N.B. It’s quite possible that this needs a ‘trigger warning’ – I don’t know what the etiquette or process around that is; if anyone who knows reads this and thinks YES THIS NEEDS A TRIGGER WARNING, then please do let me know and I’ll change this N.B. to “TRIGGER WARNING.” Thanks.
I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was thirteen. Things had been funky for a while – I ‘hit puberty’ too early – half way between my ninth and tenth birthdays, and it seems I transformed excessively in a short period of time. By the time I was diagnosed I had reached the height that I am now, twelve years later.
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is a dickhead way of saying I’ve got chunks of persistent random shit around my ovaries that mess with my hormones and, in turn, my fertility. Oh, and in extreme cases, they can get so big that they can strangle your ovaries, such that they begin to rot inside your body, possibly rupture, cause internal bleeding, and ruin your day.
The random searing pain, weight gain and potential infertility weren’t my main concerns as a kid. My main issue was the sprouting of hairs that other girls my age weren’t getting. Even the ones who eventually went through puberty didn’t seem to have the same problem as me.
At first, my mum used to wrap the issue in cuteness: “Don’t worry about it, you look like a cute fuzzy bear!”
Anyone who has spent more than ten seconds with a ten year old knows that that won’t fly in a group of kids at school. It’s hard to say how much of the stigma I constructed in my head and how much of it was from other kids making comments. However, my nickname was definitely not Fuzzy Bear.
By age 11 my mum was helping me use depilatory cream on the majority of my skin. She was trying to help, but the more we used it, the worse it got. “When I did this in my twenties it reduced the amount of regrowth; I just don’t understand it.”
She was scared of waxing and plucking, having never done it before, so it didn’t seem to be an option for me – all the hair on her body was thin and fine and barely noticeable. She had never faced this problem before, and though her intentions were in the right place, she was not equipped to help me.
Now I was covered in coarse, thick hair and embarrassed to look people in the eye.
The fantasies started around when I was eleven. We had been through a number of different methods, and had set up a fairly regular weekly ritual. I didn’t want my mother near me anymore, because I was sick of her frustration, and I was ashamed enough as it was. I felt that when she looked at me, she was disappointed that I would never be the pretty daughter she hoped for.
I don’t remember the first time I started thinking it, but I remember a period of a few months when the idea of picking up a knife and peeling off my skin – my neck, my chin and my cheeks – started to invade my thoughts when in a resting state. I would imagine it vividly – imagine getting used to the sensation, and then it being strictly business. I convinced myself that if I could work up enough momentum to do it, it would solve my problems, that the hair wouldn’t grow back because the skin would be grafted or would form scar tissue. I thought I could deal with scars, but I couldn’t deal with feeling repulsed by myself every week. The cycle seemed endless (and it is, by the way.)
I never did build up to picking up a knife. I cannot say that I’ve stopped think about it – not for the pain – that’s something that I don’t think I fully understand – but because at least that way, I’ll feel like I’ve tried absolutely everything.
When I turned twelve we had moved back to England from Saudi Arabia. I felt like there were more options here – and by the time I was fifteen, laser hair removal was new and shiny and a permanent solution. Since then, I have never felt such excitement and anticipation. I began saving up money, my mother agreed to pay for half. A six session cycle of treatment cost over £1000.
I went for a consultation and the Doctor said: “Yes. You’re a perfect candidate, we could have near semi-permanent removal, and extreme reduction in the worst case.”
What I heard was: “Welcome to the Promised Land.”
For the treatment, they insist you don’t wax or pluck – you come in and they shave your face. I cried, utterly humiliated, the first time they did this. The actual process involves a burning hot laser against your skin, essentially burning the hair follicles at the root.
I expected pain – in fact, I was used to it, and I’ve always had a fairly high tolerance to it. I hadn’t listened to the Doctor’s explanation of the process before it went ahead. I was not expecting the burning sensation to be so close to an actual burning sensation. As in, pin-points of flame, in your flesh, on each individual follicle, filling your skull with searing white pain.
After the first hour-long session, my skin had swollen and my eyes seemed hollowed and pushed back into my saggy, red face. I sat in the bathroom and splashed cold water in the hopes it would help relieve the discomfort, but that served only to wash the aloe ‘cooling cream’ from my skin. It was a sickly hot July, but I carried my trusty lower-face-hiding scarf with me and wrapped myself up and begun the hour and forty five minute journey home on the tube.
I went back for three more sessions. I didn’t feel much change in between the treatments and though I had taken industrial strength pain killers the second and third times, I did not have the strength to carry on. I made excuses the whole way there – as if I had forgotten the purpose of the treatment – ‘I can get over this,’ ‘I can accept my body for the way it is,’ ‘It’s a syndrome for fuck’s sake, it’s not your fault!’ – but I made it into the clinic. Before the session I sat in the waiting room, my whole body weighed down with dread. I stood up and walked out. I’m sure they called my name and wondered if they’d imagined me walking in and saying I was there. I couldn’t do it.
The persistent dreams of picking up the knife came back to me for a brief period then. I don’t know what happened after that – perhaps some more maturity, perhaps I convinced myself with my own posturing – but I learned not to look myself in the eye every week, and it made the whole thing a lot more bearable. While I was at university, my internal world stopped focussing on this particular issue – I just got on with it.
Now that I’m a bit older, the other symptoms of PCOS have begun to play on my mind – particularly potential infertility. Of course it has; it’s far more important. A few years ago I had a large cyst removed that was cutting off blood to my left ovary. They made two tiny scars – one on my right side and one in my belly button, and swum in to save me with a camera, a blade and a vacuum. It was successful. The cyst was the size of a grapefruit, and was a dermoid cyst – it had little teeth and hairs growing out of it. Don’t ask me, I’m not a doctor – I just produce nightmares with my body.
Here’s the thing. I know I want kids – I know it’s an issue I’m going to have to face, and fortunately I know I won’t be alone for that. But this thing with the hair, man, it doesn’t go away. It’s an endless cycle, and it’s something that’s incredibly taboo in most cultures. It’s ridiculed universally, and some women who go through menopause then make self deprecating jokes about it. But I’ve been tackling this fun-bag since I was 9. This is one I still haven’t figured out internally. I like myself, a lot. I think I’m a good person, that I’m loving and deserve to be loved, that I’ll have a forever-partner that finds me attractive and loves me. It’s just these moments, once in a while, when you catch your eye in the mirror, and somehow you’re a kid – you’re still Fuzzy Bear. Except, that was never really your nickname.
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