It took broadcaster Mariella Frostrup two years of insomnia, anxiety and rage to put two and two together and realise she was going through the menopause. In yesterday’s Mail, she told how HRT, magnesium spray and yoga have transformed her life. Today, the married mother-of-two is refreshingly frank about down-there care and why sexy lingerie matters — for you, not your partner.
When I hit 50 I found myself toying with slivers of lace in the lingerie department. Throughout my 20s I’d been a big fan of beautiful underwear, but when my children came along I got out of the habit, selecting micro-fibre staples for comfort and practicality (not words you ever want associated with your sex life).
But now I’ve come to the conclusion that great underwear is wasted when you’re young and you look good naked.
Beautiful, feminine, sexy lingerie should surely be the preserve of the post-50s, who prefer a bit of cover-up, but know how to work a bra, pants and hold-up stockings when the moment is right.
In yesterday’s Mail, she told how HRT, magnesium spray and yoga have transformed her life
Midlife love: Mariella Frostrup with her husband, human rights lawyer Jason McCue
Mrs Robinson has become my mentor and it’s out with the T-shirt bra and Uniqlo panties and hello sexy lingerie labels — les girls les boys, Noelle Wolf and, my old favourite, La Perla.
Every little helps, as they say.
Women’s libido is based to some extent on whether we think we’re good-looking enough.
It was reported that women usually thought of themselves as being more attractive ten years previously. True fact.
My 40s now seem like a decade of supermodel-like beauty — relatively speaking. And the better looking you think yourself, whatever your age, the more you feel like sex.
It is pretty clear to me that women can’t just switch on sexy. There’s usually a certain amount of build-up necessary, and there’s the question of how we’re feeling, too.
If the world has one message on repeat for middle-aged women it is that we are no longer top-of-the-range goods.
If we aren’t perceived as being sexy by society, it takes a lot of inner strength to make ourselves feel so, especially if we’re struggling with hot flushes, brain fog and insomnia.
Some women are fortunate enough to experience a rush of enthusiasm for sexual activity when their hormones start to rollercoaster, but, for most of us, the impulse to have sex is on a spiralling sliding scale from ‘less interested’ down to ‘non-existent’.
That said, it’s a rare human who doesn’t roll over after having had sex and think: ‘That was nice, and really not too time-consuming; we should do it more often!’
There are plenty of lame jokes about the lack of sex in middle age, but, like many women, I find it useful to schedule a regular coupling into the diary, along with the weekly supermarket delivery, to ensure it stays incorporated into our routine.
This is just basic upkeep — like mowing the lawn or having your legs waxed.
I suppose ‘appointment sex’ may not sound as though you’re hanging off a swing in bondage gear. But forward planning is never more important than when you’re going through menopause.
Norwegian-born television and radio presenter Mariella Frostrup of Channel Four’s ‘Big World Cafe’ programme, circa 1989
Cruelly, the menopausal years are those during which your mental image of yourself and the physical reality start to clash, as declining oestrogen also affects face, figure and hair. Pictured, Mriella, Laura Bailey and Hugh Grant
Sex may be less spontaneous as we enter midlife, but it doesn’t have to be less enjoyable. I believe making more of an effort is both pleasurable and respectful, that putting sex on your to-do list is proactive and constructive, and once you get started, it’s fun.
Maturity means a less fanciful approach to romance, and I think the most romantic thing you can do in any enduring relationship is to value it enough to carve out some quality (naked) time with your partner.
Best of all? It doesn’t have to be a recognised ‘agreement’. They don’t necessarily have to be aware that the sex they are getting has been scheduled.
Cruelly, the menopausal years are those during which your mental image of yourself and the physical reality start to clash, as declining oestrogen also affects face, figure and hair.
The greatest surprise of middle age for me was the very first time I looked in the mirror aged around 50 and wondered where on earth my youth had gone.
There I was, feeling and thinking very much like the woman I’d always been, but reflecting back at me was a shocker — wizened.
I sometimes still experience tangible shockwaves at the sight of my wrinkled face. Even with my in-head best-before date set at 38, I still shudder, imagining what my 20-year-old self would think about what I’ve become!
