Some say that the high school locker room is where self-esteem goes to die, but for me it was in a hot tub on New Year’s Eve. Three friends and I sat in the water, shoulders-deep, fingers upturned into the frigid air to proudly clasp our virgin ciders. When I caught Erica eyeing the strip of stomach my bathing suit left vulnerable, the words that came tumbling from her mouth made me flinch before they even landed.
“You know, you’re pretty hairy there.”
There are no words to explain the emotional recoil when, as a preteen girl, someone points out hair on you anywhere else but on your head.
It was an innocuous statement, fuelled by nothing more than a knee-jerk, childlike curiosity, but Dana and Kate tittered on either side of her. Since we’d been friends since kindergarten, the two of them had had ample opportunity to point out and attempt to “remedy” my cystic acne, which, since the third grade, had erupted across my face, chest, neck, and back. I’d be lying if I said I remembered what my response was, but that revulsion—rising like bile in my throat, pressing like a tongue against the backs of my teeth—lingers.
When I was growing up, no one spoke to me about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). I didn’t hear about it until, after being voted the “ugliest girl in the school” for the second consecutive year by Dana’s current boyfriend, I frantically Googled my symptoms, searching for a scapegoat to pin my appearance on. When I found it, the relief I felt at finally having an explanation for why I looked the way I did, was equivalent to a tsunami.
Believed to be one of the most common heterogeneous disorders found in women, PCOS is said to affect between 5 and 10 percent of women of reproductive age. Due primarily to an insulin resistance, the body compensates by ramping up insulin production, which in turn leads to excess androgens in the body. What does that mean? It means that myself and 1 in 10 other women suffer from symptoms that can include hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face, stomach, and back), cystic acne, male-pattern balding, menstrual complications, obesity, diabetes, ovarian cysts and potential infertility.
I can’t imagine how, as a parent, it feels to watch your child struggle so fiercely with themselves, and to witness them miss out on so much of their childhood because of it.
As a teenager, classes were spent obsessing over whether people were staring at my acne; breaks were reserved for sitting at the foot of my locker, too convinced of rejection to reach out to my friends; recreational soccer was spent comparing my body to other girls’ long, hairless legs and budding breasts. After meals, I started shoving a toothbrush down my throat until I at least dry-heaved.
Along with my acne, my body became my biggest insecurity. The ring of fat around my stomach always made me feel as though I looked pregnant, and since my breasts had never come in due to my excess level of androgens, I had no fat on my chest to balance it out. My relationship with food, which at one time skewed toward binge-eating, had become a balancing act of eating a handful of almonds a day to ward off bloating.
Looking back, it’s hard to justify how deeply this all crippled me. Boys were mean to me — so what? So many have the same sob story. But in my senior year, I felt like I was on an island, surrounded by friends who kept me around to pick at my insecurities, but walled off by my own self-hatred.
It was shortly after my graduation that my mother approached me about breast augmentation surgery. Her best friend had recently gotten liposuction done by a local surgeon and was raving about her newfound confidence. Tentatively, as she told me after, my mom asked if she thought it would help my self-esteem. Her friend answered yes, absolutely, and passed the surgeon’s information along.
While I was told by clinic doctors that I was too young and underweight for liposuction, getting breast augmentation would address a huge source of my bodily insecurity. Even though both my mother and father believed that I was wonderful and normal the way I was, we all felt that the surgery would help me normalize my body type, help me feel confident enough to date, and hopefully stabilize both my relationship with food and my overall self-esteem.
I can’t imagine how, as a parent, it feels to watch your child struggle so fiercely with themselves, and to witness them miss out on so much of their childhood because of it. While my eyes welled up with joy at my mother’s offer, her face looked sad, guilty, and hopeful all at once. My parents made me promise not to undergo any more cosmetic surgeries after this.
The procedure was scheduled for the following summer, shortly after the completion of my first year of university. Throughout the four pre-operation appointments, I felt nothing but anticipation. I spoke to the surgeon about my relationship to my PCOS, and she said that if either of her two daughters struggled with the same intense self-depreciation, she would offer the exact same surgery. We worked together to settle on an size that would look the most natural. Due to the severe underdevelopment of my natural breasts, we’d be adjusting my barely A-cups to modest B-cups.
I wish I could say that when the cast was peeled from my chest, ripping patches of skin off with it, that I felt like a butterfly breaking free from a cocoon, but I didn’t.
Does the operation hurt? Absolutely. When I woke up in the recovery room, nausea roared to life almost instantaneously. I spent the day recovering in the hospital, dry-heaving, caught between elation and the pain-induced paralysis that gripped me from the waist up.
I spent three weeks of recovery cocooned on my family’s living room couch, unable to shower or use my arms for fear of tearing the stitches, drinking a cocktail of pain medications and antibiotics that left me in a miserable half-awake haze, punctuated by pain and nausea.
I wish I could say that when the cast was peeled from my chest, ripping patches of skin off with it, that I felt like a butterfly breaking free from a cocoon, but I didn’t. I didn’t suddenly look or feel like Pamela Anderson. I was the same mousy 19-year-old with the stray dark chin hairs and untoned belly and rosacea-ridden cheeks. But it felt like a start.
Now, at 21, I still have an immovable ring of fat around my abdomen, but getting breast augmentation gave me the confidence to rise above my depression and focus on nutrition and exercise. Even though my skin is still a battleground from over 10 years of cystic acne, I can deal with it without feeling suicidal; despite the scars that encircle my belly button from years of ingrown hairs, I can take my shirt off now without it feeling as though they’re a glowing neon sign.
While I still have fixations about my body, being able to do things like wear bras, bathing suits, and crop tops without feeling othered has been immeasurably healing for me. Of course, feeling better about yourself doesn’t have to start with a boob job. While I felt that that was the best way forward for me personally, there are so many other avenues you can take in your pursuit of healthy self-esteem.
If you are suffering with PCOS, you are not abnormal. You are worthy of self-confidence, and it would be such a shame to isolate yourself away from the rest of the world because of something as minor as your appearance. Do what you need to feel the absolute best about yourself, but whatever you do, don’t forget to live.