What Every Woman Should Know About PCOS

Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/REX Shutterstock.
This story was originally published July 22, 2015. "Body positivity" is a much discussed ideal, but often in the context of a conventionally beautiful woman with the gentlest of curves or a wisp of armpit hair. Which is why I was so excited to learn about Harnaam Kaur. Earlier this month, I saw the 24-year-old British woman of Indian descent featured on a wedding blog. She was decked out in a floral-themed bridal spread, proudly showing off the beard she’s been growing since the age of 16. Yes, you read right: her beard. Kaur was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a disorder of the endocrine system that causes in women excessive hair growth, baldness, and weight gain. After years of waxing and shaving and being bullied, she decided to fully embrace herself, facial hair and all. This year, Kaur became a viral sensation, racking up 21,000 Instagram followers and making a name for herself as a body-positivity activist. “I decided to keep my beard and step forward against society’s expectations of what a woman should look like….Today I am happy living as a young, beautiful, bearded woman. I have realized that this body is mine, I own it, I do not have any other body to live in, so I may as well love it unconditionally,” said Kaur in the interview where I first discovered her. Those words meant a lot, especially to me: About one in every 10 women is diagnosed with PCOS — and I’m one of them. I first found out I had PCOS about a decade ago, in my early 20’s. Growing up, I had thick jet-black hair, the kind that South Asian women are known for. All throughout high school, I woke up, ran a brush through my hair, and walked out the door. I also had a mustache, which I took care of with Nair. Although it was annoying, I knew that copious amounts of body hair was just something that my foremothers had passed down to me. Waxing, plucking, threading — it’s all a part of being a woman in my community. But during my sophomore year of college, the pattern of hair growth on my face and body started to change. I was horrified by the coarse, thick hair growing on my chin and even on my cheeks. Finding random strands on my chest and shoulders was humiliating. I started going to the salon and getting threaded and waxed twice a week — once at the beginning and then on Thursday, before the weekend started. I was constantly paranoid about allotting enough time to hit up the salon before an event or a night out, and made sure I didn’t let too much time pass in between threading appointments. I was obsessed with banishing every single last strand of unwanted hair, but it always grew back, fast and furious. All that plucking, threading, and waxing also caused hyperpigmentation scars and pimples. My chin became bumpy with ingrowns from all the abuse. And if that wasn’t enough, the hair on my head started falling out in clumps, and I was rapidly gaining weight. My frustrations grew when I tried to find a solution to the random symptoms my body was being subjected to. I went to a series of dermatologists between 2004 and 2006, trying to find a remedy, but doctors dismissed my concerns, citing slight hormone imbalances, genetics, or paranoia. “You still have hair," they had said; "just try waxing" and "there's not much we can do." Or the worst: "It’s not that big of a deal."

The doctors would say, "It’s not that big of a deal."

But it was a big deal, and moreover, I knew my body. Something wasn’t right. I turned to the Internet and searched obsessively. Hundreds of search phrases later, I landed on Soul Cysters, a forum where women were sharing stories about the same physical things I was going through. And that’s how I finally figured it out: I had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I turned to Soul Cysters daily, and browsed the site for hours on end. I chatted with women on the forum and got a recommendation for a gynecologist that specializes in PCOS. She put me on birth control and spironolactone to manage my hormone levels and advised me to lose weight. I became a PCOS hypochondriac. PCOS affects everyone differently, but I was obsessed with worst-case scenarios. At 21, I lamented that I’d never have babies, as PCOS can affect fertility (I've since learned many women with PCOS have children). Because the voices inside my head are quite dramatic, I thought my life had ended. I worried about my boyfriend feeling my face stubble, discovering chest hair. I was paranoid about fluorescent lights bouncing off my ever-widening hair part. Every time I had a conversation with people, I wondered if they were staring at my bald spot. I even dumped my long-term Indian aesthetician after she tsk-tsked while yanking hair off my face. When I learned that there wasn’t an actual cure for PCOS, I became depressed. I was inconsistent with my medicines and my weight-loss regimen. I became resentful toward all the beautiful women in my life that didn’t have to worry about growing hair like a man and losing hair like a man. Why did I have to deal with an untreatable condition when no one else I knew did?

I eloped with someone I didn’t love because he thought I was beautiful, and I was desperate to believe that about myself.

My love life was also a hot mess over the next few years. I moved from one bad relationship to another in search of validation that I was attractive. I even eloped with someone I didn’t love but merely liked, mostly because he thought I was beautiful and I was desperate to believe that about myself. For obvious reasons, the marriage barely lasted a year, and I was divorced at 25. In an effort to start over after my fledgling matrimony ended, I took a job in San Francisco and moved across the country, leaving Queens, NY, where I’d lived all my life, for the first time. One of the first orders of business when I got to SF was to look for a new aesthetician. I resumed my twice-weekly threading and waxing regimen with someone new, and I was uncomfortable. When I complained to a friend, she asked me why I never considered laser hair removal. The truth is, I’d been thinking about it for several years. With her push, I found an online deal for a place with a decent Yelp review, and decided to give it a shot. I was scared it wouldn't work, but I made an impulsive decision to throw down a credit card and called to schedule an appointment. It took a few sessions to see any results, but, boy, was it worth it. My face was smooth for the first time in years. I no longer had to trek to the salon twice a week. My success with laser hair removal encouraged me to tackle my other struggles with PCOS. I began paying attention to my diet, exercised more regularly, and became more consistent with my medicines. Sporting a full beard is obviously not for everyone — I am thrilled with my decision to get laser hair removal. Now, at 31, my struggles with PCOS are finally getting better, but I still wish I'd had a role model like Harnaam Kaur. And sometimes, on the days I do feel a little down on myself, I thumb through her Instagram and just bask a little in her body positivity. It just about always does the trick.

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