For the seventh episode of Period Story Podcast, I spoke with Karen Arthur, the fashion designer, sewing tutor, stylist, speaker and model.
We talked about a first period that felt really frightening at the time, but in retrospect, was quite funny. Karen talked about learning about periods and sex through conversations with friends, feeling squeamish and embarrassed and learning that having a period didn’t mean she was pregnant.
Karen says that having a preacher for a father meant that conversations about most things to do with women, and anything to do with bodily fluids were taboo. She had been brought to believe that bleeding was bad and the Problem page in Jackie magazine was how she mostly learned about sex, relationships and periods.
We talked about what Karen felt she should have known about her body and how becoming a teacher and head of year made her determined to learn as much as she could, in order to teach her students and her daughters. Karen shares how her daughters have educated her the most on periods and sex through their openness and willingness to have frank conversations.
She says it’s taken her time to unlearn her feelings of shame and recognise that the more people talk about these things, the better it is. This has helped her talk about menopause as well. Karen talks about the events she’s run to help open up conversations around menopause and how they’ve help women feel less alone.
Karen says that menopause is a transition to another life and we need to think about how we can thrive, rather than how we can just get through it.
Karen says that no one should suffer this alone and I completely agree!
Karen is a 57 year old woman flourishing through menopause. She is a fashion designer, sewing tutor, stylist and speaker with a bit of modeling thrown in for variety.
Karen was a full time teacher for 28 years and a pastoral leader for 15 of those but, after a breakthrough in 2015, left to pursue a more authentic life. She has been sewing for over 40 years creating beautiful clothing for women who appreciate hand crafted care and slow fashion. Karen teaches people of all ages to fall in love with their sewing machines. She runs workshops to teach all ages about sewing, textiles and fashion.
Karen enables women to harness the power of fashion to support good mental well-being using #wearyourhappy on social media and penned an e-book 8 Ways to Wear Your Happy as a helpful guide. She has held two successful Wear Your Happy live events to date and launched Wear Your Happy Style, a personal styling offer for women who want to rediscover the ‘Happy’ in their wardrobes.
Karen speaks publicly on fashion and mental wellbeing, ageing and loneliness. Her most recent video feature for @StyleLikeU ‘Getting Dressed: A self-acceptance project’ has reached over 88k views on YouTube.
Finally, Karen is also a co-founder of Craft Moves, a social initiative committed to ending loneliness amongst London’s commuters through handheld craft.
Find Karen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and on her website.
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Le’Nise: On today’s episode, we have Karen Arthur, a 57 year old woman flourishing through menopause. She is a fashion designer, sewing tutor, stylist and speaker with a bit of modelling thrown in for variety. Karen enables women to harness the power of fashion to support good mental well-being through the hashtag where you’re happy on social media. She’s penned an e-book called Eight Ways To Wear Your Happy as a helpful guide.
Karen speaks publicly on fashion and mental wellbeing, ageing and loneliness. Finally, Karen is also co-founder of Craft Moves, a social initiative committed to ending loneliness amongst London’s commuters through a handheld craft. Welcome to the show.
Karen: Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad to be here. I’m so happy to have you on the show.
Le’Nise: So let’s start off by getting into the story of your first period. Can you share with us what happened?
Karen: Yeah. Yes. So I was 14. And I went to the loo as normal and I sat down and looked in my panties and realised and in the toilet itself and realised there was blood there and I panicked and I screamed for my mother. We’d never had these conversations. We never talked about periods. I just knew it had something to do with being pregnant. So I had younger siblings. Two boys, two brothers and a sister. And of course, they came running as well. But I wouldn’t obviously wouldn’t let them in. I just want my mum to come in and she scrabbled around and got a massive pad for me, which she told me to put in my knickers, which I hated wearing because it made me look like I walked like I’d just gotten off a horse.
I think my sister had asked one of my brothers what was going on and he’d said something like, Oh, it’s something to do with being pregnant. So that would have been fine, except that the next day when I went into school, everybody thought that I was pregnant because my sister had told everyone that I was pregnant because I’d had my period. And she didn’t understand. I didn’t understand. So, yeah, my first experience was actually quite scary, if anything, because it just felt so, I felt like I was a grown up. But at the same time, I didn’t feel that way. I knew it was something to do with growing up, but not a lot else. So, yeah, that’s my first experience.
