I’ve been looking back at where I came from, in terms of SELF: self-image, self-esteem, self-criticism, self-repression, self-consciousness, and self-loathing. It’s been a worthwhile trek through the back forty of my past, a place where I find maggoty bush meat, thorn-choked trails, and a broken compass. It has served up a most useful and illuminating contrast: my present struggle with my weight, which has been at times all-consuming for the last year, is really not a struggle at all. It is a choice. It is a mere blip compared to what I’ve slogged through in the past and archived in my ‘Shit I’m Unhappy With About Myself’ file. And so, because my current battle with my weight is comparably so minor, so too should its solution be.
When I was 15, I started exhibiting the systems of PCOS. For anyone unfamiliar with this absolute rabid bitch of an endocrine disorder, see the link:
I had myself ‘officially’ diagnosed at the age of 16 or so.
PCOS is most widely know for its role in fertility issues with women, and indeed the majority of PCOS-centred blogs out there seem to focus on the struggle of women with this condition to conceive. While I empathize with these women and their pain, the thought of my possible infertility is not what got to me: in fact I don’t give a shit whether my cystic, wizened ovaries ever spew out a viable egg or not. What has caused me years of pain and fucked up significant parts of a huge chunk of my life (fifteen years worth more or less) is another ‘lesser’ symptom of PCOS: severe hirsutism.
The psychological effect of this symptom instilled in me an overwhelming and completely crippling sense of shame and humiliation when it came to my sense of self-worth, self-image, and sexuality. It gutted and warped my sense of femaleness: I could not take pleasure or pride in being a girl…I felt like I was at best a pseudo-female. Was I really a girl? I felt so hideously unfeminine, I used to wonder if an ultrasound would turn up a pair of undescended testicles in my nether regions… okay, not really, but you take my point. Where other girls would be out having fun, trying on different relationships for size, and exploring their sexuality I hid.
A typical day in my late teens would see me spend a total of three hours, give or take, every single day locked in the bathroom tweezing out facial hairs one by one. The extent of my hirsutism was such that even though a plucked hair will not regrow for several weeks, I had so many fucked up follicles that by the time the next day rolled around, another different group of follicles would have hairs breaking the surface of my skin, and so on and so forth day in and day out. No respite. If I had ever let all the follicles grow in at once, I would’ve had a beard near as full as what either of my brothers would be capable of growing. And it wasn’t just my face. Other unmentionable areas of my body were hirsute too. Since plucking those areas would’ve been impossible to manage time-wise I had to settle for constant shaving. My face, with all the relentless tweezing became constantly covered with red welts: I was able to pass this off as a severe acne problem.
I never felt pretty. I worked obsessively to hide my problem from everyone, and no one ever knew, but I did. Outside of one or two notable exceptions I avoided men and dating. I was afraid that if they looked at me in bright light or stroked my skin at the wrong angle, they would discover my freakishness. The rare times I was involved with someone were incredibly stressful. There was a very rigid set of rules I had to live by. I could not, under any circumstances, allow them to touch my face (they assumed it was because I was embarrassed about my ‘acne’). I could either spend the day, or the night with them, but not both (after I had plucked my facial hairs for the day, I had almost exactly a 12 hour window, and no longer, before the next day’s hairs would start growing in). I could never do anything fun like go away for a weekend on a camping trip–where/how would I pluck/shave hairs without a bathroom? Just as important was never allowing myself to be caught in a rainstorm in their presence (it might wash away the heavy concealer I applied to my jaw and neck). Sexual activity could only be done in the dark, never in the light of day, and only certain postures and positions were permissible: I was constantly on guard to re-direct any wayward caresses that might brush my skin ‘against the grain’ and reveal stubble where it shouldn’t be.
