A couple of months before my 15th birthday, my mum took me into the doctor’s surgery. The following weeks revolved around concerned parents, blood tests, lots of doctors including paediatricians, gynaecologists, endocrinologists and even radiologists and finally a diagnosis of PCOS.
PCOS, short for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, is an endocrinological disorder which affects the hormones oestrogen and testosterone. It results in multiple small follicles (eggs) in the ovaries which struggle to mature. The main result of this is irregular periods. The high testosterone results in male pattern hair growth and skin problems.
At the time I wasn’t particularly bothered by this diagnosis. Not having periods? That was not exactly a hardship. I was told that I might have fertility problems in the future but as I was sat there aged 14 with my dad, I actually laughed out loud. Who cared about fertility problems? Children were most definitely not on the cards. And the excess hair growth didn’t bother me. I went to an all-girls school and we were all young females. Ready to challenge the socio-normative for women by growing leg hair and being proud feminists.
At home, I enjoyed the attention at having a disorder and both my parents, the intellectual professionals that they were treated it as a problem which had to be logically reduced. So I went on a diet and lost enough weight for my symptoms to evaporate and my period cycles to return to regular 28 day cycles. For all intents and purposes I was a totally normal 16 year old girl. In fact I was the point of envy for quite a few because I looked good now. My progressive and open-minded parents hosted large parties and I was allowed to wear cool dresses where other people’s parents were still holding curfews and refusing to listen to their young teenagers on matters such as women’s health and feminism.
Perhaps it was this little bubble of safety that I grew up in, both at school and at home, where I was encouraged to discuss womanly issues and be proud of however I looked, that it came as a shock when for the first time I noticed people staring at me. People shied away from discussing gynaecological problems with me as if I had spoken about terrorism or offended their religion. I would be told that ‘this wasn’t polite conversation’ and ‘to not embarrass my self’
When the first time a near stranger pointed out to me that I had hair on my chin it came as a shock. Not because he said something that wasn’t true, because PCOS meant that I did indeed (and still do) have hair on my face, but it shocked me because he said it with a snigger. As if having hair on my face made me inferior to other women. Soon it became a regular occurrence for people to casually and sometimes not so casually point out or ask me why I had hair on my face and chest. Again, the actual line of questioning didn’t matter to me. To me it was the same as if somebody asked me why I wore contact-lenses. But it was the sympathetic, slightly repulsed attitude that made me feel confused, slightly hurt but mostly indignant. What had happened to the world between me being a teenager in my all-girls school and me becoming an adult? One university-friend of mine stared at me in abject horror and said: ‘why do you like having hair on your chin? Can’t you do something about it?” Well, sorry, I remember thinking. Sorry that hair frightens you so much that you must shy away from it. Maybe close your eyes and walk away?
I still remember one day when a well-meaning relative of mine said to me that I’d look so much better if I just had the hair treated. By this point, I had had PCOS for 6 years and the weight gain, the spots and the hair were all getting too much. Me, someone who did not take any notice of fashionable mainstream trends for women, was forced, out of insecurity to do something about my condition.
Over the next few years and now, I have become much more self-aware, more accepting of who I am and become an expert at my own disorder. What have I not tried?
- Contraceptive pills to regulate my cycle
- Weight loss then weight gain and then weight loss again
- Waxing to remove hair
- Creams to take care of the spots and acne
- Blood tests and regular check ups to make sure I’m not developing any other illness due to PCOS.
And today I was sitting in the clinic with topical anaesthetic on my chest, waiting with dread for the technician to come back and begin my 14th laser hair treatment.
And this thought came to me: I am so comfortable now. With myself, with who I am, with what I am and more importantly with what I have. It is peaceful.
Living with a life long condition such as mine can make or break you. It can be all you ever do or you can adapt your life around it. And for me, taking control of PCOS brought me the most peace and happiness. I still get conscious and despite my all-girls school upbringing and supportive, progressive parents, I still struggle to be accepted and be socially acceptable. It is an inherent human need to fit in and be perceived normal, isn’t it.
But as I study medicine and as I slowly grow up, I realise there is no such thing as ‘normal’. We’re unique and I wish that I grow up and become a human who can appreciate beauty in all its natural glorious forms. Certainly, I hope I will grow up to be the kind of doctor who understands pain and socially difficult situations. My gynaecologist once smiled at me and said : “You’re fine just as you are, but if you don’t like how you look, you have the right to change it.”
And that’s the crux of it really. If I am okay with how I am then others should also be okay with how I am. I should change myself, if I am not happy with myself. Not because of some external pressures.
Keep smiling. Keep being you.