Le’Nise: And how old did you say you were?
Karen: So I was 14 years old. Yeah, just coming up to my 14th birthday and I realised that my mother was 14 when she started a period. I think my sister was as well. And both my daughters were.
Le’Nise: Oh, that’s so interesting. And you said that your sister went into school and told everyone that you were pregnant. How did you feel about that?
Karen: Well, I was shocked at first, but then I realised it was quite funny. She was tiny. She was like, what is it? What’s the difference between us? So she would’ve been about eight. She didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was going on. And I don’t think anybody took her seriously. So, yeah, it was fine.
Le’Nise: You had that first experience, which you said was a little scary. And how did you learn about what was actually going on? How did you learn that you weren’t actually pregnant?
Karen: I talked to my friends, I read books. We certainly didn’t learn it at school. Definitely did not learn it. Our sex education was the teacher showing us a video of a woman giving birth and basically saying, just putting me off ever having sex at all. So, yeah, I learnt through chatting to my friends. I had two worldly friends, Joy and Katherine, and they knew everything there was to know about sex way before I even ventured there. And they’d been having their periods since they were about 11 or 12, which in those days, we’re talking early 70s, was unusual. I understand it’s more common [now] for young women to have their periods in primary school, but in those days, that was not a thing. And I know that certainly my two worldly friends had started their periods quite early.
Le’Nise: So learning through your friends, if you think back to what you learned and then think back thinking about what you know now, were there any big myths that they were sharing or do you think everything that they were talking about was basically correct?
Karen: No, I don’t. We didn’t talk a lot about it because I was squeamish. We didn’t talk about these things. You didn’t mention, it was blood and it was embarrassing and it was, yeah. We didn’t have a long conversation about it. It was just that they reassured me that I couldn’t possibly be pregnant because I wasn’t the Virgin Mary and I hadn’t had sex. That was that, really. In terms of it being truthful, the biggest myth I got from them wasn’t about periods, it is about getting pregnant. And they disabused me of the notion that if you sit on a toilet seat after a boy’s been in there, that you wouldn’t get pregnant, because I thought that was a thing until I was in second year.
Le’Nise: Why do you think you were so squeamish and so embarrassed?
Karen: Because like most things to do with women, we didn’t talk about it. It was taboo. You didn’t. So my father was a preacher, so that wasn’t happening. We weren’t having conversations about bodily fluids and anything, really. He left around the same time anyway and you just didn’t talk about it, no one spoke about. It was like menopause, same thing. You just didn’t talk amongst yourselves, it was like a little secret, like a taboo secret.
Certainly my mother and I never discussed it. I remember buying those little Lillet tampons. Cute little things they are, thinking, oh, you know I’ll try one of those and I read in Jackie that you couldn’t lose your virginity by putting a tampon up your bits, so I tried. It was so painful. My goodness me. My goodness. I thought they were the devil. So I used pads for ages. Yeah. It was pads all the way for me.
Le’Nise: Well, you didn’t really learn about menstrual health in school. You said the school didn’t really teach it. You read, you spoke to your friends and you kind of got a cursory knowledge of what was happening. But you also said that you had read some books. What were the books that you had read at the time?
Karen: Now I think about it. They wouldn’t have been books they will have been magazines. I was heavily into Jackie, the Problem page. I learned a lot of my things to do with relationships, sex and period through the problem page, but it was usually around shame. So it was girls who wore white and had a leak and what to do, that kind of thing. So when I think about it, if I did read a book, no it will have been in magazines now I think about it, yeah.
Le’Nise: You mentioned the word shame and you also said that people didn’t talk about it, it was embarrassing, it was shameful. What does that mean for you? Like, I’ve talked about shame a bit with other women on this podcast? What does that word mean for you and how would you kind of unpack those feelings now?
Karen: I would say that growing up, anything to do with women or my body was something that I wouldn’t discuss. And it meant that when it came to, it was just a giggle. Like if we talked about things like this, it was funny, you made a joke out of it to kind of lighten the mood. It meant I took it into my relationships, actually. It meant that I never asked my partner to go and get me tampons or pads. I wasn’t in the greatest of relationships I would say; it meant I never wanted to let anybody know that I was having my period. It meant that I didn’t really understand myself as much as I do now.