The problem is, if your reflection doesn’t give you any confidence, it can be extremely hard to muster it when facing the world.
I was mighty relieved to be off the dating market once I hit my 50s but the outside world confirmed what I was already feeling inside: my value was plummeting.
Part of embracing the physical changes of menopause is about accepting a new version of yourself. I know that’s easier said than done, and especially first thing in the morning when your face looks as though it needs ironing.
But, if I’ve gained any wisdom at all, it’s not to chase what you can’t capture, and youth is something we never stop leaving behind.
As we all know, it is incredibly subjective anyway. What I see in the mirror is by no means what my children see (the fun police and a washer woman) or my husband (a sex goddess?).
On the whole, I’ve found that base-level glamour from my late 40s onwards has required both acceptance and extra maintenance.
My face has been put through the wringer over the years. Anything I ought to have done, I’ve ignored, and all the basic no-nos (such as ‘do not bake in direct tropical sun’) I’ve gone ahead and embraced anyway.
As a travel writer and sun-worshipper — contravening health, safety and fashion advice every time — I can testify to having masses of sun damage.
I know that when I drink less wine, get more fresh air, glug more water and sleep better (which often depends on how much alcohol I have consumed), it’s all writ large on my visage.
Until the age of 50, I felt that things were holding together quite nicely, but I noticed a definite drop in smoothness and an increase in pigmentation after that point.
There’s also a sort of blurring around the edges; my once firm jaw is less strong and my cheeks less defined.
Some days, I look like a bad waxwork of myself — as though I have been wafted past a hot flame and melted a little. There was a watershed moment when I realised that make-up had become compulsory, unless I was in strict home hibernation.
Being bare-faced no longer suggested fresh and healthy but had become Victorian late-stage consumption. Plenty of women still look amazing and I’m consumed with envy for their natural beauty. My problem is that I’d started to lose my eyes, and with my lopsided, asymmetrical face, that was a problem. The big question is, do you want to hop onto the aesthetic bandwagon and take your chances with every new treatment available, aiming for youth, but more likely achieving that strange Hollywood look where you could be anything between 40 and 70? Or do you accept the grey hairs and wrinkles, and embrace elasticated waists as being more comfortable?
In reality, I suspect most of us settle for a happy medium, which is what I have tried to do. I have my hair done regularly, invest in pleasant face creams and my frown line is regularly Botoxed, but otherwise I allow nature to follow its inexorable course.
My mother always told me that, if you look after your face, the rest will take care of itself. Nowadays, it’s clear she was either over-optimistic . . . or lying.
Nonetheless, it’s advice I took to heart and it’s proved a habit that seems to have endured.
My mother always told me that, if you look after your face, the rest will take care of itself. Nowadays, it’s clear she was either over-optimistic . . . or lying
Mariella Frostrup, Charlotte Tilbury and guest attend as Charles Finch hosts the 8th Annual Filmmakers Dinner with Jaeger-LeCoultre at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on May 13, 2016
Salman Rushdie and Mariella Frostrup attend a private viewing of the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei
Despite many shameful, debauched nights, I have never gone to bed with my make-up on.
I’m also a sucker for good face creams, which have been my greatest investment in luxury throughout life. As I get older, I find that I need creams that are increasingly rich in texture, as my skin is definitely more Gobi Desert than lush tropical rainforest.
I also try to avoid harmful chemicals, opt for organic products, and use night cream at any point during the day.
For 20 years, my glossy blonde bob was frequently described as my ‘trademark’. It’s always a bit disappointing to hear that any thought or idea which I’ve spoken over nearly six decades is nothing compared with the effect achieved by two hours in the Mayfair salon I visited.
The truth about problems below the belt
The vagina is obviously important for both making babies and getting them out, as well as providing a great deal of entertainment. But the extent that we aren’t told about the possible state of this delicate part of our anatomy in midlife is quite shocking.
Oestrogen controls lubrication, and is essential for the health and comfort of the bladder, vagina and vulva. Take away natural hydration, add in thinning skin, alter the pH levels and remove the muscle tone, and you’re facing all manner of problems.
