“Real Women,” PCOS And Body Image

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

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.

Image By Wyanne Thompson

For most of my teenage/adult life I felt like not very much of a real woman due to having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). (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, PCOS 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 people think it only makes things 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 PCOS, 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 PCOS 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 PCOS or anything else? Let me know what you think in the comments section below!

Golda Poretsky, H.H.C. is a certified holistic health counselor who specializes in transforming your relationship with food and your body. Go to to sign up for her newsletter and get your free download — Golda’s Top Ten Tips For Divine Dining!

8 replies on ““Real Women,” PCOS And Body Image”

I just got diagnosed with pcos, and I have several of those symptoms. I don’t have any friends who feel comfortable talking about this. Recently I myself have been feeling like less than a woman, and this article helped me to at least know I’m not alone, so thank you for sharing.

Yes! Thank you! I’ve suffered from ovarian cysts since I was sixteen and as a certified herbalist I’ve definitely also felt some level of shame at my inability to cure them, and I can really relate to your frustration at feeling like “less of a woman,” especially running in that crowd. It’s hard because I feel a lot of the time that herbalists and naturopaths and holistic-type people try very very hard to be accepting but sometimes make statements that can be very unintentionally harmful – like glorifying bleeding to the point where it almost seems like a woman isn’t really a woman unless she bleeds according to the moon. I’m all for being proud, rather than ashamed, of my body’s natural processes, but often it feels very exclusive to those whose bodies don’t work the same way. When I used to talk about how my cysts just would not go away (to certain friends and within my herbalist community) I would often be met with tips about how my cysts were related to my inability to relax or that I needed to meditate or what I was doing wrong, and it was extremely patronizing, alienating and largely unhelpful. I’ve never heard anyone else voicing their frustration on this so thank you!

Hello my (metaphorical) sisters! I’m really happy to see this article and so much of it resonates with my issues with PCOS.

I was diagnosed late last year after a period (horrible, heavy, painful) that went on for almost three months. I know I should have dealt with it earlier, but my mother is my partner in medical issues and my grandmother was dying and there was no way I was adding to my mother’s issues!

Anyway, diagnosed and put on birth control pills. First went on Yaz (unfortunately, I didn’t do research beforehand) but now I’m on something that works quite well! Its expression for me seems to be a complete inability to lose weight, hair falling out like crazy, and sort-of-almost insulin problems. That is to say, I’m a few points away from registering as hypoglycemic but nothing else.

When I went in to my doctor she discovered that my iron levels were incredibly low – she actually wondered how I was still walking around and how I hadn’t just passed out by now. So that’s possibly hopeful on the hair front, because iron can cause hair loss and I don’t appear to have hormonal alopecia.

Does anybody have insight or suggestions about any of these lovely symptoms?

If you’re still with me after this novel-like post, I’d like to recommend another site for PCOS-related questions. SoulCysters has been a wonderful resource, filled with knowledgeable and compassionate women who are happy to help guide newbies through PCOS problems!

I’ve never thought of PCOS as something shameful or bad–but maybe just because I know several people who have it and don’t mind discussing it. I have one friend who I think probably has it (many of the symptoms) but as far as I know is undiagnosed, and I wonder if I should ask her if she’s been checked out for it. I worry, though, that it might be something she feels uncomfortable with or is ashamed of (either the symptoms or the condition), so I’ve avoided mentioning anything. Good article, as usual!

My PCOS came with a side helping of alopecia. I could deal with the few dark hairs that kept popping up on my chin and the erratic periods, but seeing bare patches of scalp was upsetting. I had to start doing a comb-over. Then I noticed that the part in my hair was getting wider and wider. I soon had a large collection of hats to try and hide it, but there’s always that moment when you have to take the hat off and see how bad it looks underneath.

When my hair first started thinning at age 20, I casually mentioned to the guy I was seeing that I would just shave my head when it got bad. He freaked out and claimed that he could never be with a bald woman because “it would be like being with another guy and I’m not gay.” I’m happy to say that I left him behind and hope that I’ll find that guy who has no problem with my lack of hair.

I recently reached the point where I felt a need for a hairpiece. The first time I wore my new clip-in bangs that concealed bald patch in front, I couldn’t stop checking myself out in the mirror. I wore them to a wedding and actually got compliments on how cute my new hairstyle looks.

Unlurked just because of this. I’ve been diagnosed with PCOS for 2 years, and it was a good thing to be diagnosed, for me. It gave a name to these things, and I didn’t feel so much like a failure because it wasn’t anything I could control, it was biology. Since being diagnosed, and put on birth control, it’s helped, but I still struggle with explaining things to myself and others. I skipped a few days (yes, bad me), and I told my friend that I could tell when I skipped. She asked me how, and I was too embarrassed to say that my leg hair grew faster when I’m not taking birth control every day.

Unlike a lot of women with PCOS, I don’t have weight issues, but then when I go to the gym, some people question why, saying, “You don’t need to lose weight; you’re skinny”. I say it’s just to get healthier or stronger, but those words always bring me back to PCOS. Plus I have a secret fear that going to the gym will increase my testosterone, which is going to add more to the PCOS problems. It may be silly, but I feel un-girly now, I don’t need anything else adding to that.

My gyno hasn’t talked at all about future reproductive things, and I’m a few years away from marriage/kids. But knowing that I might not be able to have kids, while not making me especially worried, does make me worried about if it could pose problems with my SO and his family. I want to have kids, either biologically or adopt, and on some level, not being able to have kids would be hard to explain to my family and others. At the same time, it’s a good thing, at this moment, that I can’t have kids, and don’t have to worry too much. I only just graduated undergrad, and I’m working on my MS and will go on to a PhD. So the conversations about having kids are all theoretical at this moment.

I have PCOS and found out a couple years ago that it appears to run in my family. Having that in common with my aunts and cousins has made me feel less of an outlier. That being said, it can still feel isolating in that we don’t discuss specifics, so I don’t know if my symptoms are similar to theirs, or know how they’ve coped with it. I’ve started hearing rumblings that early menopause may be common in my family too, so I’m trying to get more info on that.

I think for me, I haven’t thought of it in terms of being a menstrual failure because I don’t want to have kids. When I realized I didn’t want to have kids I had to redefine what “being a woman” was for myself. I’ve disassociated it from my ability to have children, so having irregular or no period is a good thing to me (though I’m on the pill to regulate it). The only symptoms that I really struggle with are the weight gain and hirsutism. I’m extremely self conscious about these two, though I’m working on trying not to be. It’s frustrating to live in a society where I’m told daily “if you would only eat right and work out you’d be thin” and know that’s not true for me. Losing weight is a near impossibility for me (thanks PCOS and hypothyroidism), and yet I’m told that I’m what’s wrong with this country. I didn’t choose this genetic makeup, it chose me, and I’m doing my best to live with it.

I have the opposite sort of issue with PCOS, it never EVER lets me forget I am a woman. It makes me feel like an uber-woman, the womanliest of women, awash in a never-ending montage of yogurt ads and tampon commercials.

My PCOS means I have a nearly neverending period. (29 days and counting, just this cycle! Ask me about my iron supplements!!) I feel like I am always at my weakest, always at the least positive end of the how-if-feels-like-for-a-girl spectrum. It is uncomfortable. It’s hard on my sex life. My PCOS, more than anything else, is the reason I can’t enjoy and relish the body I’ve been given.

And yet, for all of the bleeding and up-close n’ personal I get with the girliest parts of me, PCOS is taking away the one thing that is truly a woman’s domain, pregnancy and childbirth. Which does make me feel less like a ‘real woman’.

Leave a Reply