Marketing Menopause: A Tale of Two Supplements
"Men act and women appear" -- John Berger, Ways of Seeing. Also a good way to think about collagen and creatine marketing
October 18 was World Menopause Day, and my god, my inbox and Instagram were flooded with the most ridiculous messages from “menopause influencers,” as Helen Lewis described them in The Atlantic. We’re a target market now, old lady-friends. Wheee.
We’re a target market and yet. And yet, we continue to be dismissed by much of the medical/research establishment. As such, it’s no surprise that the wellness industry and its salespeople are ready to capitalize on our frustrations with how our bodies look and feel. Menopause is still grossly under-researched, and what research there is is often framed in terms of the loss of fertility — what our ovaries no longer do. Because patriarchy views women’s worth in terms of our reproductive capabilities, menopause (and aging more generally) is catastrophized, viewed as some sort of terminal disease rather than as a natural phase of life.
And while Menopause Day might seem swell — oh hey, we’re breaking the culture of silence around its symptoms! — it’s mostly just a marketing gimmick, set up to sell us shit: particularly supplements to compensate for what our bodies now lack.
The Supplement Racket (A Second Breakfast Refrain)
According to the CDC, almost 60% of Americans over age 20 take some sort of dietary supplement, a figure that increases with age (and with gender) — over 80% of women over age 60 do so. The most common is the good ol' multivitamin (followed by vitamin D and omega-3 pills). There's a ton of marketing that pushes other supplements, particularly for those of us in the peri- and post-menopausal crowd, which makes the high proportion of women over 60 who take something (or several somethings) utterly unsurprising.
The push to take supplements doesn't just come from advertising. At a check-up a few years ago, my doctor told me I should take a multivitamin, without asking any questions about my diet and without looking at any of my bloodwork to see if there were, in fact, deficits (or even excesses) that needed to be addressed. After I read Jen Gunter's The Menopause Manifesto,1 I stopped taking a multivitamin, I confess. "These products have been reimagined for women over fifty to provide support from within — don't fall for it," she writes. "The only reimagining here is to figure out how to target women's fears as they age. Multiple studies have addressed multivitamins and they have no benefit for otherwise healthy women, and some data even suggests harm." And yes, I know we're supposed to listen to our doctors, but here's the rub: sometimes they aren't up-to-date on the latest research either; nor are they immune from the messaging that we need to take a daily vitamin.
Americans deeply believe in vitamins — culturally not just medically. Our knowledge of these substances — something we’ve really only had as “science” since the beginning of the 20th century — is bound up in our beliefs about health and wellness, but also with a century's worth of food technology. Despite widespread poverty and food insecurity in the US, the country does not have a major problem with vitamin deficiency in part because any of our foods are “fortified” — particularly the foods which we consume at breakfast: the multivitamin (duh), and of course, cereal.
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