I will say that going into teaching and going into the pastoral side and having to learn and be a step ahead of the kids that I was teaching about sex and periods and that kind of thing, I was a Head of Year with the girls at a girls school and if you’re at a boys school and having two daughters as it meant that I learnt as much as I could and sometimes I was teaching myself things that I should have known, I think when I was growing up, it made me more determined to ensure that my girls didn’t grow up not knowing this stuff.
Le’Nise: What sort of things did you have to teach yourself? What sort of things do you think that you should have known?
Karen: I think I should have known mostly that my body isn’t anything to be ashamed of. I think, you know, I think I should have learned about not just the anatomy stuff, you know, giving out a worksheet with the, you know, diagram on it and filling it in. I think it’s more about how we feel as women and how powerful and important it is when you start your menstruation and what it means.
You know, it’s not just about being a woman and therefore staying away from boys so that you don’t get pregnant. I didn’t understand the power that, you know, a period holds. And actually, I had friends who were bedridden, had friends who had really heavy periods. I had friends who had a terrible time. Actually, my periods were on the whole, came by clockwork and lasted five days, which is quite fairly, you know, I’d have my day of eating all the carbs, forgetting that I’d have a week before where I cried if somebody looked at me, then I’d have the day before where I’d be eating all the carbs, completely forget that there was a reason for this and then the next day my period would start and I’d be like, Oh, that’s why, and I’d have a day of feeling URGH around my abdomen and my lower back and then I’d be fine, you know. So I’ve forgot the question.
Le’Nise: So you didn’t really have painful periods. You had a little bit of emotional upset, like maybe a little twinge and then it was it was absolutely fine.
Karen: Yeah. Yeah, I would I would say it was just an inconvenience, if anything. But not pain like I’ve spoken with my other friends and that kind of thing.
Le’Nise: You said that you learned about the power of having a period. What does that mean for you?
Karen: The power of being a woman. When I was growing up, being a girl wasn’t something, didn’t feel like something to be celebrated. Not a girl. Sorry, being a woman, I liked being a girl. But growing into womanhood wasn’t really something, you didn’t see anywhere where that was celebrated unless it was the way you looked, if that makes sense.
So if you an hourglass figure or you had a flat stomach or had boobs or long flicky hair or that kind of thing, you would celebrate it that way. That’s what I saw. But in terms of the power of being able to you know, menstruation is a gateway to being able to give life. That’s a big deal, that’s a massive deal. You didn’t get that at all. It was shame you whispered it. You know, if you’re a party or a friend’s house and you came on and you didn’t have tampons or pads, it was a whisper. It’s like a scramble around to find another woman who might possibly have something that they can lend to you. I remember an awful time, I still remember going to a barbecue in the height of the summer wearing white and the woman tapped me on the shoulder and kind of came up close behind me and she said, I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but I think you might have leaked and how mortified I was that she’d noticed, which meant that somebody else probably noticed. And then worrying about how, I wanted to go home and that was awful. Awful. Awful.
Or you’re staying somewhere and leaking at night, leaking onto the sheets and not knowing how to explain that, even though it’s a completely natural thing to do. You know, it’s awful.
Le’Nise: Why do you think it was so mortifying? Why do you think at the time you found it so awful?
Karen: Because I’d been brought up to believe that bleeding was bad. Not brought up as in no one said that, but the messages I got were that doing something natural was a bad thing and showing people that you were a human being and not perfect was a bad thing. So yeah, and I was busy trying to cultivate this, you know, I look great, I know what I’m doing like most people do when they’re in I don’t know, well, a lot of women do, all the time. But do you know what I mean?
Le’Nise: Yeah. And what about now? How do you feel about all the changes that are happening now and how educated and empowered people with periods, women with periods feel and all the conversations that are happening about it.
Karen: Okay so I have two things to say about this one. When I first noticed that the world was talking more about periods and I’d see like graphics of different like people talking, especially on Instagram. So people talking about periods. People talk about their flow, that kind of thing. I won’t lie, I was quite taken aback. This is, you know, 50 years remember, of upbringing. And I was like, oh, you know, there’s a part of me that was like, oh, I don’t wanna see that, I can’t, you know?
