PCOS and hair removal: why can’t I stop doing this?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I shave my legs every couple of weeks. My armpits more frequently – maybe once or twice each week. I pluck my eyebrows when I spot a stray hair, and get them threaded when I can brave the salon. Then occasionally I cover my neck, chest and stomach in hair removal cream, lie on the bathroom floor like a melting snowman, and wait for the hair to burn off. I have PCOS, and Sisyphus has nothing on me.

It’s 1997 and I’m sitting in French class. Two of the bitchy girls from my year twist around in their chairs, sneaking glances at my legs and giggling. When I’ve burned with shame for a few minutes one of them eventually asks me: “why are your legs so hairy? Don’t you shave?”

I’m thirteen, and I don’t yet, so I say ‘no.’ They press on: “Do you use cream then?” No. “Sugaring?” No. “Wax?” My ‘no’s didn’t work before so this time I say yes and – miraculously – they leave me alone.

That night I buy razors and cut my skin to ribbons in the bathroom. My Mum knocks on the door to check I’m OK, and I shout a cheery ‘yes’ as I bleed from knee to ankle.

It’s 2000 or so and I’ve started having sex. I shave religiously, every single day. I scrutinise all the places I expect hair to grow on my body – and am alarmed to find there are more than there should be. Legs and armpits and crotch are fine – I know now that I need to shave those. But then I spot a dark hair growing, weirdly, from the hard peak of the left side of my collarbone and I don’t know what to do with this. I tear it out and hope my boyfriend hadn’t noticed.

It’s 2003 and I’m at the doctor’s, showing her the thick hairs that are growing on my neck. I ask her what’s wrong with me and she tells me it’s PCOS. Quite common, apparently: polycystic ovary syndrome. It means that somewhere inside me tiny blister things are growing, and alongside tiny blister things on my ovaries I’ll also get a lot of hair. She gives me some pills which don’t work, and refers me to hospital where a brusque nurse orders me to drink a litre of water then lie down for an ultrasound. She covers a hard plastic wand in lubricant and sticks it inside my vagina. My eyes water, she can’t find any cysts, and the black hairs on my neck continue to grow.

The neverending battle with PCOS and hair

I could keep going like this for a very long time, but I won’t. Apart from anything else, the weird ‘will she/won’t she’ story of my PCOS diagnosis (I did have it, then I didn’t, then I did, then I didn’t, depending on which doctor I asked between the ages of 20 and 34) is boring as fuck. More importantly, it’s a story that is so densely woven with my own self-hatred that it can’t be told without causing harm to more people who read it. I can’t really write about this without spilling some of my own terrible assumptions and bodyshaming misery onto the page.

Paragraph two mentions me burning with shame. Para five talks of alarm at discovering new hairs, in the same breath as I mention how ‘weird’ they are. In para six I attempt to ‘fix’ myself, like hair is a broken arm and Something Must Be Done. And in documenting internal ultrasounds and brusque nurses, I expose the lengths I’ve gone to, with the worrying implication that they’re somehow reasonable and necessary.

I don’t actually know if I have PCOS. I grow a lot of hair in places I’d not been taught to expect it, but there are other PCOS symptoms that I don’t have, and some – such as infertility – that I will likely never know if I have or not because I’m not planning on having children. I also know – from years of reading PCOS-related stuff, watching programmes about it and nagging various doctors – that many other people have whatever this is much worse than I do. But still it’s there, this thing. It doesn’t just loom over my life, it grows out of my skin. It covers me. I can’t run away from it or escape it and so all my life I’ve just tried to remove it.

I shave. I pluck. I take out credit card debt to pay for laser treatment, then vomit when the bill comes in, then cry when the eventual last session comes and it turns out I need more. And more. And more. So I shave. I pluck. I smother myself in cream. Then I lie exhausted on the floor of the bathroom, running eager hands across the smooth bits, congratulating myself on keeping things at bay for a little while longer.

I keep pushing the rock up the mountain, and I know that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be allowed to stop.

A cure for PCOS?

Recently breathless articles reported that there may have been a breakthrough in PCOS research: researchers examined a particular type of hormone in pregnant women, then studied the effect of this hormone on pregnant mice, and examined the link between this hormone and PCOS. That link takes you to the NHS summary of the study, where you can read about it in more detail. It’s promising, though not something to go eagerly asking your GP about just yet.

My first reaction to this news was delight. Hooray! There might be something on the horizon that’ll help stop these symptoms! Maybe one day I’ll be able to put down the cream and the razors!

My second reaction was guilt: I’m meant to be body positive. I’m also perfectly aware that a bit of hair doesn’t make someone ugly or unworthy of love. My response to my own self-disgust shouldn’t be to look for a cure for my own body, it’s to become comfortable with the body I have.

