What You Should Never, Ever Say To Someone With PCOS
When I was 14 years old, I was struggling with atypical anorexia nervosa. Although my weight wasn't considered "below normal" from a clinical perspective, I'd been restricting my daily caloric intake for the better part of a year and a half. I had rebelled against my body, and now my body was starting to rebel against me. Fainting spells were a frequent part of my life, particularly after exercising. My hair was thinning. My teeth were translucent. I'd started picking at my skin. Even my ovaries were misbehaving. That year, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and my OB-GYN said it was my fault — which is, frankly, the last thing you should say to someone with PCOS.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes cysts to grow on the ovaries, which can lead to a loss of periods and difficulty ovulating. PCOS is characterized by abnormal hormonal levels that lead to excess androgen and testosterone in the body (male hormones). The cause isn't entirely known, but it often runs in families.
Even so, my OB-GYN thought he knew the cause of my PCOS, and it was my eating disorder. He took it upon himself to remind me that I was destroying my body, telling me I shouldn't try losing weight because young men preferred "a little meat" to grab onto.
Two years later, I finally realized how serious my eating disorder had gotten. I knew that it was time to start working on a healthier relationship with food. The process was slow and difficult, but right away, I started gaining weight. After an extended period of starvation, my body needed the calories I was giving it. It seemed to store every single one of them.
I wish I'd known from the get-go that my body was never public domain.
My PCOS probably helped in that department as well, because PCOS is known to lead to weight gain. The body has difficulty using insulin and converting sugars and starches into energy. While sugar is building up in the bloodstream, male hormones are usually on the rise, too. This tends to cause weight gain, particularly in the abdomen.
Before I knew it, I'd gained back every pound I had lost, plus some. The BMI chart now categorized me as "overweight," and that same OB-GYN changed his tune. "If you hadn't let yourself get PCOS, this wouldn't have happened," he said. "You would've found a healthy middle ground."
Between the ages of 16 and 18, my weight continued to go up, and this OB-GYN continued to shame me for my PCOS. When I had allowed myself to get "too thin," he said my PCOS was born of my stupidity. And when I allowed myself to get "too fat," he blamed me for making it worse. Although I can now look back on this doctor and see him for what he was (a douchebag, among other things), his shaming surrounding my PCOS seemed reflective of ingrained cultural perceptions of women's bodies.
I've never quite been able to shake the idea that I am ultimately to blame for having PCOS.
We live in a culture that arguably encourages eating disorders, especially in fat people. Before my anorexia developed, I was bombarded by dieting tips. All of my friends, relatives, teachers, and doctors told me that I'd be happier, healthier, and prettier if I lost weight. My parents gave me a Jazzercise membership. My friend gave me chocolate-flavored laxatives. My aunt gave me pants that were too small, so I'd be motivated to fit into them. On top of it all, the books I was reading, magazines I was browsing, and shows and films I was watching all seemed to suggest that thinness was good and fatness was bad. It was that simple.
When I lost the weight, I wasn't happier. I definitely wasn't healthier. I didn't even feel pretty. Even so, I'd done what I was supposed to do. Until my eating disorder became obvious to my immediate family, I received high praise for my "achievements." Once it did become obvious, however, I was accused of being an idiot. Why wasn't I strong enough to know that beauty standards were toxic? Why did I put my body through such a horrible period of starvation? Why had I let myself "get" PCOS?
Any shaming I received from him or others grew worse as my body grew wider. Over the years, there have been myriad reasons for my figure's expansion, among them the fact that I actually ended up feeling my happiest, healthiest, and prettiest while also being fat. But I've never quite been able to shake the idea that I am ultimately to blame for having PCOS.
In truth, there is nothing shameful about having PCOS, and it's no one's "fault" for having it. It's beyond anyone's control.
I believe that the main reason why there's so much shame surrounding PCOS is because so many of its symptoms are perceived as anti-feminine. Body hair growth, weight gain, loss of periods, and acne are among the symptoms of the condition, and these are all things that women are generally taught are ugly and deplorable. The increase in male hormones caused by PCOS can also make you feel as though your womanhood is disappearing.
Even if my OB-GYN thought I was "stupid" and "short-sighted" for getting an eating disorder, he thought I was even more stupid and short-sighted for getting as fat as I eventually did. PCOS was, to him, both a result of me actively working to "destroy" my body, and a condition that destroyed it even more.
In truth, there is nothing shameful about having PCOS, and it's no one's "fault" for having it. It's beyond anyone's control. I cannot know for sure whether my condition developed because my eating disorder caused a hormonal imbalance in my body, but it shouldn't matter either way. I got it. I accept it. I live with it.
All I know for sure is that having PCOS made my OB-GYN, and many others, feel like criticizing my body was acceptable. But it was people criticizing my body (and other people's bodies) that planted the seeds for my eating disorder in the first place. It was people talking about my body that made me feel ashamed as I gained weight. What I wish I'd known from the get-go was that my body was never public domain. Nothing about it is disgraceful, and nothing about it ever has been.