During my late teens and early twenties, outside of the glaring red welts on skin, I looked normal. I wasn’t overweight; in fact I had a figure that could be considered attractive, in a conventional kind of way. I had nice hair (very long, and very wavy). But once I hit my mid-twenties that changed. It was then that I first started gaining weight in the telltale pattern that many PCOS sufferers experience — and so I have been going through the gaining and losing cycle ever since. I will state here that I adhere to the belief that PCOS does not cause obesity or make it impossible for people to lose weight: poor dietary habits cause obesity. I know. With hard work, I have been able to lose any and all excess weight, and at times I’ve been able to make it last for a few years. I’m confident that after the next go-round of weight loss that with the right diet and attitude I’ll be able to make it last for a lifetime.
Anyway, back to my mid-twenties. This was the time of my first massive weight gain, and the combination of that and being hirsute made me so exceedingly uncomfortable in my own skin that except for work I avoided going most places, and seeing most people (except close friends and family). At this point I totally avoided men and dating and was completely celibate for six and a half years.
It was around the above time, though, that through sheer desperation I finally sought outside help for my hirsutism. I swallowed what was left of my dignity and forced myself to see an electrologist. I had been loathe to do this because my problem was so brutally humiliating for me that not even my parents knew about it. To have to explain to a complete stranger that I needed serious facial hair removal, as well as hair removal in other unseemly areas was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I simply don’t have the words to describe my hyper-self-consciousness surrounding this issue.
Long story shorter, a combination of laser and electrolysis worked, after almost ten years of frequent, constant treatments. This process has cost thousands of dollars, contributing in part to my financial issues today. I don’t care. I’d do it again, even if it was ten times the cost. And so, by my early thirties, I was completely free of my hirsutism problem. Every follicle on my body that never should have been active was burned, melted and liquefied.
At this time I went through a period of a couple years where I got my weight down to a healthy, appealing level.. and so I ended my six and a half year hiatus from dating. But as I found out, the psychological impact of having lived with the shame of this problem for so long was still very much intact. Even though I love sex, and even though at this point I felt I finally had a body that was ‘worthy’ of having sex, I would still seize up with crippling self-consciousness. The first time sex was attempted with a very patient ex-boyfriend, I immediately blurted out a prim and shrill “No!” as though I were a Jane Austen heroine and a roguish vagabond had just looked up my skirt and caught a shocking glimpse of my petticoat. I’m sure my response came across as bizarrely puritanical prudery, but my then-boyfriend never said anything, and soon was able to make me realize that there was nothing wrong with me… and eventually my self-consciousness around sex ebbed to a ‘normal’ level.
Now that it’s over, it’s still deeply shameful, but fuck it, a lot of us contend with something freakish – my freakishness just happened to be a little more outer than inner. Looking back at it from the flip side, I am grateful. Yes, this disorder has fucked me up. It really has. But struggling with the despair, humiliation, sense that I wasn’t a ‘real’ girl, and hyper-acute self-consciousness that PCOS engenders has given me a strong sense of empathy for others in pain (of any sort) and a healthy acceptance of other people’s oddities, and ‘grotesqueries’ (physical or otherwise) that I may not have developed as fully had I not gone through this. It has also, by default, fostered my exploration of ideas and concepts and imaginings –all the fodder of a rich inner life, because a rich ‘outer life’ was previously so unattainable to me. Now I’m in the very lucky position of having both. I am grateful I live in a time where a permanent solution exists for hirsutism. If I’d been born 50-plus years earlier, my only options would have been to either live with it and hide it as best I could for my entire life, or swallow the despair to the point of near-madness and go on the road as a side-show freak: after all, every circus in days before political correctness and sensitivity could always use a bearded lady.
And now, weight-wise, all I have to do is not gorge myself to uncomfortable proportions. That’s it. Something so laughably easy and infinitely less painful compared to the hirsutism issue. I am completely hair-free where I should be hair-free. I have a normal (albeit dorky) face with normal skin. I thankfully love exercise in a myriad of forms. All I need to do now is eat in a way that treats myself well . That’s it. All I need to do is be nice to myself. All I need to do is not eat crap and my body will step in and do the rest, like it has before and like it will again. That’s it. This doesn’t have to be so hard. This doesn’t have to be my Achilles Heal. It can be as easy as I want to be. As easy as letting go of the bad stuff.
So, what’s your freak and what did it teach you?