But I was still longing for something that would ‘fix’ me and my PCOS for good. Because every day I pluck or shave or laser or cover myself in cream, and every day I have to feel that dragging, nagging guilt for engaging with the whole thing at all.

So what’s the answer? In light of the news that there might be a ‘cure’ on the horizon, it’s tempting to embrace that. To say ‘well soon it won’t matter’ and start nagging doctors again to see if I can get on a trial, then gulp down whatever pills they can give me that’ll stop the spiky black hairs from poking through my skin. Embrace, too, whatever side effects there are, because I’ve already had a nurse poke my insides with a white stick so I’m clearly not fussed about unintended consequences if they could just make this hair growth fucking STOP.

Hopefully you’ll be thinking what I’m thinking here: this answer isn’t actually the quick fix it initially sounds like. It’ll take time, and work, and effort, and all that stuff will disguise the fact that this isn’t a genuine solution. Once I’ve ‘cured’ myself of the hairs that grow from my collarbone, my nipples, and my neck, there’ll only be more things to ‘cure.’ More things that look wrong or bad or different and must be fixed. And I’ll still have to take a daily pill or a monthly injection or submit to more exams and prodding and testing and work.

I’m still Sisyphus, just pushing a different rock.

Meanwhile, other women are doing the same thing – in bathrooms and bedrooms throughout the country, we are plucking, shaving, waxing and covering ourselves in cream in a desperate attempt to maintain the illusion that we only grow hair on our armpits and legs: never ever our neck or nipples.


It’s 2010, and I’m sitting in a warm tent at a festival listening to a poet read her terrible work. I can’t tell you why I’m still there halfway into the set, other than maybe it’s hot outside and I’m grateful for the shade. Besides, I’m near the front and leaving while she’s speaking would be rude to her. Cruel, even.

Though not as cruel as her poetry, in which she tears down every imagined detail of her boyfriend’s wife – distilling her bitterness and hatred of this stranger into angry, clipped lines. She wrote this poem, she explains, on a weekend she’d planned to spend with her lover – a weekend he had to cancel because his wife didn’t go on the business trip she’d planned. In retaliation, she pens this poem for the woman who doesn’t know her. She imagines cellulite and wobble and flesh and age and spiky black hair like spider legs sticking out of her areolas – all the things we’re trained to hate in women. She suppresses giggles and mean smiles and she looks, in that moment, exactly like the two girls in my French class age 13, choking back laughter as they asked me if I shaved.

Two young women in the front row stand up slowly and walk out shaking their heads. I am too cowardly to follow them, but I am so grateful for what they did.


Maybe that’s the answer. Like most of the ‘right’ answers it’s boring and difficult. But the answer isn’t in a pill or an injection or the repeated application of hair removal cream until your whole house smells like Veet. We need to stop trying to ‘cure’ our bodies for not looking a certain way. We need to be like those eighteen-year-old girls and just stop listening to this bullshit.

I don’t think I will ever be one of those young women. I can torture myself with guilt when I remove hair, and I can do my best to spread the word that this shit doesn’t make you abnormal or bad. But the truth is I cannot shake this. There have been too many things in my past that have contributed to the way I feel about this – whether it’s actually PCOS or just that I’m hairier than I was ever told I would be. I can know with certainty that it’s fine, and still feel with passion that it isn’t. That’s why it’s hard to change the world – because we’re all given rocks when we’re young, and its hard to stop pushing them when that’s all you’ve ever known.

I’ll probably always push this rock, and I’ll feel guilty while I do it. But maybe if I can bitch loudly enough about the burden, and explain why I struggle to ditch it completely, then the next generation won’t have to push this rock at all. I’ll keep pushing it every day, and watching it career over the other side and back down again ready for tomorrow, but on the way maybe I’ll see some of these kids chilling at the top of the mountain. No rocks to push, just enjoying the lovely view.


  • Lori says:

    Aside from the hirsute issue, there can be other things.
    I found a doctor a number of years ago that prescribed metformin and finesteride. My PCOS symptoms are almost gone, and I am healthier.
    It doesn’t address societies issues of what women should look like, but that can be separate.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hey Lori – thanks for your input! I’ve tried metformin and a long time ago spironolactone (not sure if that has any other names). Neither worked brilliantly for me, but I’m so glad that they worked for you and you’re feeling healthier! And yeah you’re right – it’ll take more than a pill to change the wider problem!

  • @EuclideanPoint says:

    Hi GOTN,

    I have PCOS and a similar story to yours, mine was a geography lesson where I saw a kid draw a caricature of me with spiky ginger hair coming out of my chin and neck. I also don’t have a lot of the other symptoms except excess hair. And I get the whole don’t want to be hairy but also want to be body positive thing. I think there’s a difference though between accepting bodies of all shapes, sizes and hairiness, and having a preference about how you want your own body to feel and look, and having preferences about your own body is valid and doesn’t mean you’re not body positive.

