Growing up as a woman in America is like dancing around a landmine. Except, instead of explosives and shrapnel, you are constantly bombarded with a standard of perfection that is fundamentally impossible to achieve — especially if you are anything other than a slender blond white cisgendered woman.
I’m not gonna lie, I meant to write this during Women’s History Month, but the mental illness doesn’t take vacation days. Plus, every month should be Women’s History Month.
Before I get into the column, I want to clarify that this is my experience coming to terms with my own femininity with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. Femininity and identity is an incredibly personal concept, and my experience as a cisgendered white woman is very different than transwomen, intersex people and women of color.
All women are women and this is not up for debate, and people who don’t identify as women also struggle with PCOS. While I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I want to clarify that this is not an isolated, predominantly cis-woman concept. Femininity exceeds the bounds of the binary, and anyone who struggles with femininity is valid and should be included in this conversation.
Like it or not, the societal expectation of what a “good woman” is hinges on how attractive we are perceived by society. We are told that the only power, agency and worth we have comes from how close we resemble the western beauty standards. When you don’t resemble this standard and you also have other circumstances like a hormone disorder, the perception of your own femininity can become warped and affect self-esteem.
For those who don’t know, polycystic ovarian syndrome is a hormone disorder that causes your body to produce more androgens or male hormones than the “average” AFAB (assigned female at birth) person. The result can be the growth of cysts along your reproductive organs, mood swings, difficulty losing weight, acne, excess facial or body hair and irregular or painful menstrual cycles as well as complications ovulating. Many people with PCOS like myself also experience endometriosis, which occurs when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus.
For the entirety of my post-pubescent life before I received a PCOS diagnosis, I struggled with feeling feminine and comfortable with my body and looks. I had a wide athletic body type and constantly felt undesirable compared to my family of tall, willowy bombshells.
I will admit that from 2020 to 2021, I almost achieved a level of self-esteem. I had the long stiletto nails and the red hair; I felt desirable and confident, and dare I say it, sexy. However, I was still insecure about my shoulders, my hips, my stomach especially and the corrosive feeling that I wasn’t good enough or desirable.
When I received my PCOS diagnosis back in 2021 and started taking medications to block my androgen production, I started out with some hope that this would be the magic thing that fixes everything. I thought it would be the solution to all my woes about feeling too big, too striking and too masculine to be considered a “good woman.”
I was sorely mistaken, because even with the meds and the blood panels and the tests and all the research I did, very little changed. My body stayed the same. I still have to shave the coarse mustache that grows every week on my upper lip. I don’t menstruate regularly and we don’t even know if I will be able to eventually have children.
This was particularly difficult for me because as weird as it sounds, I loved my period. I loved the idea that my body has this sacred cycle that would eventually grant me the divine ability to create and foster life. When my period became erratic and debilitatingly painful, it felt like my body had somehow betrayed me. As if the bare minimum of what our culture sees as the most natural thing a person with a uterus is supposed to be able to do, might not even be an option.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, trying to find peace with my femininity throughout this situation has been a challenge that I’m still dealing with. It’s like every mirror that I pass by is a fun house-warped reflection that shows me as a garish caricatured version of myself, and that’s not even taking into consideration the internal symptoms that affect my sense of self-worth.
This is the part of the column that I’m supposed to say that I had an epiphany about femininity and beauty and how none of it really matters. That did not happen; there wasn’t some magic moment under the branches of an oak tree when I was communing with Mother Nature that I discovered that femininity isn’t constituted by body type or reproduction.
It was a slow process that is still occurring to this day. It’s no secret to anyone that the last year has been obscenely rough for me. I’m stressed, depressed and doing my best, and as a result I slowly stopped caring. I ripped off my acrylics, I chopped my hair off and dyed it black and I almost exclusively wear loose comfortable clothing that does nothing for my figure. In all honesty, I realized that my femininity was still intact, even without all of the aesthetic symbols that I associated with it.
Femininity isn’t a gendered concept; it doesn’t hinge on a body type or the ability to reproduce or menstruate. Femininity is creativity; it’s fostered through nurturing life and love whether through a child, a plant, a cat or even within one’s self. It is a dynamic force that is just as powerful and strong as masculinity, and all people have a bit of femininity and masculinity within them.
I cannot stress the fact that this has nothing to do with gender or the binary. Again, all women are women and we deserve to love ourselves. If you’re like me and struggle to connect with your femininity, take comfort in the fact that your worth as a woman or feminine-presenting person has nothing to do with society, how you look or even what your body does. Your worth comes from your ability to love yourself and others. You’ve got this, and so do I. F*** the patriarchy.