What does a woman with PCOS have to say?


I’ve never confined myself to traditional gender roles. In fact, I take active pleasure in defying them and have since before I realized that’s what I was doing. When I was in elementary school (and, to be honest, stir to this day) I loved to flex my biceps and prove myself stronger than the boys who interpreted my slight frame as a sign that I was weak. I was proud to be the “best man” at my brother’s wedding; and if the men I date don’t like that I ask them out, buy them flowers, and serenade them beneath their bedroom windows, then they aren’t worth my time.

I guess I could thank my body for being so in tune with my efforts to challenge traditional gender expectations, but I found it ironic when my ovaries and adrenal glands decided to support me in this quest. During my freshman year of college, my body began to produce an excessive amount of testosterone; soon, the hair on my head began falling out and hairs on my chin and upper lip began growing in. After an ultrasound, some MRIs, a few trips to the endocrinologist, and many blood tests, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

PCOS, the most common hormonal disorder among reproductive-age women, is characterized by imbalances in levels of androgens, like testosterone, and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Symptoms include infertility; weight gain; thinning of hair on the head; and growth of body hair on the chest, belly, face, and around the nipples. Women with PCOS are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and endometrial cancer. It’s also the most common cause of women’s infertility. (See: http://nwhn.org /polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos-o.)

Over the last four years, my weight has remained stable, and I don’t plan to even think about starting a family for at least a decade, so, thus far, hair growth and loss have been the most salient and challenging aspects of my experience with PCOS. This might not sound like a big deal, but the ways my body was changing–my hair falling out in some places and growing in other places it never had before–felt fundamentally in conflict with my gender identity and desired gender presentation. I am cisgender (I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. (1) In addition, I identify as a feminine cisgender woman. I don’t see myself as masculine when I do things like lift heavy boxes or ask men out on dates. Rather, I see this as my claiming and appropriating, as feminine, qualities that feel healthy and fulfilling to me, such as strength or assertiveness. To me, these qualities become feminine when I perform them because I identify as feminine.

So, while I may enjoy challenging gender-traditional roles and stereotypes, it feels good to physically present my gender–how I dress and style my body–in what I understand as a conventionally feminine way. As my body changed due to PCOS, I struggled to reconcile the changes happening with my body hair and my sense of self This struggle is rooted, I believe, in the disempowering and gendered language (both medical and non-medical) that describes these changes as “masculine”. This hampers my ability to talk about my body hair in a way that aligns with my feminine gender presentation.

For example, it’s incredibly jarring and uncomfortable for me that the only non-medical words I know to describe my changing body are so gendered and male: “male-patternrn baldness”, “beard”, “five o’clock shadow”. It has hurt to say these words out loud to describe myself because I don’t identify as, or want to be perceived as, masculine. Medical terminology also lacks many gender-neutral and female-gendered words to describe my condition. The PubMed Health website states: “PCOS can cause you to develop male-like characteristics. This is called virilization.” (2) I don’t presume that my experience of this language as disempowering is shared by others with PCOS but I found it grating to have these changes referred to as the development of “male-like characteristics.”

This dissonance wasn’t helped by the images I saw around me. All the TV commercials advertising hair loss treatments (like Rogaine, hair implants) featured middle-aged cisgender men. I don’t know a single gender-conforming cisgender woman with facial hair like mine. Without any models to show me broader images of what a beautiful (or even “normal”) woman can look like, I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment about my hair–despite a strong desire not to care about it. Specifically, it’s the facial hair that really made me wince; somehow, balding never bothered me that much. I even ended up shaving my head for fun last spring and loved how I looked without hair.

But, the facial hair was another story. For three years, I used bleach and laser hair removal to hide and remove my facial hair. I knew that shaving was an option, but I just couldn’t reconcile the mental image of a 14-year-old boy and his father shaving their faces together with my own feminine gender presentation. Then about a year ago, I had a conversation with two older women who said they occasionally shaved their chins to get rid of stubborn hairs. Hearing their stories helped me work up the courage to try shaving (and I say “courage” because I really felt like the moment I put the razor to my face I would feel drastically and disturbingly less feminine), and I haven’t gone back since. Now it seems absurd that even hair-removal techniques felt so gendered to me! Especially since shaving is so much less expensive and time-intensive, and is much more convenient for me. (*Shakes fist* Patriarchy!)

For a while, before I started shaving, I kept the hair on my head very long, so that it could hang over my face and cover any stubble I might have. I also sat or stood with my body closed off, with my hands over my chin, looking pensive or thoughtful–but really just trying to hide as much of my face as possible. But, what kind of body language is that? I wonder now how this self-compression and hiding my body shaped my interactions with people. When I realized the ways that I was letting my hair insecurities distort the tone and dynamic of my conversations, it was a turning point for me. That’s not what I wanted for myself.

This realization–plus a good strong dose of feminist outrage at the sexism that had invaded my consciousness and created such a sense of betrayal and disconnects from my body –helped me fight back, not against the ways my body has changed, but against the thought patterns that made me feel dissonance with, and shame about, my body. Now, I’ve decided this is just how my body is going to be. Better if I can accept this balding, bearded person as me, rather than continue to see my body hair as something alien that’s fundamentally in conflict with the “me” I know myself to be. I identify as a feminine cisgender woman, and so however my body looks and behaves is a normal, beautiful female body! I know now that my body itself is fertile territory for messing with gender and, by extension, the patriarchy, beyond–and in addition to–how I act to resist gender roles. Shaving my face each morning and looking in the mirror and thinking: “How gorgeous! How feminine!”–and now, sharing this experience with you all–are acts of political resistance for me.

Even as I work personally at reconceptualizing the changes my body is going through, I recognize that there is more work to be done. I want to live in a society that is less rigid, and less based on dichotomies about male vs. female–one in which there is a plurality of ways to be feminine or masculine, or both, or neither–and where we have language that reflects this reality. I hope we can get to the point where we celebrate diverse body types and gender presentations and create a new language that allows people to better define and describe their own bodies.

Source: National Women’s Health Network

Male, female, or a bit of both – that doesn’t matter to us. If you want your hair removed, come to Satori Laser and we’ll get rid of it no questions asked.

Tagged with: Informative pcos

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