Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and the
Rhetoric of Normative Femininity
It is estimated that 6 to 10 percent of all women have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disorder characterized by “obesity,” male pattern hair growth and loss, irregular menstruation and infertility, and skin abnormalities such as skin tags, adult acne, and dark patches of skin under the armpits and between the thighs (Thatcher, 2000). Despite its prevalence, PCOS is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, leading Dr. Samuel Thatcher to dub it “the hidden epidemic” (p. 14). It is difficult to miss the irony (intended or not) in this designation. After all, in our image-obsessed culture, it would be hard to miss a three-hundred-pound, balding woman with a moustache. Reductive though this characterization is, it nonetheless represents a crucial way of thinking about PCOS and the bodies of women who have the syndrome. That is, women with PCOS have highly visible bodies but are coded by normative femininity as invisible.
To understand the ways in which women with PCOS both subscribe to and resist normative femininity, it is important to reiterate the current conversation surrounding femininity. Femininity is not a descriptor, but rather an ideological system in which all people participate. As Sandra Bartky (1997, p. 132) writes, “We are born male or female, but not masculine or feminine. Femininity is an artifice, an achievement, 'a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of the flesh.'” The female body, then, is femininity's site for struggle and its vehicle for expression and coercion. Although corsets have long been banished from our everyday attire, we are faced with a more binding, more constrictive force than just strings and whalebone; we must struggle each day, each moment, within the bounds of an ideology that we can barely render visible, let alone easily resist. Femininity relies on a system of negation—no calluses, no bulges, no hair in