It’s thought that around 80 per cent of us suffer problems with our vaginas and vulvas during and after the menopause, and it can start as very subtle signs, such as discomfort during a smear test, as early as your 40s.
Despite this, the area never scores top billing on lists of symptoms. It always seems to play second fiddle to the more obvious, and perhaps more palatable, hot flush.
It’s almost as though the assumption is that older women shouldn’t be having sex, so it’s not worth keeping ourselves booty-call prepared.
Discussing it as frankly as I am here raises a blush, and has involved some heated internal debate. But my desire to bust the cycle of shame has overridden any sense of decorum I’d hoped to maintain.
In a 2013 paper called The Silent Epidemic, the author said most women would suffer problems with the vagina and lower urinary tract, but reported that 42 per cent didn’t seek treatment as it ‘wasn’t important’.
When I found myself getting cystitis on the few occasions my husband and I squeezed intercourse onto our to-do list, I was puzzled. Surely this condition is synonymous with carefree youthful coupling?
I had no idea that even routine love-making of swift duration could induce similar agonies: the urethra is more likely to get infected if you’re lacking moisture, and also because of the thinning skin and a change in the local bacteria.
For a woman, urinating within 15 minutes of having sex can wash away the bacteria and save menopausal midlifers from the all-too-common symptoms of cystitis. Staying well hydrated helps, too.
If you need local oestrogen — one of the most effective treatments (as a gel, pessary or ring) — don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t take it as well as HRT. Yes you can.
I became entirely dependent on good hair, with any presenting job or public appearance reliant on whether or not I could squeeze in a blow-dry there.
As I passed the mid-40s mark, I noticed that well-groomed hair was the perfect foil for a host of other ‘imperfections’ — tired skin or dark circles under the eyes, for example — and so it became the number one priority of my beauty regime.
As for my hair colour, which has defined me for much of my career, these days it is even more fake than ever!
I developed a white stripe across my parting almost overnight at the age of 15 when my father died, and as bleach blonde was all the rage, I started dyeing it and have continued to do so ever since. Now I suspect that if I let it grow out, it would be pure white, which might be a way to celebrate my 60th. Then again, they do say that blondes have more fun, and as you get older you wouldn’t want to short-change yourself on any such promises!
There’s something enormously fun about looking like a younger woman from behind, with my blonde bob, and then seeing rear-view admirers recoil when they realise I’m old enough to be their mother. That famous invisibility of middle age can be dispiriting, but it is also immensely empowering.
Feeling great about yourself
I very much believe that our menopausal years are the ones when we have a stronger sense of ourselves.
By the time you get to my age and beyond, people are definitely not spending time with you because you are hot.
They’re hanging around because you’re interesting, fun, kind, hospitable, adventurous, well-informed and all the other amazing qualities that you’ve had a lifetime to accrue and can keep on adding to.
Increasingly, I find myself looking around and appreciating the diversity of beauty in age.
All of my friends — who are mostly in their 40s and upwards — look utterly stunning, in my opinion, and young people appear rather bland and samey, not helped by the terrible trend for thick eyebrows and too much make-up.
Your middle-aged skin also tells the story of your whole lifestyle. The more ravaged women I know are often the most fascinating.
Whatever steps you decide to take towards teeth whitening, wrinkle fixing and hair colouring, don’t take it too seriously, and never think that smoother skin or hiding the silver strands is the Holy Grail of contentment.
Is it really an achievement if a stranger thinks we’re hot enough to imagine having sex with? I recommend using real people for reference, not magazine pages and doctored Instagram feeds.
Accept that you are doing just fine — it could always be a lot worse. In a decade’s time, it will be! So, enjoy the moment.
You are just a new evolving version of you, and women’s specialist skill is adapting to new circumstances. Don’t think of it as being lesser. Just different. And, in many ways, more beautiful.
Adapted by LOUISE ATKINSON from Cracking The Menopause, by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie (£20, Bluebird), published on September 16. © Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie 2021. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until September 14, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.