Today is Sunday so I pluck. First, I buzz my face with an epilator, pulling out some of the longer dark hairs on my chin. Next, I park myself in front of the lighted magnifying mirror and pull out every little black hair I can find. I have to put a time limit on this stage or my face will be red and blotchy from aggressive examination. Finally, if I still feel too fuzzy, I lightly scrape my upper lip and cheeks with a tiny eyebrow razor. The fun colors and feminine face on the package reassure me that these blades are fun products for ladies…as unfeminine as it feels to shave my face.
My unruly chin hairs are a symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a metabolic disorder affecting 1 in 10 women between the ages of 15 and 44. Up to 70 percent of us living with PCOS experience “hirsutism,” aka excess hair. So, I’m not alone in my weekly grooming routine.
But that’s not the half of it. Other symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, acne, insulin resistance and infertility. But the real kicker I’m reminded of every time I look in the mirror is that PCOS can also cause hair loss. That’s right, many of us live with excess hair and hair loss at the same time, thanks to an excess of androgens pumping throughout our bodies. Over one in five women with PCOS (including me) have androgenic alopecia, according to a 2014 study—a fancy way of saying we’re balding.
The culprit behind my faint beard and thinning hair are androgens—hormones including testosterone which are (unsurprisingly) often categorized as male. This is a bit of a misnomer—all humans produce androgens, but biological males typically produce more than biological females. As a woman, too much testosterone disrupts the reproductive cycle and can cause the tandem effects of facial hair growth and alopecia as the cherry on top.
My naturally fine hair started to thin in my 20s—an all over fallout unlike the receding hairline many men deal with. Two pregnancies in three years made the problem even worse—major hormonal events like pregnancy can cause hair to shed for all women, not just those with PCOS—leaving my scalp barely covered.
My self-esteem tanked, as I frantically started testing any product I could get my hands on to conceal my hair loss—powders that make hair look thicker, clip-in hairpieces to blend in with my own hair, topical solutions which promised to help my thinning strands regenerate. But after my second postpartum shed, concealers weren’t enough: I bought a wig.
Then there were the chin hairs. I had a few stray sprouts when I was younger but pregnancy caused a full-on sperbloom. I wanted to be at my most feminine while I was pregnant, a goddess at the root of creation and growth. Instead I felt like a witch with broken, stringy hair on my head and whiskers spreading across my face.
It’s not just the attack on typically feminine definitions of beauty—PCOS also impacts what society tells us is one of the most fundamental elements of womanhood: fertility. It took seven years and many, many fertility treatments before I was finally able to get pregnant. My fertility struggles felt like an inability to “accomplish” womanhood, that was reinforced every time I looked in the mirror. Between the fertility challenges and the haywire hair growth patterns, PCOS can be like kryptonite for a woman’s self esteem. No wonder women with PCOS report higher rates of depression and anxiety.