Donna Richmond talks to Monika Björn, who is speaking at Sara on 21st March, about her fight to get Sweden on track with dealing with (or maybe even acknowledging!) the health issues surrounding the menopause.
DR: What is your background?
MB: I was adopted from South Korea and moved to Sweden when I was six months old. I’ve been working within health and fitness my entire career. I started my career in the early 90s in the UK. I moved there from Sweden in my early twenties and I lived in London and Scotland. When I returned to Sweden I started to study at university and ‘Spinning’ (a gym class) was the hot new thing, and something I enjoyed. This was in 1995. Sweden was one of the first countries to start the Spinning trend. I was asked if I wanted to apply to become an international trainer. I was accepted and ended up working with Spinning for the next 15 years. I introduced Spinning as a group training concept all over Europe, Asia and Australia.
DR: What led you to working with women and the menopause?
MB: I was 47 when, after a lot of agony, I understood that I was perimenopausal. I only understood that because I got hot flushes. When I understood that I was in perimenopause I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about this: this is something that only happens to really really old women.’ In my head I pictured a woman around 85 years old. I had been at my strongest peak when I was 44. I thought, ‘How on earth can I be in perimenopause?’ I started looking around the internet for literature. I found it hard to find something inspiring and interesting, so I decided to write that book myself, which became the book Strong Throughout Menopause. While writing that book I looked back at my own health history for the previous 18 months before the hot flushes, and realized I had been perimenopausal for almost two years.
DR: What had been the symptoms?
MB: I had been to the doctors with some strange symptoms, such as frequent urinary tract infections, new allergies and skin rashes and irregular menstrual cycles, and none of the doctors recognized them as being symptoms of the menopause. I had other symptoms such as impaired sleep, vertigo, body aches, brain fog, anxiety, lowered self-esteem and self-confidence, feeling “flat” and mood swings. Doctors don’t have the knowledge and they don’t learn about the menopause and perimenopause at med school. Now I understand that I cannot blame them.
DR: What are the problems women face in Sweden, regarding menopause and perimenopause?
MB: It affects half the population, so what on earth were women doing before now? There is a lack of knowledge, and a lack of interest from the medical profession to learn more and get updated around menopausal issues, symptoms and treatments. That is a HUGE problem because it means that it is increasing inequality. You can look at it from the perspective of money spent on women’s health versus money spent on men’s health or money spent on research. There is an enormous disparity.
DR: How is it in Norrland?
MB: Bad. In Norrland, as far as I know, there is not one single private clinic to treat the menopause. It means that if you don’t find help in your closest city, you must have the finances and the knowledge to visit a private clinic in Stockholm. The situation comes down to the fact that you need a high level of income and education to have the right treatment. This is a huge issue. Then you have women’s lack of knowledge. We haven’t learnt about it at school. I have spent hundreds of thousands of Swedish kronor on private education in the health and fitness fields from the 90s up until now, and none of my courses have even mentioned the word menopause.
DR: What is the biggest myth about the menopause?
MB: One of the largest misconceptions is that menopause only happens when you are 50 plus. A misconception, unfortunately, amongst doctors and some women. That said, I have to say, in my experience, and the experience of others I’ve talked to, it’s more common that women feel like they are educating their own doctor, rather than the other way around. That’s how bad it is.
DR: Your lecture at Sara kulturhus (which will be in Swedish-only) mentions the importance of humour. Tell me more.
MB: You can attack the topic from two angles – you can either start crying or you can start laughing. So, I would say it’s that kind of humour. And I make jokes during the lecture. One of the things I say early on is, ‘this lecture is going to get really depressing and you will ask yourselves, why did I go? The reason I bring that up is because halfway through this lecture, I will try to turn it around. So don’t go home during the break. Don’t pretend that you’re going to the bathroom and make a run for it because then you’ll miss all the good stuff at the end. I could just stand there and recite numbers and scientific journals and it could be really depressing. Some parts are so depressing that you need the humour to keep on listening.
DR: What do you want to achieve with these lectures and your books?
MB: I am doing this because I know that if we (women between the ages of 48 and 60) don’t change the narrative around the menopause now and drive that change, then there will be no differences at all for the next generation. A lot of what drives me is the anger, frustration, despair that I feel not just for myself. I am strong. I can talk for myself. I want to use my voice for those women who can’t speak up for themselves. I am only one person. I can drive the change through my Instagram accounts and spreading knowledge and sharing it for free, and then for those who can pay to see me, that’s fine. The more people I can reach, the more people will talk about it. I have now lectured to well over 10k people, if they speak to 10 people then we’re starting to get momentum. That’s my drive.
Click here to book tickets for TÄNK: Monika Björn – Stark genom klimakteriet! at Sara Kulturhus on 21st March 2023. Please note, this evening is in Swedish.
Yoga för dig som tränar, 2017 (Norstedts)
Stark genom klimakteriet, 2018 (Norstedts)
Stark 50+: hormoner, sömn, kost & träning, 2021 (Norstedts)