Betrayal : Life with PCOS
Part 1. Our Lives
by Ravi Naidoo
Betrayal is a series of portraits that explore the feelings of women suffering from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and the complexity of existing in a body that you feel has failed you. This series is about suffering in silence and isolation. It is about the shared experience of living with PCOS through its worst and the daily reality of depression, pain, anxiety, fatigue due to a condition that most people don’t know about and which we don’t discuss.
As a woman there are things you take for granted: fertility, femininity, the ability to look and feel alive and vital. PCOS, robs you of all of this. It affects, your weight, skin , mental wellbeing, energy and overall health. It is not fatal, and not considered a serious illness but it does eat away at the elements of your life that would bring you joy. The lack of awareness is disturbing considering that a staggering 20 % of women of reproductive age are affected by PCOS and upto 40 % of instances of infertility are due to PCOS.
I never knew about PCOS, despite years of painful, irregular periods and a myriad of doctor’s visits. I remember days of debilitating pain each month wondering why it was so intense, only to be told that it was normal. It was only in my 20’s when I started to gain weight excessively that a doctor diagnosed PCOS. By that point one of my ovaries was completely covered in cysts and my chances of conception cut in half. There is no cure. No consensus on what causes PCOS. No way to undo the damage. All you can do is mitigate the symptoms with lifestyle changes, which is a source of frustration all on its own.
It is the ultimate catch 22, you are told to diet and exercise to improve your symptoms, but as anyone who has PCOS knows, the fatigue and depression are hardly conducive to that. I am not lazy or unmotivated I am chronically exhausted and mentally defeated before I have even begun. I don’t choose to stay up all night I have sleep apnea. I’m not moody my hormones are just off balance. I am not overweight because I am a glutton it is because my body stores more than it should and I have insulin resistance.
Of all the symptoms that come with PCOS, infertility is one that hurts the most. It is the quintessential element of being female. I have never wanted children but knowing the odds are markedly against me seem so unjust. I would like to be able to choose.
Betrayal was a series born of frustration. I set out to find ladies similarly afflicted who felt as I did. The aim was to create portraits that depict our struggles, to use art to reflect our reality, to create something that not only brings the topic of PCOS to the forefront but also makes us feel less alone. We are all fighting our own battles against the mental and physical aspects of PCOS and I wanted to give credence to both the unique experiences as well as those universally felt. Each participant was asked to describe their experience in a few words. Those words form the title of each image you see in part 1. I have also included excerpts from each participant that tell their story.
The reason the portraits you see are so bare is because I wanted to remove the stigma and shame attached to how we feel about our bodies. PCOS is a physical medical condition that essentially has alot of us feeling betrayed by our bodies. It is physical, but has emotional and mental consequences. The body is thus integral to this series.
PCOS causes weight gain. It is a veritable fact and yet we all feel a sense of shame at having gained weight, we feel unattractive as a result and try to hide our bodies and flaws. I wanted to strip away that shame and those layers of clothes we hide behind, to brave the reality of our perfectly imperfect selves. The nudity you see is not gratuitous, it is self-affirming, it is liberating.
I wanted to present real women with bodies that have suffered through the symptoms of PCOS. These are real women with real flaws who own their beauty despite that. We usually cover up things we are insecure about, and I want to do the opposite with this series. I want to expose and make it not just acceptable, but beautiful and powerful.
” I suffered two miscarriages which left me feeling broken, worthless and hopeless…”
“We, as a society, are obsessed with perfect faces, perfect bodies and anything short of perfection is considered as unworthy. This feeling is a result of actual external criticism, people directly or indirectly picking on my weight.
I love myself and the portrait of me being that bubbly, friendly socialite but behind closed doors is a completely different story…”
“I went through weight gain…severe acne…weight loss…many, many, many hospital visits, most of which they sent me home without a clue of what was wrong with me.”
“The periods are still severe and I go through so many emotions during those few days and I feel like nobody understands me or what my body is experiencing.
PCOS and Endometriosis are quite complex conditions and there is lack of understanding, awareness and sensitivity around the conditions. “
“My body kept getting bigger and the symptoms I never understood, kept getting the better of me! It’s emotional because it feels like your body can’t do the things its meant to, and somehow feels like I’m at fault. If I just handle myself better….”
“Nausea everyday made me feel like giving up. I couldn’t eat without feeling like throwing up. I had no appetite.
There was a chain reaction of every problem leading to another, and more problems everyday. “
“Ever since my very first and every period that followed, all I felt was pain and agony. Pain indescribable to any of my friends or even cousins. I missed many days of school due to heavy and painful periods. I often witnessed my mum experience this same agony and she eventually had to have a hysterectomy in her early forty’s.”
“The emotional stress that one feels can be really suffocating and depressing. The pain I experience is both physical and emotional.. I try keeping myself busy so that I can overcome the needle that is constantly pricking my heart.”
“Along with losing all my weight came society attacking my appearance…referring to me as “skin and bones” saying I would look better if I gained weight. Not realizing how difficult life truly is behind the closed doors of a woman diagnosed with PCOS. I wish more people understood.”
“ In a society like ours where bearing a child is seen as the highest duty concomitant with womanhood, having a condition that could make you infertile exposes you to scorn and pity and makes you feel undesirable”
“I cannot look at myself in the mirror and not feel a degree of disgust. What have I become? This isn’t me! I used to be the happiest, most positive person! I am still all that on the outside, but on the inside it’s no longer that way. That’s what PCOS does to you, and you don’t realise until the symptoms are overwhelming and start to take up a major part of your day.”
“Our Mum’s and aunts didn’t know about PCOS and all it’s different manifestations because they believed that the pain and irregularities they had was just the way it goes. It’s not, and we know better now! “
click here to view Part 2 : Our Frustration
Photography : Stand & Stare Studios photography by Ravi Naidoo
Assistant : Reece Reuben
Models: Pranitha Ramckurran , Megan Lalbahadur, Michelle Govender, Sarishka Harrieparsadh
Make up : Luminous Kreations and Makeup By Humaiira