Linda Barker says one of the most upsetting symptoms of the menopause for her was hair loss.
“I had frontal lobe alopecia for a while – horrible, you know? Thank goodness it stopped, for some women it doesn’t stop,” says the 61-year-old.
The TV personality and interior designer, who rose to fame on BBC’s Changing Rooms in the 1990s, says she wasn’t offered any help by doctors.
“[They said] Oh, we don’t deal with hair loss. It’s like, I’m not a bloke, I’m a woman in her 50s who’s experiencing some hair loss. I’m a woman, for Christ’s sake. That was awful.”
Hair loss and thinning is a common menopause symptom, but still taboo in many ways. As a woman, Barker felt her hair was “an identity, your crowning glory”, adding: “Silly in many ways, I know, but that’s just the way it is.”
She first started experiencing menopause symptoms at 48, including brain fog, hot flushes and anxiety – which she found particularly difficult to deal with.
“I felt anxious in a way that I never had done before, slightly panicky before events. I’ve done live events and telly [for years] and nothing really bothered me. And then all of a sudden, I found that I was anxious about turning up to certain events,” Barker explains.
“I remember going to a speaking event and was just utterly in panic,” she shares. “I just didn’t want to do it, I was dreading it and my mind was taking over, going, ‘You can’t do it’. I was driving and I thought, ‘I don’t mind if my car breaks down’.”
The forgetfulness she experienced was “hideous” too. “Forgetting where your keys are or forgetting people’s names. It’s like, why am I not as sharp as I used to be?”
One particular hot flush has stayed with her, she says.
“I’d got a massage and I was on the massage table and had this sweat, I was wet through, it was so embarrassing and I didn’t know what to say,” Barker recalls. “But now you would just automatically have that conversation, because it’s in everyone’s vocabulary.”
Barker has been joining the menopause dialogue herself with her latest project – the brilliantly-named Changing Wombs. The three-part YouTube series with Essity features Barker alongside her 30-year-old daughter Jess, to share advice and empower her with more information about menopause than she had at her age.
As was the case for many families, menopause wasn’t even mentioned when Barker was growing up in Shelf, West Yorkshire.
“My mum certainly didn’t talk about it – she had four daughters and she still didn’t talk about it! I just don’t think it was part of their dialogue, it was kind of ‘put up and shut up’ in her generation, this is a woman’s lot, don’t complain,” she says. “It was hushed, it was like, pretend it doesn’t happen.”
Barker didn’t actually see a GP about her symptoms for three years.
“The little information out there was so shabby, HRT was always linked to cancer. So I put it off, I thought, ‘Get over the symptoms – this is a natural experience and I want to experience it’. In the end, I think I was just a bit deluded!”
At the time, there weren’t many older female role models in the public eye, she adds, and going through menopause can be a stark reminder of the realities of age.
“I witnessed high-profile women I’d look up to losing their jobs, [amid] talk about their age, lying about their age – that was very much the conversation around my late 40s and 50s. Women saying, ‘Oh no, I’ve not had Botox or a facelift, I’m 45, instead of 55’.”
Ageing felt shameful, she agrees: “But only for women – it still is to a certain extent,” Barker adds.
Thankfully, things have been changing, and there are far more older women on TV now.
“It’s so lovely to have older women presenting, it’s just a joy,” says Barker. “Nothing is stopping us – we are valuable, important women with as much of an opinion, if not more because we don’t really sweat the small stuff anymore.
“The world’s not just full of able, agile 20, 30, 40-year-olds, it’s full of able, agile, 50, 60, 70-year-olds as well.”
It was the menopause that prompted Barker to try to “be the healthiest” she could be and has even had her DNA tested (“I’m quite into personalised medicine”). And on the whole, she feels positive about getting older.
“That’s not to say you don’t have dark moments, when you think, flipping heck – I am quite old! But I’m really healthy, I’m really strong, I’m actively seeking to improve my business, my career, my life. I want to do more stuff perhaps than I did when I was younger.” Anyone who watched Barker wow in ITV diving challenge reality show Splash! back in 2013, will know she takes her fitness seriously. She has a gym space in her home, and does weights, yoga and Pilates.
“I’m very active, I’ve got to do something every day,” Barker reasons. “For me, it’s essential that I get up and move.”
Changing Wombs is a menopause series commissioned by global hygiene and health company Essity to launch their online menopause community issviva.co.uk. See youtube.com/Essity