    Anyway, after a lot of research I discovered that hormonal hair caused by PCOS e.g. face, neck, stomach, normally associated with ‘male’ hair patterns, actually grows back stronger when plucked or waxed. The only way to get rid or reduce is regular electrolysis which is a long, drawn-out process. I’ve been having sessions for years, started weekly and now monthly, but I used to pluck hairs every day and now hardly ever. I’m not suggesting or recommending that you go down this route, just passing on the info. Happy to answer any questions if you have any.

    EP. x

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh my god kids are so unbelievably cruel and shitty, I’m so sorry you went through that. Thank you so much for the electrolysis tips too! I’ll have a look into it as a couple of other people have recommended it as a potential alternative to laser as well. It’s the cost that’s the main kicker for me, and is why I’m trying to resist doing any more laser for now but thank you so much for the advice and I might get in touch if I can afford it/kick-start my rock-pushing again in the future! xx

  • BadKitten74 says:

    I too suffered from PCOS for many years. I had a total hysterectomy and it eased most all the symptoms. I still have the facial hair issue but I hope that one day to be able to afford to do some laser treatments or electrolysis. I understand the ups and downs of the hormone train and how frustrating it is. Pre surgery I tried Metformin and Victoza. They did not help me. Post surgery I realized I felt 100% better than I had in years and wished had done so much sooner. Best of luck and health to you. You do not suffer this horrible condition alone.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hey BK – I’m so so glad that you found something that worked for you – that’s brilliant! I’m intrigued and incredibly tempted by a hysterectomy, although obviously I know it’s a big op and so there’s lots of stuff to consider. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. x

  • Hi lovely. I had to stop reading this halfway through because it chimes so hard with my current experience and also because I do want children, so I find the idea of being infertile pretty upsetting, especially as all my friends now seem to be having babies.

    Hair beginning to grow on my neck and chin (my legs have always been fairly unaffected, but I get hairs round my nipples and on my stomach, too) was what made me suspect PCOS (along with only bleeding about every 50 days). It’s taken me literally years to work up the courage to have this confirmed by a Dr, but this year I decided to see a new GP and get my anti-depressants working before confronting this issue too. He took it seriously, which is obviously a relief and they took bloods and did an ultrasound, but like you, the ultrasound showed nothing on my ovaries and so, even though my LH levels were slightly low, he said he thought it was very unlikely to be PCOS.

    At that point, things went a bit downhill. He admitted that if it wasn’t PCOS he didn’t really know why I was bleeding irregularly and because I don’t want to get pregnant for a year or so, the only advice he gave was ‘really focus on losing some weight.’ (Full disclosure: my cholesterol levels were also a bit high). The breaking point came when he suggested I ‘watch my diet and do a bit more exercise,’ even though he he’d neither acknowledged my disability in my notes or asked how much exercise I normally did (and I was doing a 20 mile walk the next day which I’d trained hard for so I was SUPER pissed off).

    Anyway, back to the point. Both he and my family seemed to think I should be happy with the outcome of the tests but I’m not because inconclusive is so fucking unhelpful to me and doesn’t do much to alleviate my fears.

    Plus, I also have a really weird relationship with the facial hair – my mum is insistent I should get it lasered, but, though I have it waxed occasionally, that’s never particularly useful because it doesn’t get the shorter hairs and so they start to be visible again within hours of me getting a wax. I’ve also developed a horrible nervous habit of plucking the particularly coarse ones out with my fingers, which is super unpleasant and unattractive (sorry for TMI). I think for me though, a further weirdness is that I’m reluctant to laser it because it’s an visible reminder that my body might be ‘broken’ in yet another way (I’m so sorry if this language triggers anyone; I recognise this is my perception of it, not necessarily the reality or useful wording), but essentially, it feels a bit like my mum’s take is ‘You’ll be unattractive to men if you don’t take care of that issue’ and mine is ‘If I worried about everything about my body that I hate and that might be unattractive, I’d drive myself fucking insane’ (I do anyway), so mostly I ignore it and hope nobody notices.

    I’m not sure what the point of me sharing all this is except to say a) I value so much that you write so openly about things like this because it makes me feel less alone and b) that idea of an endless, impossible list of things to cure resonates SO hard with me.

    Anyway, much love and gratitude and sorry for rambling on,

    Charlie xx

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’m so sorry mate, and I totally get you re: the fertility thing. Tbh I realise that I am moaning about one part of something which can be much much worse for others, because other symptoms will cause a lot more stress and misery. And I also feel you very hard on this bit:

      “it feels a bit like my mum’s take is ‘You’ll be unattractive to men if you don’t take care of that issue’ and mine is ‘If I worried about everything about my body that I hate and that might be unattractive, I’d drive myself fucking insane’”

      It’s phenomenally difficult to recognise, I think, where you’re doing something for yourself versus someone else. I think it’s very rare to actually be able to do the latter, and there is pressure from a lot of angles, even when people don’t realise that’s what they’re doing.

