PCOS and the Medical Myth of Clockwork Periods
Image Source: Vulvani.
At the age of 10, I was told in my first sexual education class that I would start menstruating when I was 12-14 years old, and have a period every 28 days that would last for 3-4 days each and would cause me some minor discomfort. In reality, I started my period when I was 11 years old, and it lasted for 11 days. I then had incredibly painful periods, which would often cause me to miss school and work. When I was around 15, my periods started to get more irregular, and by the time I was 18 I was only menstruating every 3-5 months. Now aged 24, I was recently diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
Essentially, PCOS causes your ovaries to become inflamed and develop small fluid-filled sacs that surround your eggs and prevent you from ovulating. Classic symptoms of PCOS include irregular menstruation or no periods at all, infertility, hirsutism, and acne. It has also been linked to an increased risk of developing serious chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, as well as psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, its impact on people’s daily lives remains severely under-researched. My immediate thoughts when I was diagnosed were largely negative and self-deprecating. I felt a sense of inadequacy and loss, as if I had failed at the task my body was designed to do, and was cheated out of the certainty of aunt flo’s monthly visits. After some reflection and conversations with friends, I started to question why these feelings prevailed even in the knowledge that PCOS is so common.
I then set to work researching. While conducting my research, I discovered that the NHS website has an entire page dedicated to ‘Period Problems’, which deals with heavy periods, irregular periods, painful periods, and other conditions. Paradoxically, the page repeatedly reassures menstruating people that many of these “problems” are common, and yet sets them against the standard of the unproblematic clockwork period. For those of us who experience such “problems”, and therefore deviate from the prescribed framework, this can cause a number of anxieties.
The mythical model of the clockwork period creates a medical ideal of “femininity” and reproductive “health”, which can be especially detrimental to the emotional states of womxn with PCOS. Studies indicate that people with PCOS are often most concerned about their feminine and reproductive identities, and even experience themselves as “freaks”. These feelings are often accompanied by more pervasive psychological issues. I just so happen to be a case in point, having been diagnosed with depressive disorder a few weeks before my PCOS diagnosis (way to kick a woman when she’s down). Given these findings, the lack of research into the emotional impact of PCOS seems even more like a glaring blindspot on the part of medical authorities.
The anxieties faced by people with PCOS are also the product of reductive sexual education programmes, and sometimes a lack of information provided by health professionals. PCOS was definitely not mentioned on the tiny period-education pamphlet we were given at school that contained little more than a diagram of a vagina. Nor was it mentioned later in our sex ed tutorials, which almost entirely consisted of fear-mongering images of STIs and putting a condom on a banana. After my PCOS diagnosis, I asked my GP if there was anything I can do to stop the condition worsening, or to keep more serious linked conditions like diabetes at bay. I was met with: “just maintain a healthy lifestyle and go back on the pill.” This is why opening up public discussion about our menstrual experiences is so important. I have learnt so much more from my own experiences and the experiences of others than from established medical authorities.
Encouraging steps have been taken in recent years to increase our recognition of the particular burdens menstruating people face in their daily lives. We do, however, have further to go in ensuring that our activism encompasses all aspects of menstrual experience. This is why I advocate for a more individualised approach, in which we can appreciate the benefits of solidarity in shared experiences while also recognising the necessity of dismantling the model of menstrual “normality”. Liberating ourselves from the medical myth of the clockwork period is crucial to helping menstruating people with PCOS and other conditions to overcome feelings of inadequacy and abnormality. It all starts with simply talking about periods and our menstrual experiences, so keep the conversation going!
Isabella Newton (Read the full article at Imprint)
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