk to everybody and be informed, because that will help you manage your circumstances”.
Wellbeing of Women focuses on saving and changing the lives of women, girls and babies, through research, education and advocacy.
Reflecting on the importance of its work, the countess said: “We shouldn’t be leaving anyone behind.
“It’s not only about dialogue with women and young girls, it’s men as well – this is a conversation that has to be opened up to everybody. Even if they don’t want to listen – we just have to get louder.”
Watch: Julie Graham on finding empowerment in the menopause