Naomi Watts knows you’ve just about had it with celebrity beauty brands. It’s a phenomenon that could make the launch of her new body care brand, Stripes, seem ill timed. But the actor isn't just piggybacking on a buzzy industry as a cash grab. For one, she’s been in the space since 2014, as cofounder of beauty retailer Onda. More importantly, she’s doing something other A-lister brands aren't: amplifying a taboo topic to build community and break stigma.
The topic? Menopause, a life phase so shrouded in secrecy that Watts herself didn’t see it coming (when she first developed symptoms at just 36 years old), much less, know what to do with it. Considering the research — which shows women and health professionals alike have misconceptions about how hormonal changes connect to the biological and psychological conditions of menopause — the timing for a brand like Stripes couldn’t come soon enough.
"[An influx of celebrity beauty brands] seems to be happening and I can't explain why,” she says. “For me, personally, I felt like I was going through something that I was pretty sure other people could identify with and so it felt like there was a space for it. It felt necessary.”
The actor took her calling seriously. She partnered with biotech giant Amyris (the company behind brands like Biossance and Rose Inc.) and took years to develop the “scalp-to-vag” body care formulas. But she’s also working to create community and open dialogue around menopause. “It’s not just what you put on your skin or hair. It was about the whole approach — making a good product, but also having the ethos, values, and an advertising campaign in which consumers see their honest story reflected.”
Ahead, we talk to the brand founder, just after her 51st birthday, about why normalizing menopause matters and how she plans to forge societal change through a body care brand with purpose.
There’s a lot of secrecy and misinformation around menopause. What’s something you heard about this life phase that is most surprising or shocking to you?
“The average age thing kind of gets me worked up because, at 36, I obviously was nowhere near the average age of someone who experiences menopause. I was much earlier and I feel like, when you get into averages, it just sort of makes it feel like shame is there, and it feels like, ‘Gosh, why? Why am I the only one going into menopause early?’
But, as it turns out, lots of people start the beginning of perimenopause much earlier than 50. But we didn't know that. I knew that my mother went into menopause at 45, but I didn't have any details surrounding that. I didn't know that perimenopause was even a word. There's so much that just creates confusion and anxiety and shame. So, the whole point of creating this brand was to eliminate the stigma surrounding it, which has just been there for generations upon generations. Women have been basically told to suck it up and cope because the lack of information, support, care, and community just gives you the message that you're supposed to stay silent and that you're otherwise invisible. So, that is an incredibly jarring concept.
To that point, it feels like there are many instances within the health care space in which women are told to suck it up or even that we’re imagining conditions or symptoms. So, by the time we get to menopause, maybe we're used to blindly absorbing pain? What do you think?
“Menopause feels like maybe the last one left untouched — and it's a pretty big one because it's a massive change in one's life. It's the bookend to puberty. If you're left alone, you really turn in on yourself. You're left to your own devices to cope physically and emotionally. It's not a good way to experience it. So it was very necessary for the door to be opened, and I'm pretty sure that just by opening it a crack, many people are coming out screaming, saying ‘Yes! Let's talk about it! Let's get comfy with it!’
I can see how women haven’t wanted to talk about this phase of life publicly because even acknowledging you’re of age to go through menopause can feel like a trap — it can remind coworkers, bosses, significant others of how old you are, which might lead them to believe you should be put out to pasture, or some other ageist nonsense. Hollywood is so rooted in this thinking, right?
I'm in my fifties. If I have to only play the old lady from here on out, so be it. I love my job as an actor. I love telling stories — and if those stories are only coming from an older lady’s point of view, they're just as powerful and meaningful. This demographic [of women over fifty] is a large percentage of the population.
I'm hearing a lot of self-confidence here.
I did a lot of thinking in the dark. So I was pretty sure that [this venture was] meaningful enough to take that risk. I certainly went through fears and they still arise. It’s not like, ‘well, I know I'm doing the right thing’. You know, I have voices in my head sometimes going, ‘Ah! What have I done?’ In terms of feeling connected to other women and reflecting on women who have largely gone unserved and unreflected, those benefits feel like they're going to outweigh the risk which is, what? [Being told] ‘You’re an old person now. You're no longer sexy or you won't be able to play that character?’ So be it.
OK. So we’ve identified a professional or societal risk in talking about menopause. But the catch is: the way we normalize things is by talking about them. What’s your perspective on how to minimize the feeling of risk and ultimately, overcome the stigma?
