I knew something was wrong with my lady parts when I was fully (very fully) developed at age 15 and had yet to start my periods. By this point, all of my friends who were far less womanly were menstruating for years. I didn’t think much of it other than a sense of missing out on the big bang of womanhood. I had period FOMO. But I never considered that there could actually be something wrong with my reproductive system because at 15 ― who’s even thinking about their reproductive parts?
I finally got inducted into the hall of menses as I was about to turn 16. I woke up and thought I’d been shot in the vagina. It looked like a crime scene and I was thrilled. I would finally be able to use maxi-pads! Hooray for my ovaries; they’ve really matured, I thought. I was proud of my body and how it finally did what it was supposed to do. But then the periods disappeared again and would pop in like an unwanted house guest once every lunar eclipse. I can count on two hands how many times I’ve had a period. But what it lacked in frequency it made up in intensity. They were epic periods.
In college, I decided to seek professional advice about these unruly and unpredictable cycles and went to first gynecologist, named Dr. Ho. For real. She was lovely and after doing an ultrasound quickly diagnosed me with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Basically, my ovaries are sluggish and do a half ass job ovulating. They start the process but can’t see it to fruition. So instead of eggs dropping and either getting fertilized resulting in pregnancy, or getting lonely in there and decide to slough off with the uterine lining ― my ovaries do neither. They start to make the eggs but stop midway resulting in these blobby follicles all around the periphery of the ovaries. On ultrasound, it looks like the ovaries are wearing a pearl necklace. They may be slow but they’re formal.
So without dropping eggs every month, there’s no period... and by definition no way to get pregnant naturally either. So I knew fairly early that I would be fertile-challenged. As a college student, that wasn’t even on my radar of concerns and I truthfully didn’t care too much that I never had a period. It was convenient, actually.
But there were a few things about PCOS that really made my radar, even in college. Or maybe especially in college. Women with PCOS often have an excess of male hormones so they can get thinning hair on their head but very robust hair growth elsewhere. If you didn’t feel feminine because you had no menstrual cycle, growing a beard is not going to help. Thankfully, I have Ashkenazi Jewish hair and I actually wished it would thin out sometimes. I haven’t experienced thinning hair. But the robust growth elsewhere- check. Laser hair removal simultaneously became my closest ally and my worst enemy. The pain. Oh my GOD, the pain. I had a natural delivery on maximum dose pitocin and I’m not sure which is more painful ― laser hair removal or druglessly birthing an unnaturally large headed child. But as a woman who conforms to Western beauty standards, I felt compelled to take care of business in the hirsute department.
Acne is another joy of PCOS. Because if you’re already growing a beard and going bald why not throw in adolescent acne? But the most distressing part of PCOS, besides the obvious pain of infertility (this post is about vanity, people. Read my other posts about IVF on the HuffPo site) is the notorious “difficulty losing weight” symptom of this syndrome. It’s unreal how hard it is. There’s such a lack of understanding about PCOS and weight loss that no one has much insight into the phenomena and certainly no brilliant ways to solve the problem. The difficulty losing weight is what sends me over the edge with PCOS. I have to eat like a bulimic supermodel for my body to even start considering shedding pounds. Even if i work out regularly (which I do) and eat fairly decently (again- check) I can only hope to maintain weight. Actual weight loss only happens if I drastically change (restrict) my diet. And who wants to do that?? Especially if you’ve struggled with restrictive-binge eating cycles. So I don’t overly restrict. I don’t usually overindulge, but have been known to dabble in some Cinnamon Toast Crunch every so often. And by dabble I mean a few bowls. Most people can commit that indiscretion with no obvious consequences. I gain 1-2 pounds if I go on a carb kick for one night.
My endocrinologist suggested low or no carbs because women with PCOS have insulin resistance so decreasing carbohydrate intake decreases insulin demand and increases fat burn. But carbs are life. So, no. I do limit refined flours and sugars though. Because I would gain weight like Jared Leto in the role of Mark Chapman if I ate donuts with abandon.
PCOS is a real disorder that at its core strips you of femininity in the Western standard of the word. I wish I could say I didn’t subscribe to 21st century definitions of beauty and the patriarchy that is at its root. I would be full of shit if I said that and I’m now known for my honesty so no can do. I am most definitely a victim of the sexist, unattainable beauty standards in this country. To be thin and hairless is mandatory in 2016. For women with PCOS, this is nearly impossible. So we either have to dig deep and become comfortable with what our bodies can and can not do or else we will be slaves to the laser and diet industry forever. And even then the outcome is iffy. It’s our choice in the end. I am trying mightily to embrace the body I have- with all of it’s curves and rolls and width. I don’t do laser hair removal anymore because I stopped being willing to have my face burned every month so I occasionally will have a few rogue hairs on my face. And I somehow survive and am still standing.
So even with my slow lady parts, my slow metabolism and my non-existent fertility ― I am still all woman. Even with my love handles and hairy thighs. This is what it means to be a woman with a choice. I choose to embrace what nature has dictated. Sometimes I’m successful. Other times, I still hate what I see in the mirror. But in the end, I have a choice to be miserable or to be content. I’m aiming for more content days than not. That’s good enough for now.