      I’ll tell this story down here in the comments where most people won’t read it, because it isn’t representative of him *at all*, but recently my other half offered to pay for me to have another round of laser because my most recent one has run out and I can’t afford more. I explained to him a lot of the stuff that’s in this post, and said something very similar to what you said just then – ‘If I worried about everything about my body that I hate and that might be unattractive, I’d drive myself fucking insane’ and that I’m not sure I want to keep pushing this rock up a mountain for very little reward. Then…

      Him: I’m not saying you *have* to do it, just that I’ll happily pay for you to get more if it’ll make you happier with your body.
      Me: Like I say, I don’t want to get any more laser. But if you’ve got some spare cash you could buy me a boob job?

      So really, it’s not about what will make me happier with my body: it’s about changes that he would like to see in my body. Like I say, this story is not in any way representative of how he normally is, I think he just hadn’t quite realised what he was doing with this one. Also I probably don’t want a boob job, that was just an experiment to try and prove what I was trying to say.

      • ftandhubby says:

        Wow, not sure how I missed this blog when it first got posted. Woman are so mean to each other in ways that men just never have to deal with. I have no great advice other than to love yourself first, do the things that make you happy whether it to let the hair grow or pluck, shave and remove it all. My partner is no longer the size 0 she was when we were much younger. She looks great to me, I love her curvier body as much as I loved her when she was smaller. What I don’t like is how she hates hoe she looks and all that come with that. I’m imagining you with a guy that loves you for you and would be happy to love your hair or lather you up and shave it all off if it made you happier. If it helps at all me do have some of the same issues, penis size, funny bumps- are these normal? but certainly not the same pressure as woman have to conform to some imagined ideal…sometimeslife is hard.

  • Miss Hap says:

    Long-time fan but first-time commenter here. I’m a “PCOS maybe” too, and I’ve spent 15 years – and eye-watering sums of money I can’t afford – treating my facial and body hair, with limited success. Like you I wrestle with feeling like it’s unfeminist to care so much, and *still* caring so, so much. Thank you so much for writing this, GOTN, and articulating the emotional complexity of it so well. (PS – congratulations on the bench! More DIY plz)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hey Miss Hap – thank you for such a lovely comment! And I’m really sorry to hear that you’re having to slog through this horrible shit as well. Solidarity, and definitely noted re: the DIY. I’m already trying to think of something fun for my next project =)

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    Exact same shit, also aged 13 in 1997, in German class. Did some memo go round all the bitchy girls in the UK at the same time?

    Anyway, fuck em ( I may have read this directly after a fretful late night epilating and poking sadly at the ever more scarred ingrown hairs session)

  • M says:

    Yes yes yes!
    Would hate to know how much money I have spent on razors, hair removal cream, wax and hair lightening cream.
    How many times I’ve hidden to get changed so no one sees the dark hairs on my stomach I haven’t had time to pluck/wax/bleach yet. Craving an hour or two alone so I can bleach/wax/pluck each one away.
    That long black hair an ex boyfriend discovered on my chin almost killed me for shame..
    The frequent making sure the lights are off before you fuck so you don’t feel like they are staring at your body hair the entire time. Doubt they even notice.. but it’s all you think about.
    It’s an exhausting battle. Makes it easier knowing there are other people doing the same. Thank you for sharing

  • Danielle H says:

    Entirely and utterly this. I was told in my teens before I was tested “You would have to be phenomenonly unlucky to have all the symptoms and not have PCOS” Test results? Negative. So now I’m in agony every period, rivers of blood, (eventually leading to the Mirena coil, love it), hair is EVERYWHERE, and I’m phenomenonly unlucky. Ace.

    Now I know it’s a moving target it’s easier, but I still struggle through the hair removal guilt and shame and expense.

    Incredibly lucky to have a partner who is understanding and gentle about it, but still feel like crying when I notice someone noticing hair on my neck. (It doesn’t help that I’m 6ft 1 so everyone looks up at the place I’m most vulnerable about in every interaction.)

    Thank you so much for posting this and for therefore gathering this mini community of PCOS sufferers who now feel less alone in their struggles.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, and I am sorry you have to deal with this same thing. It’s really frustrating, and I 100% get the tall thing too – I’m nearly 6′ and I feel quite exposed knowing that some of the areas I focus on for hair removal are ones which are incredibly on display. I wish I had a solution, and ideally I wish that solution came in the form of being able to snap my fingers and have no one in the world ever notice this stuff or care. Sending love, and take care <3 xx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.