As much as sexism is political and economic, it manifests itself as an instinctive attitudinal bias towards conditions that are considered to be ‘women’s problems’. This article is on how something like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges, can fuel latent biases prevalent against women’s bodies, lifestyles and sexualities.
It was only after a series of missed monthly periods and unexplained weight gain that I was diagnosed with PCOS. I was in my mid-twenties and was on a summer break in Kolkata. I was with my parents that day and I remember how we were all a little numb after stepping out of the hospital.
It is not that my family is medically unaware or averse, and they exhibited their concern as well as the ‘it’s okay’ attitude that has taught me to face most adversities in life. The physician was also considerate enough to explain the basics of PCOS to us.
On my first official PCOS date with my gynaecologist, I was told that it could be treated but not cured; and that it could last for years, if not a lifetime. While the cause of PCOS isn’t easy to pin down as it could be any combination of various genetic-environmental factors, I wanted my doctor to give more personalised information than I could mine out of a Google search.
Back then, I had still not learnt to maintain a healthy objective distance from PCOS – its severity rang an ominous tone in my head.
I was asked if I was in a relationship and a sexual relationship. I said yes to both. But did I want to marry and have babies? No, came my answer. I had personal and professional goals to accomplish before getting married.
The doctor’s reasoning was roundabout: since PCOS affects a woman’s ability to get pregnant, she advised me to get pregnant well within the conventional biological clock line. Which meant soon. But I didn’t feel that my biological clock was ticking and I didn’t want to get pregnant at that time.
It was not just the one doctor, conversations around pre-marital sex and motherhood resurfaced across most gynaecologist tables in Delhi and Kolkata.
Even if the risks of PCOS include diabetes, heart ailments and hypertension, most doctors appear to be driven by the conviction that becoming a mother is the ultimate goal of any young woman diagnosed with PCOS. But I had certain financial goals and duties towards my family I wished to fulfil. I didn’t want to put a brake on my career, which I had only just begun.
Such expectations from women stem from deep-rooted prejudices – that girls will marry ‘one day’ and become mothers. Why is it such a given? What about women with PCOS who choose to stay single and not become mothers?
My question is – had it been a man suffering from a hormonal disorder of any kind, would he have been recommended the same things I was? Why is virginity and motherhood so valued for women over and above their education, career, bank balance, independence and happiness?
One male gynaecologist advised me to start mopping floors since I couldn’t climb trees. He was taking a dig at my weight – which is fine – only I had expected a better game plan in return for the money I had paid at the counter.
‘Women’s issues’ like periods and PCOS attract a culture of silence or denial. While some people – both male and female – choose to keep a studied silence if and when the subject of PCOS ever comes up during gatherings, my partner chose the path of denial when I told him I had PCOS. He didn’t accord it the seriousness that he did his father’s diabetes or his friend’s father’s hydrocele.
Today, I am much grown up and far stronger. I deal with my condition with a lot of discipline, information and objective sensitivity. However, what I learnt during my trial phase is that my PCOS body is a matter of ridicule or taboo for most, and that society is still not ready to view a woman’s ovarian cysts outside the stereotypical male gaze.
Why is there an urge to ‘tame’ women’s ‘raging’ hormones?
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.
Featured image credit: Kat Jayne/Pexels