Lifting the stigma can't exist with just a few people talking about it. It exists by all of us opening wide and getting shouty and loud, because half the population will go through menopause at some point — and they will be affected by it in large ways or, or manageable ways. It's a natural phase of life and right now, [women experiencing menopause] are almost one billion strong. But the other half of the population — whether it’s husbands, fathers, brothers — is probably going to experience menopause indirectly, so we should just all get comfortable with it. Let’s just open it up and examine it. For my generation, that means bolstering each other and figuring out how best to cope, whether it's medically speaking, emotionally speaking, through product. Let’s really prepare the younger generation for a much more manageable time. Let's exchange stories with real people and hopefully, create real solutions.
How will Stripes encourage communication about menopause?
I started with the idea of beauty products to address hydration issues, from scalp to vag. But it also comes from a truthful story of my own and wanting to share it because menopause was a difficult time for me and I didn't know how to navigate it. I didn't have a community and I didn't know where to go for each product. So, in making this brand, it became very clear that, in order to get people interested, we needed a platform, a place for people to come and feel like they're part of something.
It's hopefully going to be like a one-stop shop that takes all the cherry picking and fear and anxiety away. We want to create a platform that builds and grows a community by [listening to] and sharing real people's stories. The website is already launched in a soft way and we're collecting people's stories because people do want to share and that's the whole point: to create a collective place for anyone to find support and the information.
The other basis of the Stripes community is education. Our plan is to collect all the current data and research and share what we learn as it’s published. We have a board of advisors who are doctors and will contribute their expertise. Yeah, we're just at the beginning and we’ll learn from the consumers' needs as we go. [But I see it as a place] for people to yell and scream, b*tch and moan — and laugh as well. Certainly, humor is a big piece of it, because we know that humor diffuses awkwardness and pain a lot of the time.
There are cooling mists, vaginal lubricants, and facial moisturizers already in the beauty space that are made for menopausal skin. How did your experience with skin changes in menopause guide new-to-market offerings created for Stripes?
It’s the pairing of the two ingredients, squalane and Ectoine [to hydrate skin]. [Though Ectoine used in Stripes products is produced through fermentation, the molecule can originally be found in bacteria that thrives in salty lakes; It has been shown in studies to be well tolerated in humans, improve hydration of the cell’s surface, and work as a long-term moisturizer that prevents dehydration in skin.] The two ingredients together really target the loss of hydration that a menopausal women experiences from scalp to vag due to depletion of estrogen. So they are in nearly all of our products. I'm having such a great result with Stripes The Power Move – Ectoine Hydrating & Plumping Facial Serum, which is my star product in the line so far. It’s made with Ectoine and squalene, but also five different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid and Poria cocos mushroom extract. Although it can be layered under a moisturizer in colder months, [it’s so hydrating that] it really acts as a moisturizer on its own.
Given the community you’re working to create didn’t exist when you started going through menopause, what do you wish you knew about this phase of life going in?
Well, 33% of women are going to have strong to severe symptoms. So the chances are, if you walk through a difficult time with this, you're going to find someone else right there in your community or your small circle of friends that can identify with it. To know that there's people out there would have been helpful. I tried to connect with people on it, but didn't feel like the discussion was open at the time, so I sort of retreated and turned it on myself. But knowing that we're about 1 billion strong; the story is out there and it's time for it to be heard. We can embrace this time, approach it with vibrancy, and not be apologetic.
How did menopause impact your sense of self or confidence or mental health as a whole?
There were cumulative experiences, ups and downs, successes and failures, and recovering. It did lead me to being more willing to take risks based on knowing that I can get through and not caring what other people think as much. That's where the confidence comes through. It’s really one of the benefits of aging. That and I think hormones are mood drivers: Not being a victim to my hormones anymore makes me feel like I make better decisions.
That sounds liberating, which is a wonderful way of reframing popular menopause logic. What was something you absolutely expected going into menopause?
Hot flashes. I think it’s the number one thing people think of when they think: menopause. But yeah they are something. They’re not nothing!
What didn't you expect to experience with menopause?
I didn't expect to get there as early as I did. That definitely put the fear of God in me because it bumped right up to when I had met the right partner and decided that I wanted to create a family. I didn't know that I was probably in perimenopause at 36, and as I was getting ready to have children. So that was pretty freaky. And then things like migraines. I didn't know migraines were going to be a part of my life. I didn't know that itchy, irritable, angry skin was going to be a thing. I really went down the rabbit hole with that, because I was on camera all the time and I felt like I was allergic to the products that my makeup artist was using. We did all kinds of alterations before I realized that some ingredients must have been clashing with my hormones — which is something that didn’t seem to happen before.