In school, my girlfriends would often have discussions about their periods; all the times they felt like skipping class and just melting into a puddle of chocolate, how they were afraid of staining their uniforms, and when their periods were late. As someone with PCOS, I couldn’t relate much to their fears, anxieties, and frustrations. It felt like I was missing out on some Secret Circle of Womanhood. I simply didn’t belong. “Is something wrong with me?” I would often question.
For those who don’t know, PCOS is short for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is a condition that affects women’s hormone levels. This means that I, someone who identified wholly as a woman, produced more testosterone than normal. Ah, testosterone, the male hormone. This translated into unwanted hair growth on my face and body, irregular – to no – periods, and fluctuating weight. I was a teenager already struggling with body issues and self-confidence, so this really wasn’t the best timing.
What made it so much worse was the fact that my PCOS had gone undiagnosed for so long. When I went to visit the doctor, she claimed that my irregular periods were due to my weight. As someone who straddled the line between overweight and obese on the BMI scale, this was every doctor’s favourite diagnosis – it just made things so much easier for them. However, my issues with weight were a result of PCOS, not the other way round.
When I finally did receive an accurate diagnosis, I still felt a strange disconnect with my peers. Sure, now I had a name and a tangible reason for why I always considered myself Other, but that didn’t make things better. I was tired of the guffaws that I received when I told my friends I had missed my last six periods. I was tired of having to hide behind the shame of waxing, lasering, or shaving off hair in places that I just knew other women didn’t have to. I was tired of missing out. (No lie though, not having to experience PMS or cramps or staining was a relief to me sometimes).
This construct of womanhood, so intricately engineered by the media, our cultures, and gender roles, dominated my self-esteem and sense of identity for a very long time. If a woman doesn’t bleed every month, is she really a woman? What kind of woman doesn’t bear the fruit of motherhood? How can one determine where to group you in this gender binary if you don’t conform? Society’s idea of the Ideal Woman™ leaves so many of us invisible and erases our valid and real experiences. Our identities become pushed to the edge of the spotlight, marginalised by our own non-conformity – whether that’s a choice or a characteristic forced upon us.
It took me a long time to learn that there’s no right or wrong way to be a woman. There are fat women, thin women, tall women, short women. They can have large boobs, small boobs, or no boobs at all. There are women with penises and women with vaginas and women with something in-between. Some are caretakers, some are breadwinners, and some are even both. There are hairy women, hairless women, women who love men, women who love other women, and women who love everyone. And yes, some of us menstruate and others don’t. But we are all women nonetheless. I, with my hairy chin, and feminine insecurities, and irregular periods, was always and still am a woman.