And I would kind of scroll past but I have to say, it’s my daughters who have educated me the most because especially my youngest, well both of them, they’re very open and vocal. And so they pull me up on or educate me I would say, not necessarily pull me up, they don’t have to pull me up, but certainly, you know, we have much more open conversations about whether it’s flow, whether it’s anything to do with sex or stuff like that. But it’s taken me some time to, is adjust the right word? Unlearn, maybe unlearn my feelings of shame and recognise that the more people talk, the better it is, what everybody does naturally, it is better. And it’s how I feel about, I suppose that’s helped me to talk about menopause as well in the sense that ageing is that, it’s lifted the veil off, you know. And that can only be a good thing.
Le’Nise: Do you think what’s happening with periods now and the openness that’s happening around the conversations around menstrual cycles and menstruation is also happening with menopause? Or can you not compare the two?
Karen: I think you can compare the two because it all boils down to how women are shamed. Full stop. That’s what it boils down to. It boils down to society’s expectations of women. So it is the same thing. And I think, yes, it is a difficult one, isn’t it, because I was talking to somebody else about this recently, about how because our peers and the people we hang out with talk about the things that we want to talk about. It’s easy to assume that everybody’s talking about it, it’s the Brexit effect. You know, it’s like, well, you know, all Londoners on the whole where like yeah, we’re never going to leave and were lulled into a false sense of security and then woke up on that Friday and where like are you kidding me? Do you see?
So there’s part of me that’s like, yes more and more people are talking about it, and I agree and you can compare it to menopause, but there’s another part that still having these conversations, you know, and being slightly trying not to be surprised when people don’t know what I’m talking about or are like, oh, my God, people don’t talk about this and I’m thinking well, I’ve been talking about it for ages. Do you see? So I think, yes more and more people are talking about it. But I’m thinking we’ve got a long way to go, there’s a whole world to educate, let’s face it.
Le’Nise: You said some people will say, oh, people don’t talk about this. Do you mean that in the sense that they’re trying to get you to stop talking about it like it feels taboo to them or what does that mean?
Karen: No, it’s a positive thing. It’s, I thought I was on my own, that there’s nothing better than a connection when someone opens their mouth, whether it’s about periods, whether it’s about menopause, whether it’s about mental well-being, whether by anything, that that shame eats us up. And that feeling that you’re alone, it’s awful.
So when you hear, when you see someone talking about something and it resonates with you, and then you can think, oh, my God, I’m not going mad or oh somebody else has two week periods as well or oh that happened to me. That is the most connecting and empowering thing, thing, could’ve thought of a more intelligent word but whatever, that people could do, particularly women, because we’ve been taught to keep it to ourselves. Does that makes sense?
Le’Nise: That makes total sense. And I remember in the past, you said, earlier on in this conversation, you said that you mentioned the word whispers and in the past you’ve talked about how you would have your friends over and you’d have conversations about menopause and everyone would start to open up. And do you think those conversations sparked anything within you to take those conversations about menopause a bit wider and have them be a bit more open?
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. I feel when I started, when did I? So I had my first kind of, we called it self-care for midlife goddesses because I’m so up myself. And I just invited five friends around because it occurred to me that I was going through menopause and I’m a few years older than some of my friends. And we were having individual conversations about how we felt, but not a group one. So I invited them round one Sunday afternoon and being the teacher I am, I did a worksheet and I had everybody share around the table the best things about getting older, worse things about getting older. It was it was an amazing day because the number of times, I’ve lost count the number times. One woman said something and another woman, Oh my God, that’s me too, and so I had it the following year.
And the following year, my girls this year, my girls said, can we come? Because no one talks about these things. So, you know, I’m in the middle of, it is a couple of things, I have plans, one of those plans, one of those many plans is to take that conversation wider and open a group up, a membership site, but a group where women can not just talk about menopause, but talk about, just support each other in ageing and growing older. So it’s not just for menopausal women, but also to break that taboo that I have to say that I’ve lost count of the number of conversations, I’ve had women who have sent me an email or slipped into my DMs saying, I think I’m going through menopause, I’m 37, you know, because there’s this assumption that menopause, you don’t have to worry about it until you get to 50, that’s just not true.
