As the sun casts its long-awaited rays over the British skies, women across the UK are readying themselves for this seasons arm and leg bearing fashion-wear. The desire to be honed and hairless is as synonymous with summer as children screaming for ice cream. Waxing, threading and epilating are just some of the ways that body-hair is banished, only to find that it usually returns with stubbly fervour. But for the hirsute woman, a quick trip to the salon every few weeks is unlikely to suffice.
Hirsutism, the medical term for excessive female face and body-hair, is just one of the many symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), along with migraines, diabetes, obesity and acne. “It robs me of my femininity”, says Kate, 29, who was diagnosed with PCOS ten years ago. “It’s hard to feel womanly when I get only one or two periods a year, and like a guy I shave my face everyday.”
Thanks to the hormonal imbalance that can cause higher testosterone levels, women with the condition often struggle with their weight, skin and excess hair. “I was too shy to go to the doctor about my body-hair and adult acne” admits Shauna, 43. “I was really embarrassed about it, and fearful that I’d be turned away for my vanity.” When she was finally tested, Shauna was surprised to see the cysts on her ultrasound scan: “I’m so used to seeing hair and acne on Mum’s body, that I thought it was just a family trait.”
Like Shauna, many women don’t realise that they’ve got the condition until they try to get pregnant. PCOS is the leading cause of female infertility, and sadly, the disorder is often unrecognised until it’s so far developed that it’s no longer possible to conceive. Shauna has given up hope of having children, but adds that “My only wish is that I’d known about PCOS sooner” as she could’ve been correctly medicated to reduce the symptoms and improve her chances of pregnancy.
PCOS effects around ten percent of women, and yet its hardly the first women’s health cause to be on the tip of many tongues. If the associated high blood pressure and high cholesterol are ignored, then the chances of a heart attack can be alarmingly high, and perhaps most worryingly, the cysts can even lead to cancer if left undiagnosed. Although there’s no medical cure for PCOS, the symptoms can be treated and the ovarian cysts can be surgically removed.
Shauna takes spironolactone, an anti-androgen drug, to reduce her hair growth and testosterone levels, along with norethindrone, a form of progesterone, to speed up her elusive cycle. She also takes metformin, an anti-diabetic drug that will hopefully trigger ovulation and lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Even though she’s no longer concerned with fertility, she’s told that without a regular cycle, she faces much higher chances of uterine and endometrial cancers.
Kate, on the other hand, has decided to throw caution to the wind and live a medication free life: “After years of experimentation with different drugs and side-effects, I tried the natural approach.” Since then, Kate has developed a strict diet that excludes meat, wheat and dairy, along with doing daily exercise. “The results are gradual and it’s really hard work, but I am feeling happier and healthier.”
Ask both women what their most difficult, problematic symptom is and the answer is a resoundingly clear, one word answer: “Hair!”. Not the higher risk of cancer or heart disease or even the significantly slimmer chances of having a baby. No, what’s worse is the distressing daily ritual of hair removal, and the alienation that comes with being hirsute in a world full of hair-free beauty standards. “It may sound silly,” Kate says, “but it’s a constant reminder of my condition, and I have to literally deal with it everyday.” Shauna adds that in the heat of summer, her skin is “harder to hide” so she totally avoids the sunshine.
This August, think of the one in 10 women who suffer with PCOS, and consider showing some hairy solidarity. Armpits4August is a charitable campaign that challenges women to stop one hair removal practice, on one area, for one month. While all proceeds will go to the PCOS charity Verity, the event also hopes to raise awareness of PCOS, hirsutism and the generally accepted expectation to remove female body-hair.
At the end of the month, some women will merrily wax it all off, while others will keep their new pair of furry friends. Either way, Armpits4August hopes to chip away at these narrow beauty standards so that all women, whether they’ve got conventional hair, hirsutism or alopecia, may begin to feel more comfortable with the skin they’re in.