CW: This article contains discussions of mental and menstrual health which some readers may find distressing.
When I first started my period, I was overjoyed. As a ten-year-old girl, it made me feel all grown up. Periods were an excuse to lounge around with a hot water bottle watching reruns of The Powerpuff Girls, right? Within a few cycles, my excitement had morphed into anxiety. My cartoon heroes, Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup flew around my screen fighting evil in Townsville. I couldn't even fight off my excruciating period cramps.
I would miss school and withdraw from social situations. Constant nausea and lack of sleep made my mental health suffer.
Then, the first clump of my hair fell out. Countless visits to my GP yielded little result. They refused to explore the possibility of an underlying condition; instead, they accused me of attention-seeking. If I was telling the truth, my only solution was to lose weight. Losing weight, doctors claimed, would "cure" my pain. Thirteen years and a PCOS diagnosis later, I felt vindicated. Connecting with an online community of PCOS sufferers was both comforting and disheartening. My dismissal at the hands of doctors was a shared experience.
What is PCOS?
In the UK, approximately 1 in 10 people assigned female at birth suffer from PCOS, also known as polycystic ovary syndrome. The main symptoms are irregular periods, infertility, and sleep problems. It is challenging to treat and even harder to diagnose, with people waiting up to 5 years to receive their diagnosis. Although the most common symptoms are invisible, the hormonal issues associated with PCOS can affect your appearance. Increased testosterone levels promote the growth of hair on the body and face. The hair on your head can thin or fall out entirely.
Insulin resistance can cause weight gain and makes it harder to lose weight. A 2017 study showed that PCOS sufferers are 4x more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
PCOS and body image
At the 2023 Endocrine Society Summit in Chicago, leading researchers discussed the startling correlation between PCOS and negative body image. Their findings demonstrate the need for increased awareness and improved treatment for the mental effects of PCOS.
Demanding beauty standards put thin, hairless bodies on a pedestal. For many people with PCOS, this feels unattainable. PCOS sufferer Andie F says…
Seeing my PCOS beard on my face, the excess weight in my jeans and knowing there is a possibility I can never conceive often make me feel like I am not a woman, or at least not a good one.
Help is available
If you have, or suspect you have PCOS, there is help available.
Verity is a UK-based charity that advocates for better awareness of PCOS. Made up entirely of volunteers, Verity works tirelessly to make a tangible difference in the lives of those with PCOS. Amongst their many achievements, they provide an online community that offers much-needed peer support. You can find out more and get involved here.