Philippa talks about having polycystic ovarian syndrome.
When I photograph people, the women who know that I will edit them later frequently joke, “So, can you give me bigger boobs?” or “Can you make me a size 10?”.
My answer is usually, “Well I can, but I won’t!”.
Yet, I will frequently edit out the odd spot on someone’s face, or even out a blotch. Not to turn someone into this kind of almost CGI nightmarish smoothness, just to save embarrassment.
And frankly, I clone out my own zits on photos, so it would feel wrong to post up photos of others that they’d hate for that reason.
And lately, I’ve been cloning out more of my own spots than ever. I don’t think they’re actually that much worse than usual, but for some reason my self-consciousness has increased about tenfold.
That does happen sometimes, and I’d imagine it will pass again too. But the spots just won’t. Nor will the dark hairs I’ve started sprouting. Because I’ve got Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
It’s a disorder which combines cysts on an ovary with a hormone imbalance which can lead to acne (yep), excess hair (yep), irregular periods (yep), male pattern hair loss (not yet), weight gain (yep), infertility (don’t know), and many other possible long-term problems.
Mine was diagnosed almost by accident. I was having surgery for endometriosis and the surgeon noticed that my left ovary was covered in cysts. He did something alarmingly called ‘ovarian drilling’ because the cysts were covering so much of the ovary that eggs had nowhere to be released. Then afterwards blood tests were taken which confirmed that I do indeed have full PCOS.
But because I was being treated for endometriosis, and because that was causing agony and immense bleeding, the PCOS was never really addressed. It was very much secondary. The only real problems I had with it at the time were acne, and an irregular cycle (which was kind of a blessing, because it meant fewer agonising bleeds!).
But now, years and years on, the spots are still constant. They vary in severity, but there’s always at least one or two about. Usually many more. And the black hairs have started sprouting underneath my chin. And I feel horrible.
I turn 33 this week, and I still feel like I’ve got teenage skin. And I’m not only sick of it, but I’m sick of being embarrassed. Which is why I’m talking about it here. It is thought that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women have PCOS, so it’s not just me.
I like breaking society’s beauty rules for women – I don’t usually wear make-up, I wear horizontal stripes while fat, I don’t diet, I don’t straighten my hair. So why do I feel so awful about these ‘rule breakers’?
Lots of women are apparently told to lose weight to help control PCOS symptoms, without any recognition that PCOS causes weight gain, and makes weight loss more difficult. Frankly, with the medications I take for other things, weight loss is virtually impossible. And anyway, dieting is usually a really, really bad idea.
I can’t take hormone treatments, I don’t know if doctors will help me with the symptoms in other ways. But what I can do is speak out and tell the other women out there with PCOS that it’s not just you. I hate it, but I hate it less since talking with another PCOSer last night online.
It’s not just you.