May 2015: Women's Bodies / periods / sisterhood

Ovary Action, not Overreaction

The first thing that you need to know about my uterus: it’s really, really bad at being a uterus.

I had no idea that I suffered from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) until I was 18. I went to the University Health Service with acne and period delay, and was told that I would possibly never naturally conceive.  I was distraught.  Sitting between a prescription printer and a potted hyacinth, I was losing my womanhood and my ability to have babies.

Instead of ovulating, ovaries affected by PCOS turn the egg cells they produce into fluid-filled cysts. This leads to problems with periods, hormone regulation, and infertility.

Artist’s impression of my sad, diseased womb

PCOS seems designed to rob women of their femininity. The way in which it affects sex hormones means that it wreaks havoc on the bodies of sufferers. Widespread acne didn’t so much destroy my self-confidence growing up as prevent me from ever developing self-esteem in the first place. Many women suffer uncontrollable weight gain, others grow facial hair, some develop alopecia. All of these make us vulnerable by making us targets for people who make it their business to judge the female appearance.

In a world where Men Must Be Masculine and Women Must Be Feminine, our self-worth as ladies is so attached to our femininity, to the idea of beauty, that as my ovaries produced more androgens, and as my skin got worse, I felt less and less able to value myself. I grew up feeling ugly – avoiding mirrors, hiding my face in my hands while talking to friends and family, using makeup to hide myself, unable to leave the house without it. In a world where I faced (pun not intentional) a choice between being found ugly and being seen as vain, I chose vanity. PCOS is a condition that leads to a physical deviation from the way that women are told they should look. It forces us outside of the framework of what is considered beautiful.

Because of an unlikelihood of successful ovulation, periods with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are a) extremely infrequent, and b) the worst ever. PCOS has caused me more physical pain than I was ever warned it would – every period is a three-day ordeal of nausea, crippling cramps and often a decline in mental health. My whole body aches and I am utterly incapacitated, being forced to spend hours on end lying immobile in the bath. It hurts so much that I’m sick from the pain alone. “Period pain” is a desperately inadequate term for the agony that so many women endure as a result of PCOS, endometriosis, and muscle cramping conditions. No Pill has ever regulated my menstrual cycle (Nothing tames the beast!) and there is no treatment in sight.

I cannot begin to describe how devastating it is to know that, because of this, I am unlikely to be able to have children. The day that I found out that I was functionally infertile, I couldn’t speak. I attended lectures, but couldn’t process what was being said. I couldn’t eat. It was a kind of pre-emptive grief for children that would never exist. For me, infertility is the worst aspect of the disease, and one that I have still not been able to come to terms with.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome had a powerful influence on me as I grew up: It was overcoming the self-doubt that it caused me, the self-consciousness, that marked my personal growth as I got older. I know that I am not alone, and that women all over the world understand what I am going through and are experiencing it themselves. I have finally learnt to value and define myself in ways other than by comparison to what a woman is told she should be.

Bronwen Crowther
Traveller, writer, and casual artist/photographer. Hobbies include expressionist portraiture and shouting at the television whenever Nigel Farage is on it.

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