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“Real Women,” PCOS & Body Image

by Golda Poretsky, H.H.C. on June 6, 2011

When I wrote this cranky post about the “real women…” phenomenon, I never expected it to resonate with so many women.

Image By Wyanne Thompson www.wyanne.com

It seems that fat, thin, in between, curvy, not curvy, in between, cisgender, trans, various gynecological surgeries or symptoms, or whatever, there’s a lot of crap that makes us feel like not so real women.

For most of my teenage/ adult life I felt like not very much of a real woman due to having polycystic ovarian syndrome (P.C.O.S. for short.)  (This is not something I write about much, but I feel on a deep level that sharing it will be helpful to some of you, so I’m going for it.)  For those of you who don’t know what that it is, it’s basically a cluster of symptoms that people who have it get to varying degrees, including irregular or absent periods, weight gain, hirsutism, acne, anovulation, infertility, ovarian cysts, and insulin resistance (with a higher chance of type 2 diabetes).  Some women get only one or two symptoms and they’re mild and some get nearly all or all of them quite severely.

Back when I was a preteen, P.C.O.S. was not on anyone’s radar.  I went on The Pill as a young teenager to regulate my periods, which worked for a while, but now some researchers think it only makes P.C.O.S. worse.  Over the years, I’ve treated this with everything from hormones to acupuncture to meditation to vitamins and supplements to dietary changes.  (Some of you, I’m sure, are going to comment that I just need to do X, Y, and Z to make it better, and I can assure you that I’ve probably tried X, Y, and Z multiple times.)  I used to blame myself horrendously for my absolute failure to heal the P.C.O.S., and truthfully, a big part of body acceptance for me was accepting that I’m not a horrible person for not being able to get a period regularly. Spending as much time around holistic types as I did, you can sometimes feel shame for not being able to cure something with the right amount of probiotics, Bach’s flower remedies, and meditation.

I also had to come to terms with the idea that I was “not less of a woman” for it. I think a big part of the fact that I mostly had guy friends until my late twenties was that guys don’t complain about menstrual cramps nor talk about how fat they are (although lately, I think that’s changed).  I always dreaded the periods and fat conversations. Having P.C.O.S. always seemed like a failure and something to be ashamed of.  Unlike fatness, it’s something that you can hide pretty well, until your roommate keeps taking your tampons and then notices that you don’t replace them very often.

Over the last few years, I’ve changed my internal discourse around my womanhood.  I’ve realized that I’m not “less of a woman” (whatever that might mean) just because I don’t get the requisite number of periods.  I want to make choices that are as healing as possible for me/my body, but one of those choices is choosing to let go of the stress and striving and worrying about this.

Have you struggled with feeling like a “real woman” due to P.C.O.S. or anything else?  Let me know what you think in the comments section below!

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Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, click here.


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

acne cream myth April 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

I really could read about this all day!! I hope you’ve got an RSS feed I can also register for. I have been researching on the net pertaining to stories regarding body image.

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The Well-Rounded Mama June 21, 2011 at 1:07 am

PCOS is such a soul-wrenching experience.

I am fortunate in that I only have it mildly compared to many, but my experience has been bad enough. Gah.

It’s hard to hang out on the PCOS forums, though, because of the relentless focus on weight loss there. So it’s nice to hear someone address it in a FA way. Thank you.

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Alicia Hart (@RealWomenRSexy) June 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm

“Real Women,” PCOS & Body Image »: For most of my teenage/ adult life I felt like not very much of a real woman … http://bit.ly/miiF9Z

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Kath June 10, 2011 at 8:41 am

*waves to my fellow Cyster*

Yup, I have PCOS too. And for many, many years I didn’t feel like a “real” woman. Mostly because of lacking the regular menstrual cycle, but also a lot of the other PCOS symptoms go against what we are culturally conditioned to believe are “feminine”.

Thing is, the more I hated myself, the more I punished my body trying to make it thin, feminine and to what I thought was “real”, the worse my PCOS symptoms got. The sicker I got.

Since giving up dieting and trying to be thin, my symptoms have got better, my body has settled down and I’m now finding it synching into a regular cycle on it’s own. But even if it didn’t, I am still as real as any other woman. I am here, I am me, and I am a woman.

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Marta (@martalucie) June 8, 2011 at 3:09 am

“Real Women,” PCOS & Body Image »: For most of my teenage/ adult life I felt like not very much of a real woman … http://bit.ly/kpqpR8

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ZaftigWendy June 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

I have PCOS, too, and for me it has progressed to diabetes. For me the worst and most unwomanly thing about PCOS is the facial hair. It took me a long time to get to the point where I still felt like a woman even though I have to shave my chin and jaw. I still don’t like for people to touch my face, because I’m afraid they’ll feel my (thankfully blonde) stubble. Even when talking with other PCOSers, it’s a nearly forbidden subject.

