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 one in 10 women between the ages of 15 and 44. Up to 70 percent of us living with PCOS experience hirsutism, a.k.a. 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. For women, 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 Body's War on Femininity
My naturally fine hair started to thin in my twenties, an allover fallout unlike the receding hairline many men deal with. Two pregnancies in three years made the problem even worse, leaving my scalp barely covered. (Major hormonal events like pregnancy can cause hair to shed for all women, not just those with PCOS.)
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 that 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 super-bloom. 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, which 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.
For years I've struggled with what PCOS means for my sense of femininity. At rock bottom, I thought I'd failed at being a woman because I couldn't create a child, my self-image-one that never matched what I considered "beautiful"-adding insult to injury all the while.
Balding, Bearded, Beautiful
Since I was diagnosed 25 years ago, I have had time to confront the painful misconception that PCOS makes me less feminine. Over all those years, my lighted vanity mirror has done double duty as I've fretted over my thinning hair and attacked the army of black hairs spreading across my chin and cheeks. How could I reconcile the imbedded beliefs-that hair here makes girls pretty, but hair there makes girls less pretty-with the flip-flopped image in my mirror?
Ultimately, it's been a paradoxical mix of caring so much I'd do anything to fake it-the wigs, the weekly shaving sessions always done in secret-and the emotionally grueling challenge of learning not to care. In my twenties it felt like a huge deal to face the world with what I believed were glaring physical defects. Each day just putting on my makeup and facing the world felt like an act of bravery. By my forties, all that courage has built up a tougher skin-thankfully, the energy I have to worry about an errant chin hair is diminishing.
These days I wear a new wig around the house for weeks before trying it out in public. I have to feel like it's "me" before I can be "me" in front of people. Every Sunday, in addition to my weekly pluckfest, I wash my hair. Not the short fuzzy bits growing from my scalp, but the pastel pink waves or the sunny blond bob on my wig stands. I have collected at least a dozen hair pieces in the last three years-a deep red one that my husband favors, a sassy wavy asymmetrical cut that reminds me of my mom, a fluffy bleach blond that looks like 1970s Dolly Parton's. When I wear that last one, I can't help but think about Dolly's powerful feminine essence, an undeniably beautiful woman who never had children, wears wigs and costumes to present her chosen image to the world, and has been a total boss for decades. On days when I want to beat myself up, my Dolly wig is a source of strength.
My Sunday rituals help me feel confident. They help me feel feminine. They help me feel like me, PCOS and all. But on days when it feels too labor intensive, I ignore the magnifying mirror and put on a hat. And that too is a beautiful thing.
Anna Lee Beyer is a writer in Texas covering wellness, parenting, mental health, and books. Follow her at www.annaleebeyer.com and on Twitter @anna_beyer.