On Body Image and the Perils of PCOS

An ultrasound of an ovary with many cysts on it. There is a red tint over the cysts. There is white text over the utlrasound, reading 'on body image and the perils of PCOS' and 'Maha Rauf' (title and author).

by Maha Rauf

Content Warning: PCOS, eating disorders, stigma.

“You will never truly feel at home in a body you view as temporary.”

If I had to describe how I felt about my body for most of my adolescent life in one word, ‘temporary’ is probably most apt. At age ten, maybe eleven, I began to conjure up images in my mind of my ‘ideal body’; a perfectly slender, completely proportionate, Sports Illustrated figure. I wanted the standard media presentation of a ‘healthy’ woman’s body that is perennially plastered on magazine covers and featured in commercials.

Looking back now, I realise that the fact that I was that young when I began to covet a completely flat stomach and sharp collar bones is extremely problematic.

I was impressionable and it was easy to lose perspective and shift my priorities to indulge what seemed so singularly important.

I went through periods of fasting and excessive exercising, doing workouts I found on YouTube ‘til my body was sore for days. I also went through periods of consuming nothing but vast amounts of junk, downing the entire gamut of unhealthy food available from pizza to burgers to donuts and chocolate.

I ate my feelings on hard days.

I ate nothing when I was anxious or self-conscious.

I have been on both extremes of the spectrum and perpetually oscillated between them. Almost eight years later, and I’m still struggling to find a balance, a middle ground.

For almost eight years, I held on to the fragmented belief that my body, as it is, is temporary – that my belly, the layer of baby fat that hangs over the unforgiving waistband of my jeans is temporary, the extra meat around my thighs is temporary, my lack of distinct collar bones or hip bones, that’s all temporary.

I believed that despite my genetic setup, I would one day have an ultra-tiny waist and bony arms.

I have, for as long as I can remember, treated my body like a pitstop made of melting wax, one that could be shaped and contorted. I have always thought of it as a sort of intermediary stage on my way to becoming what I imagined was a better version of myself.

It is only now that I have begun to understand that my body is not a pitstop. It is home.

I was 15 when I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome),  It is a hormonal disorder marked by high androgens which makes me prone to weight gain, acne, hirsutism, anxiety etc. It essentially elucidates all my existing insecurities and paves way for a whole host of other health problems.

Anyone with PCOS would agree that our bodies are unbridled.

They are self-ordering worlds that pursue their own logic.

I have blemished, oily skin, and I am pedantic about it. I have tried almost every fathomable remedy in the form of face washes, oils, scrubs, spot treatments and masks, some of which are fleetingly effective but as soon as my skin adjusts, acne erupts everywhere again.

PCOS is a struggle.

It heightens every perceived physical shortcoming I have and renders me genetically incapable of attaining the sort of body that is idealised in the media and is traditionally deemed ‘good’.

PCOS, or at least the mild form that I have, is not a debilitating illness. It is manageable, which makes me feel a little shallow for talking about its physical inconveniences.

But in a world that favours physical beauty above all else, it’s hard not to feel the sting of its absence.

I remember the imperceptible sting when a boy in my primary school pointed to my arms and informed me that I was hairy, or when relatives made passing comments about my acne.

It’s a pain kind of like a bee sting, not much on the surface, but a growing burn within. Usually, I dismiss such comments. But eventually, with each new sting, the burn becomes palpable and physical and almost impossible to ignore. 

Body image is an uncomfortable thing to talk about and physical insecurities are hard to even acknowledge aloud because the paramount importance of physical beauty is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society, to the point where being traditionally beautiful has tangible benefits.

Despite all I know now about the distorted social construct behind body image and its ultimate insignificance, I still have an internal bias about physical beauty.

Despite my changed perspective, my insecurities are still supremely real, the verbal or even silent judgement of others still weighs heavily on me and the universal desire to be perceived as beautiful persists.

It is difficult to unlearn.

But I am actively teaching myself to let go of these warped, internalised ideas about how my body ought to be.

I am slowly learning to devalue external metrics of beauty.

I am slowly learning to stop viewing my body as temporary.

I am slowly learning to feel at home.