“Perhaps you should not dress like that?” was the first thing my mother said to me one April afternoon when I was 15 when I told her that the boys at the park had told jokes about how I looked. I’d looked down at my dress then – it was my favorite – fine calico fabric with tiny blue umbrellas dotted across.
“There is nothing wrong with my dress. It is not about the dress anyway,” I said, “They always do that. They always say ‘hey board,’ when I walk past,” I paused then, trying and failing to hide how much that bothered me.
My mother sighed. “A woman’s body is always considered public property. There are very few things everyone and anyone hold such strong opinions on what it should be and how it should look like a woman’s body.”
Eight years later, I would be reminded of this when every conversation I hold with childhood friends, extended family, and even the old storekeeper of the corner shop next to my parents’ house is punctuated with “oh you’ve put on sooo much weight.”
And when I ran into one of the boys whose name for me all those years ago was “flat as a board,” he said “Now why’d you go on and gain all this weight? You used to look so good being slim in those days.” I did not tell him that the specific phrase he’d used to describe me in those days was “thin as a broomstick, flat as a board.”
I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome a few months after I turned 18, just right after I had started to become at peace with how I looked. I had just started to grow out some breasts, my body starting to look more like … a cone, perhaps, than a board. With all the growth that came with budding breasts and jutting hips, one thing however remained inert – periods. It came once in three months or never at all.
It had been six months since my last period when I finally went to see a doctor, my mother by my side. He had half-heartedly listened to my complaints and then said “there is nothing wrong with you.” He punctuated this by turning to my mother and saying, “She’s just being a typical late bloomer.”
I nodded, thinking that it made perfect sense. My body never seemed to be early for anything.
But when we sat across from a different doctor in a different hospital three months later, my stomach heavy from all the water I’d drunk for my ultrasound, and she told me I had PCOS, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Years later, I would tell my therapist that it had felt like a “Congratulations! You were a woman and now you’re not!” reveal. Because even then, at 18, that was what having a period every month meant to me – a ticket into the Women’s Club.
“What was so important about having a period that made you feel like less of a woman because you did not have them?” she’d ask. And I would tell her about something that happened in my uni dorm room that had housed us four to six girls. It had been one of those lazy weekends and we were all draped across our beds when one of the girls said “Isn’t it crazy? Our periods are so in sync.” This led to a very lengthy conversation on the science of period-syncing between women in the same space. But even as I joined them, laughing on cue, there was a part of me that felt out of place, excluded from the bonding that came with having a menstrual cycle. Two months later as we said goodbye to each other at the end of the session, one of my roommates had casually said “Your period never did sync with ours,” and I didn’t know whether what I detected in her tone was an accusation or a compliment.
Years later when I felt safe enough to mention my lack of a menstrual cycle to my friend, the first thing she said was “oh my! You’re so lucky. Periods are gross.” But the thing is I do not feel lucky. I would give anything to be able to casually say “oh my period came early this month.” To belong to what I considered that cool club of period-havers that I’ve only ever observed from the outside.
“No. I didn’t get PCOS because of something I did. No, PCOS doesn’t have a cure,” is always ready on the tip of my tongue at family dinner tables as questions of “what are you doing about your condition?” and “have you considered losing weight? I read somewhere that it could be the cure” from my well-meaning aunts are thrown at me across the table, leaving me the unofficial defender of this illness that has found its home in my ovaries.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t eat that,” another aunt would say as I reached for the chicken bowl, pushing the bowl with greens towards me instead and on the ride home in my Uber, I would Google-search “How to Lose Weight in a Few Months,” vowing silently to myself that this is the routine I would actually stick to. Until the next week when I’m having drinks with friends and someone casually mentions a new skincare routine “you’ve absolutely got to try for your acne” and I am again sent into another frenzy, reading pages upon pages of “DIY for clear skin” because I simply cannot afford to buy another serum or moisturizer with money I didn’t have.
“My mother was right. A woman’s body is public property,” I once said to other members of a PCOS Support Group I was a part of, a few months after I was diagnosed with high blood pressure just after I turned 22. “There are more risks associated with PCOS – diabetes, ovarian cancer, depression and anxiety, endometriosis, high blood pressure, and a host of other actual medical conditions. And yet, what everyone seems fixated on is the weight gain, the hair growth, the acne.”
“True,” E. had said, “ When I was diagnosed, I was really concerned about was the fact that I might never be able to have kids, which is weird because I don’t even like kids.”
We all quite agreed that what we were really suffering from was deeply ingrained societal bias on women’s physical appearance we had unconsciously bought into. If I had to pinpoint a moment where my healing had begun, it would be that one.
At our next meeting, Ro wore low rise jeans and a crop top, modeling briefly for us before she sat, “I haven’t worn jeans like this in years because I was always self-conscious about my midriff. And I’m done with that. My body is a temple.”
We laughed and we cheered and we agreed that our bodies were temples.
Six years after my diagnosis, I have found that there is no easy way to deal with PCOS. No road map to stop feeling like a stranger in your own body. It is a process. A long, back-breaking, nerve-wracking, tumultuous, “I don’t think I can do this anymore” process. At the end though? You start to understand that your body has carried you and borne witness to everything that you have been through and yet it still stands. It is at that point you finally realize that you should be thankful. The acne scars, the folds and back rolls, the stretch marks and hip dips all become part of a long long journey that finally saw you home.
It took me a long time to get here, but I am home.