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Kayleigh June 6, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I’m so glad you shared. It just goes to show that everyone is fighting their own battles. I’m also glad you are starting to accept yourself and feel like a woman!

For me, I struggle with feeling like a “woman” because my chest is really flat. Growing up and even now it gets to me. But you know what? There is no definition of “woman”. We are all differently shaped and we all have insecurities. It doesn’t make me any less of a woman. In fact, having insecurities seems to make me just like all the other women in the world. Maybe that is a defining fact of womanhood…just kidding ;)

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Kate June 6, 2011 at 11:40 am

For the last 10 years or so I had crazy cycles, I go without a period for months, then bleed for months. I hated seeing a doctor about it because I was told the same thing, it’s because I’m fat and have no self control. I knew that wasn’t true, I was a fantastic dieter so far as compliance was concerned, I just didn’t get the results.

I became convinced that my thryoid was causing other non-period symptoms and I was bound and determined to get treated for that despite my “normal” test results. I was willing to doctor-shop until I got the treatment I felt I needed. I started with an endocrinologist, no luck. So went to my GP, and he actually treated me. And miracles of miracles, my period became a 27 day cycle without any other intervention. (It took me awhile to figure this out because I was on hormones to keep a regular cycle, and I stopped taking the hormones almost accidently, it’s a long story that’s really unimportant.) I’m still so freaking angry that I had to go through years of shame and unnecessary pills just because my test results weren’t quite bad enough to be treated and that I’ve been essentially on birth control pills since I couldn’t get pregnant anyway, when all along that option wasn’t necessarily closed off. Now, I’m almost 40, fat, and hoping against hope that I can actually become pregnant.

Secondarily, I consistantly tested negative for Hashimoto’s when I was on Enbrel or Humira, but I went off of the meds because I had hoped I could live without them (I can’t), but I did get a positive Hashimoto’s test and now hopefully will never go without thryoid treatment.

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Lisa Hatlestad June 6, 2011 at 9:27 am

I feel you! I had more than “regular” periods…I had heavy, painful, unbelievably bloody periods from the time I was ten. By that time my mother had died and I had an indifferent step mother who gave me no guidance in taking care of my “feminine hygiene”…so I bled and leaked and then would be shamed and scolded by my step mom and teased by my friends. As I got older, I learned I needed frequent rest room trips, but my periods continued to be heavy and painful, even when I was on the pill, and as I reached my forties, they were close to unbearable. During my twenties and thirties, I consulted with doctors about them, but no type of intervention was ever offered to me aside from birth control to help regulate the bleeding. The undertone was that I needed my womb intact so I could have children. Now, I never particularly wanted children although at one time I was open to having one if that’s what happened, which never did. But the pressure of aging year by year as a married woman and remaining childless was so intense. Family, friends, new acquaintences…”how many kids do you have?” “None.” “Oh..” Awkward pause in which a judgment is made and then dismissal or feigned concern…I always felt like I had to give some speech: “I guess it isn’t in the cards for us,” or something like that. So I spent three decades battling with my own body, which in turn stubbornly refused to produce any natural-gotten evidence of womanhood through motherhood. Finally when I couldn’t take it any more, I had a hysterectomy and so now I live pain-free, but there’s an empty space where my uterus used to be, and because there is such a focus on womanhood through reproduction, I’ve come to see that space as an absence, a black hole, instead of rejoicing in the relief from pain and suffering. As you know, Golda, I’ve been working and working to reconnect with that space, my body, and join, for the first time, with my own femininity and womanliness without shame or dissociation. It’s been difficult, but I am definately getting there, and I thank you for that, as well as your post, which brought up these memories and connections.

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PJ June 6, 2011 at 9:07 am

Hey, I’m really glad you wrote this! I don’t have PCOS (apparently) but I’ve had irregular — sometimes absent for upwards of a year!– periods my whole life. Now that I’m in my 40′s, my friends who did have regular periods are just becoming “irregular,” and are having labels like “perimenopausal” stuck on them by doctors. See? You can’t win!

In all seriousness: our society is invested up the ying-yang in making each and every woman feel like not enough of a woman. From the cosmetics industry to the pharmaceutical industry to the diet industry, it’s all about who stands to gain financially by making us feel like crap. Us “irregular” types should consider all the money we’ve saved on “feminine care products” over the years and rejoice.

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