On Beauty Standards, Illness-induced Weight Gain and Learning to Work Through It

Hey everyone!

So I’m just emerging from a blackhole Bridgerton binge and let me tell you, it made me feel single AF, annoyed, hot & bothered, and INVESTED all at the same time. Shonda Rhimes knows how to give hit shows, honey. And she took her talents to Netflix after ABC played her for some Disney tickets? I love that for her. Twitter is swooning over the Duke of Hastings, and while I’m not as convinced about his…Duke-ness, the chemistry between him and Daphne Bridgerton is off the chain. Def binge-worthy!

This Week’s Story

Have you heard of PCOS? It’s a metabolic health issue caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones that affects 1 in 10 women around the world. But when it comes to women of color, particularly, Black women, it’s severely underdiagnosed. Zainab Onuh-Yahaya, a writer from Nigeria, shares her personal story on how she and her mom learned of her diagnosis and how it changed not only their relationship but her relationship with her own body.

PS: You might notice that this email looks a bit different from our normal emails. We’re now on Substack! Now you can like and comment on stories right from the email. I’m experimenting or whatevaaa for the next few weeks so let me know if you’re digging this new format in the comments!

by Zainab Onuh-Yahaya

“I’ve always been the girl in the wrong clothes for spring // yet I understand my body // is a gift…” – Carly Joy Miller

I have never met anyone who prided themselves on their clean bill of health as my mother does.

“I didn’t even know what a headache felt like when I was your age,” she would say as she handed me aspirin for my intense almost-constant migraine.

“I’m sorry,” I said to her once as we sat in the very familiar waiting room on one of my doctor’s appointments.

“For what?” mother asked, surprised.

“For being the always-sick daughter of an always-healthy mother,” I replied back.

I’d never seen my mother look so alarmed, “No,” she began, shaking her head vehemently. Even now, I still wonder what she would have said further if the nurse hadn’t called my turn for a consultation.

That was the last time my mother talked about how healthy she always is. I was 20 at the time and I thought it was years too late. I had already lived the worst part of my illnesses with a caregiver who had no understanding or patience for illnesses.

.  .  .                                   .

I was sixteen the year I orchestrated what I think of as my “Big Fat Lie.” Almost a decade later, I remember every single thing that happened like it had happened yesterday. 

It was a cold February morning the day I walked to the dye-woman on my way to school. I remember standing outside, not wanting any colours to cling to my uniform. I remember the look of surprise on her face as I told her what I wanted. I remember it had taken me weeks to save up enough to pay for it and I remember counting out the money and handing it to her. I remember gingerly placing my prize inside my backpack. But what I remember most of all was the careful precision with which I spilled the crimson dye on my bright yellow skirt in a tiny cubicle in the school’s restroom during break time.

“Guys” I called out to my friends fixing their berets in front of the mirror, “My period is here,” I said casually to them as though it happens all the time, “You don’t happen to have a pad, do you?” I asked.

“Hold on, I’ve got one in my backpack,” Bisi said, dashing out to get it while Annie helped me try to get the stain out with wet wipes.

“This isn’t working,” she sighed defeatedly as we wiped. “I’ll go get you a clean skirt from admin.” 

I remember the relief I felt as I changed skirts, as I placed the pad on my pure white panties. I remember smiling warily back as my friends smiled encouragingly at me as I came out of the cubicle.

It was a smile I thought meant “Welcome to the club. Now you’re a part of us.”

Now, years later, after being in lots of restrooms where women have had situations just like the one I faked all those years ago, and after giving many of those smiles myself, I understand that what it actually means is “You’re not alone. I see you.” And every single time it happens, I feel both ashamed and undeserving of that smile my friends had given me in that high school restroom almost a decade ago.

I got my real period a year later. Four times within that year, each cycle three months apart from the other. My mother thought I was being a “typical late bloomer”. I thought it was punishment for the lie I had told a year ago. “Do not lie on blood,” my grandmother used to say. 

Two weeks to my 18th birthday, in what I call an ironic twist of fate, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. The scan results seemed to mock me, tiny printed words on stark white paper that would set the course for the rest of my life.

The thing about a diagnosis…any diagnosis is how at that moment, your life becomes sharply split in two—pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis—and how different each of those parts are from the other.

The week before my diagnosis, I had stood in front of my mirror, taking in my perfect hairline and clearing skin, my jutting hips, and finally budding breasts. I’d thought to myself, Now there’s how a young woman should look. That week, I went out and I didn’t shrink from the weight of my own insecurities about my body.

“PCOS isn’t a life-threatening condition,” the doctor assured my mother and I as we sat across from him, faces tight with fear. “There are a few treatments we can consider,” he continued, smiling encouragingly as our eyes widened with each option.

As the doctor reeled out treatment procedures and side effects, my mother and I fixated on two completely unnecessary parts: “You mean I’ll have acne and become fat?” I shrieked, at almost the same time my mother said, “Does this mean she’ll never be able to have children?” and for years, this was what my diagnosis represented—for me, a threat of ugliness, and for my mother, a childless daughter. 

.  .  .

As I moved from my late teens to early twenties, I saw more specialists for my weight and skin than I did for my high blood pressure, for diabetes, or even the ovarian cancer I was at risk for. I hated math but became an expert in counting calories and calculating BMI. It would have been pathetic if it wasn’t so damaging. 

The year I turned 22 was the year PCOS started being less about the extra inches on my waistline or the zit on my cheek and more about what was happening inside of my own body. 

But, through doctor appointments and medication experiments, it became increasingly difficult to tell where I ended and my PCOS began: which emotion was mine and which was a result of the medicine I religiously had to take? I constantly had to put myself and my emotions through a strict trial where I was both counsel and jury. I get upset and obsessively wonder if it is a situation worth getting upset over or if I was running purely on PCOS-induced anger. I became a side effect of my illness.

.    .   .

I was ten years old the year my brother broke his arm at our grandmother’s farm. He’d tried to chase a squirrel off a tree so he could sit on the branch, instead.

“There is always space for two things to co-exist,” my grandmother said, as she bound his arm. “And if you have to co-exist with something else, then you have to become friends or at least, learn to live with that thing.” 

The day before we were to leave the farm, we found my brother asleep on the tree, the squirrel on a branch above him.

.   .   .

It took six years after diagnosis for me to learn to live with PCOS, to allow it space for it to exist in my body. The best way to deal with anything is to live through it, my mother once said. And now, my PCOS and I have an understanding—it has a little space in my body where it occupies and I let it. Sometimes it goes on a vacation and it’s just me, alone, for a while. Some days it shows up and threatens to kick me out with the pain. But I remind it, this roommate of mine, that we can co-exist. I say “we’re stuck with each other so why don’t we just live together, please.” And I thank my body, the once unwilling host, for holding me through it all. 

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Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is a writer from Nigeria whose work centers on women, love, relationships, and inequalities. Her work has appeared on Apartment Therapy Media, Gaya Magazine, Litro Magazine and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.