It’s just so happens that my menopause started at 52, as did my mother, you know, and I was going through perimenopause, not even knowing what it was and not even knowing that it was a thing actually, I’d never heard of the bloody thing, you know. So the same thing with periods, if young girls are hearing, if we normalise this conversation about our bodies, if we’re normal and take away that, I suppose it’s because society has as a habit of sexualising everything, which is why it feels like you can’t talk about it. If we take away that, if we take sex out of the equation then and we just talk about natural things that happen to us, then that’s got to be a good thing. No one should suffer alone. That sounds like a quote, doesn’t it? Probably is, but yeah. It’s not to be suffered with and menstruation isn’t a bad thing and not everybody has the same symptoms, just like menopause, not everybody has the same symptoms. You know, so, yeah, we absolutely need to talk about it and yes, I do want to take it wider. I won’t shut up about menopause.
Le’Nise: You said that in that circle, the conversations that you’re having with the worksheet, which I love, I love that. You asked what the best and the worst thing was about getting older. What sort of things came up?
Karen: So the best thing was about not caring what other people thought, menopause is great for that, it’s that, you know, not giving a shittery moment. It’s like, I don’t care what you think of me, it’s liberating. And I think to a degree, to a woman, that’s what people were saying.
The worst things, there’s a list as long as your arm, you know, it’s changing bodies, it’s not realising what’s going on in your head, it’s all the physical stuff, and hot flashes are only one of those things. You know, it’s nights sweats, it’s tingly legs, I could go on and on and on. And also tinged with that is shame because. There’s that whole, well, if you started menopause, that means that your a certain age and women are not rewarded for getting older, men are, women aren’t on the whole. And although fashion and parts of society is kind of catching up, the cynic in me thinks that catching up because they’ve worked out that there’s money to be made as opposed to caring about us, basically.
So I feel that the biggest thing was how liberating it was not caring. But you know, you get to 50, you’ve been in the world, you’ve been on the earth for 50 years, you’re knackered and you give and you give and you give. It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest growing demographics of small businesses are women over 50. It’s like we have this epiphany. It’s like effort, you know, I’m not doing this anymore. I left teaching, my teaching career when I was 52, I’m not the only person who’s kind of like, you know what, I don’t want to do anything, it’s people who leave abusive relationships, it’s all sorts of things. But the other side to that is there are millions of women suffering, part of the reason their suffering is because they think they’re alone and I’m here to tell them that they are not.
Le’Nise: What would be your message? Do you want to tell these women they’re not alone? And what would be how would you expand upon that message to reassure them and to help them connect with others who are in the same sort of situation?
Karen: I would say, and this is easier said than done, the first thing to do is let go of the need to be young. Being young is great, but being old or getting older is also great. Menopause isn’t something that lasts for a year and you get over it. It’s a whole transition to another life. So rather than thinking, how am I going to get through this? It’s how am I going to thrive during this, do you see? Because otherwise you’re waiting until, well, you could be waiting until you’re 65, that’s long, 65, 67, because menopause is long. So rather than putting 10 years of your life on hold, why not work out ways, and by work out ways I mean, it’s not just the physical stuff, it’s the whole package, so it’s working at doing new things.
But the biggest thing I will say is talking, took me opening my mouth, has allowed me to, like different things happen every day, so at the moment, I have a thing going on with mouth ulcers, apparently it’s a thing that the lack of oestrogen in your mouth means we don’t produce enough saliva, you know all this stuff, I don’t know, anyway, but instead of me thinking, my life is over and oh, God, you know, it’s just another thing, it’s actually quite fascinating because I didn’t know this stuff.
But I think my message to find someone to talk to, to not be ashamed, to embrace your changing body to be grateful to, I’m grateful to my body for carrying my two children. You know, I do that whole, what is it? The mindful shower where I’m thanking my feet for allowing me to stand in the queue at the post office so that, you know, little things like that, that help you to enjoy everything that menopause is going to throw at you. I will also say that whilst there are many women who reach for HRT, I think the doctors seem to be pushing that, that’s not my thing personally. I think women also need to know that HRT doesn’t stop menopause it just pauses it and then it comes when you stop and whilst it does have health risks, if we can do this naturally, I’m not knocking anybody who does it because that’s your thing and that’s your journey, but if you can try and do that naturally, that’s about lifestyle, it’s about diet, it’s all sorts of things. Then for me, that’s the way forward but the biggest thing is open your mouth. That’s what I think.
