By Heer Cheema
“Kya aap ko hormone problem hai?” [Do you have a hormone problem?] probed the hair laser technician. This wasn’t the first time someone had reacted to the coarse black hair that covered my jaw and neck, but the irony of this particular situation wasn’t lost on me. Here I was in Dr. Zarqa’s hair laser clinic attempting to rid my person of any signs associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which indeed could be described as a hormone problem, only to be caught out. Perhaps, even more ironically, my efforts to hide my condition from the world had cemented PCOS as central to my identity. Indeed, far from being able to distance myself from the label of PCOS, I had become inextricably tied to it.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome outside of being a mouthful is also, interestingly, a misnomer. The name suggests that the primary symptom of this condition is ovarian cysts – I have learnt this isn’t true. I understand that being hairy is just one of the cards I’ve been dealt as a young South Asian woman, but being hairy is distinct from being hirsute. As I turned sixteen and saw areas of my body that had never been hairy before turn so, it was distressing; the peach fuzz on my thighs, chest, and upper arms began to darken and turn thicker. It was surreal. I felt I had been thrust into the pages of an age-old fairytale where I, a young woman, was cursed to roam the earth as a beast.
However, my tale was far from over, for as the hair on my body grew coarser, the hairs on my head began to wither and fall. I would run a brush through my hair only to pull out strands upon strands of it – a graveyard of brown curls. The effects of PCOS on my body were undeniable; this wasn’t just a question of cysts on ovaries, but visible changes in how my body looked, and hence, how I felt in my body. The NHS website reports that PCOS is associated with “high levels of male hormones” in women. The hair loss and hirsutism I was experiencing as a result of excess androgens, struck at the heart of what formed my femininity. In other words, the conventionally feminine lines that had delineated my body were dissolving, and I was left a strange hybrid between the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’.
PCOS can cause abrupt changes in how one’s body functions. Reconciling these changes is no easy task. The sterile, medical jargon that details the symptoms of PCOS cannot speak to the emotional turmoil that one experiences as a result of it. Though its symptoms vary across women, from hirsutism, weight gain, acne and hair loss to irregular periods and infertility, the fall-out from PCOS on women’s mental health can be found across the board. This is true even for my peers in the microcosm that is LUMS. Ameena Naweed’22, a sophomore, reveals her personal struggle of grappling with symptoms often associated with PCOS: “I have dark spots around my neck and an unusual amount of stretch marks on my body”. She stresses that she is “conscious” of herself and has become aware of her body in ways that she wasn’t before. Marha Fathma’23, another LUMS student who has been diagnosed with PCOS, highlights the “perpetual anxiety and fear” that accompanies her unpredictable period cycles.
These feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem are far from trivial. They stem from the discomfort that arises from not being able to recognize your own body. Against this backdrop, my need to visit Dr. Zarqa’s clinic in a bid to return to ‘normal’ is not surprising. I wanted to combat the alienation I felt from myself. However, such solutions have their limits – what we actually need to do is expand the word ‘normal’. PCOS bodies with their hirsutism and hair loss should be recognized as feminine bodies. Marginalizing them is not only detrimental to the mental health of women with PCOS, but perpetuates a superficial understanding of femininity. By viewing these bodies as aberrations we are determining women’s identities around them having PCOS; narrowing who they are to just one aspect of their identity.
The U.S National Library of Medicine reports that the prevalence of PCOS in women worldwide is as “high as 21 percent”. The sheer number of women affected by PCOS speaks to the diversity in female bodies; exposing the popular archetype of a woman as a falsehood. Indeed, realizing there is a community of ‘PCOSers’ helps to mitigate much of the distress associated with having PCOS, because you no longer feel you are on the periphery. It is, perhaps, equally crucial to recognize that while these women are bound to each other by the label PCOS, they are not defined by it. So, though I still find myself in the waiting room of Dr. Zarqa’s clinic, I have stopped viewing myself primarily as a woman with PCOS – instead I form part of the crowd.
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