Things You Only Know If You have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Jessica Evans reflects on the condition that affects one in 10 of us but is rarely talked about.

Jessica Evans

by Jessica Evans |

I spend, on average, 33 minutes every morning looking in the mirror, plucking black hairs from my neck. I took the liberty of measuring how long it usually takes for this article. Sexy opener, I know. Writing that sentence makes me feel scared and vulnerable, but in the hope of normalising some of the symptoms PCOS brings with it, I want to be completely honest about it.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which a woman’s ovaries are unable to release an egg regularly, affects around one in 10 women in the UK. Women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance that can affect their overall health and appearance. It is one of the most common causes of women’s infertility, according to the NHS, and can be a precursor for other conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and endometrial cancer. Its cause is unknown, though there’s known to be a genetic link, and it’s incurable; crucially, though, lifestyle changes and medication can help improve the symptoms.

'I battle with it every day. It makes me feel unattractive and insecure.'

Over the last few years, there has been an increase in awareness of the syndrome, but conversations tend to focus on the heartbreaking risk of infertility. The other mental and physical symptoms don’t get talked about too much – yet they can include weight gain, depression, adult acne, anxiety, stomach bloating, hair loss or excessive hair on the face, neck, chest and stomach. PCOS differs from woman to woman and each has a different story.

Fortunately, I have fairly regular periods. Instead of fertility worries, my story involves a lot of wax appointments, anxiety and emotional outbursts, because the excessive hair growth that can be related to PCOS has been one of the biggest problems for me. With my upper lip, chin, cheek and neck hair, I’ve tried plucking, hair removal cream, threading and waxing. I get my face and neck waxed every week but, even then, it’s sometimes not enough – the hair grows velvety thick and in dark patches. Laser hair removal may work wonders for many women, but studies have found it tends to be less effective for those of us with PCOS, where the problem is hormonal.

While I salute anyone who embraces this symptom, I battle with it every day. It makes me feel unattractive and insecure. Every time I’ve batted away a boyfriend for going in to kiss my neck; every time I’ve decided against wearing my hair in a ponytail; every time I would be walking in daylight, panicked that the person walking next to me would notice the dozens of black hairs on my face, just in case I hadn’t quite managed to remove them all that morning – all these moments have made me painfully self-conscious.

It doesn’t help that, a lot of the time, my hormones are also way out of whack, so I can find myself getting quite tearful. In my experience, having PCOS is kind of like feeling due on your period 99% of the time.

Like me, many women will also experience weight gain. According to Dr Kerry Marson, who has treated hundreds of women with the condition, 40-60% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. The condition makes it harder for your body to use the hormone insulin, which normally helps change sugars and starches from foods into energy. This can lead to weight gain, and women with PCOS also find it harder to lose weight than non-PCOS women; this can become a vicious cycle, as having excess fat causes the body to produce even more insulin.

'Feeling healthy and confident can take serious self-love, money, sacrifice and graft.'

That is how, unknowingly, I began my PCOS journey at around 12 years old. I ate the same food at school lunch as my friends and went home to balanced meals in the evening. I’d only really have a treat at the weekends. Still, my slender frame ballooned. I went from a size 6 to a 10 within a year. I was putting on weight rapidly, particularly around my stomach. Everyone told me it was simply puberty. I saw my body as the enemy and went on my first fad diet at 12.

It wasn’t until I was diagnosed at 23 that I finally understood why I had found it so hard to lose weight, why my periods were irregular, why my stomach was so bloated, and why I had so many emotional outbursts. I took Metformin for a while – a drug that is supposed to help regulate periods and lessen symptoms like weight gain – but it made me too sick.

Since then, to help balance my hormones, my doctor has recommended a lifelong fun diet of low-carb, low-dairy, gluten-free, sugar-free food, and regular exercise – particularly yoga and strength training, as when we reduce stress, we reduce insulin. This combination of diet and exercise has been key for me in managing PCOS, as it can be for many women. I know how to lessen my symptoms now, even though it can be tough to do so. And I definitely have a healthier relationship with food and understand my body better than I did years ago.

'I’m the one in control of helping me feel the best I can.'

Still, feeling healthy and confident with PCOS can take serious self-love, money, sacrifice and graft. I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I just want to curl up with a deep bowl of pasta, skip HITT class and watch re-runs of Friends, but that’s OK. I no longer beat myself up if I can’t stay in-between the lines. Allowing myself those moments is important, as is accepting support from others.

My best friends and family, particularly those I’ve lived with, have long known I struggle with PCOS. The hirsutism, in particular, is hard to hide. They have always been completely supportive, and have never made me feel ashamed. The condition also comes up a lot with my boyfriend, as we’re often talking about what I can and can’t eat. He’s brilliantly patient, and is always looking for ways to improve the stressful symptoms PCOS can bring – or at least make me feel loved and beautiful.

But while I used to keep my hirsutism and weight issues a secret with other people, these days I’m a lot more open. I want to be able to create more understanding and kindness around PCOS, and keeping the symptoms (however embarrassing) a secret won’t achieve that. In the past, they have made me feel incredibly embarrassed and even somewhat less of a woman – but when I remember that I’m the one in control of helping me feel the best I can, I feel moments of real joy and freedom.

September is PCOS Awareness Month. For more information, visit verity-pcos.org.uk

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