Le’Nise: You said so many beautiful things there. I think what you said about menopause as a transition to another life and I love looking at menopause as a phase of life. We talk about puberty and then if a women who chooses to become a mother, you know, that’s a phase in life and then menopause being another phase of life and I think that’s a really powerful way of looking at it, because so many women, they do look at it as the end, you know, the end of their fertility, end of their womanhood and, you know, they call themselves being dried up and it’s so negative and it’s just, it’s so detrimental for mental well-being when you think about yourself like that.
Karen: I will say that you know, when you’re 20 you think 50 is dead, I’m 57 and I’ve done more in the last five years than I’ve done in, I would say a lifetime. I mean really if I think about it, you know, I feel that menopause and growing older and embracing this stage of my life has meant that it’s like, well, I’ve got nothing to lose, you know, if I’ve lived those 52 years I can do the next, do you see what I mean? And it’s not just about, yes, there is a sense of urgency as well and closer to death but at the same time, it’s also about appreciating my experience, you know, appreciating the skills you have, appreciating the wisdom you have just as we get to a stage where we’ve got so much to offer, it almost feels like we’re encouraged to kind of be a little bit quieter. But actually, this is where I found my voice and so it’s a time to experiment, it’s a time, I mean, what if you got to lose? Do you understand?
And I know everybody thinks like that but I really do want to reassure women that it’s not the end it’s the beginning of something else and it’s more fun because you don’t care. Yeah. So I recognise that I’m having an easier time the most physically, I understand that.
I recognise the privilege in that, please don’t get me wrong but I tell everybody, my clients. I had a client come to me a couple of weeks ago, potential client who is now a client and we were having a conversation. I always asked my clients, what do you love about your body and what is it that you’re not so hot on and they were always very vocal on what they don’t love. And this particular woman was talking about how she wanted to lose weight for her wedding and people were saying to her, she should lose the weight for her wedding and of course that sent me into orbit, didn’t it? Because I’m like, why? What? Why? Your partner fell in love with you based on the way you look now. So, you know, embracing the way you look and accentuating your gorgeous body, she didn’t see it that way.
You know, I think that women just need to understand how bloody remarkable we are, you know? And I think that starts, I think it’s important that the younger generation have that now so by the time I hit menopause, it’s just, they’ve got that mind-set already. What’s difficult is that we’re unlearning, my generation is unlearning a lot of things, whereas I think the people coming up, if we are talking about it, that it makes it easier for the generation below and easier for the generations that they birth.
Le’Nise: If you could say one thing to listeners, to the generation and below and like Millennials, Gen Z, what would you say to them?
Karen: Oh my god, I don’t know. Let go of everybody’s expectations of you. That’s what I would say. I think we, I know this isn’t one thing but I’m going to expand, our downfall, men and women, but we’re talking about women, is that we do what we think we’re supposed to do instead of doing what is in our heart and that makes us ill and that permeates everything, you know, you thought I was going to say, Wear Your Happy, didn’t you? But that’s part of it, wearing, you know, clothes that you love and not worrying about whether you’re in fashion or whether it suits you, whatever that means or whether someone will fancy you, is part of the letting go of other people’s expectations of you. So it does fit, sort of.
Le’Nise: I think that’s really beautiful. You’ve said so many beautiful things and I just, I just love you. I think you’re amazing and you’re such a wonderful role model. Where can listeners find out more about what you’re up to, what you’re planning?
Karen: I think the best thing to do is to join my mailing list and you can do so if you’re an Instagram fanatic that I am. You go to my link in my bio, you can do that, or go on to my website reddskin.co.uk. I’m very active on social media, so I guess that’s the best place to find me but certainly my mailing list is the way forward.
Le’Nise: And all the links will be in the show notes. Thank you so much, Karen, for coming on the show today.
Karen: Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me.