Pearls, an essay by Martha West

Mother Nature-14 Years

She is an early bloomer, like her mother and her sister. She had begun her womanly bleeding when she is eight, which is unusual, but not uncommon in her family. She is normal, she is healthy, she is like any other girl. She is in her early teens when her periods begin to skip months. It is ignored for years, even by her.

“You’re lucky.” Another girl tells her while they sit, waiting for the show to begin. This girl is pretty; red curls surrounding a freckly face, and green eyes. This girl has won beauty pageants and state awards. She does archery, and 4-H, and does state teen council.

She tries explaining to this ideal member of her species how she is not lucky. How, when she finally begins to bleed, she cannot move from the agony, and not even Ibuprofen can cut its fiery edge. How the aches rock the lower half of her stomach, the kind of pains that left her curled up on the couch, knees bent, and arms pressing tightly into a sore chest and tightly-wound ribs. It was the kind of pain that made her forget to breathe. But no one truly listens. Her dad tells her that he is in worse pain with his joints, which implies that her pain isn’t that bad.

Your mother was the same at your age. She missed school because of the pain. It will get better. It’ll even out once you get older. Except they don’t. By the time she gets help, by the time someone realizes that she is not making this up, she only has her periods twice yearly.

Most people look at their teen years as a time of freedom and nostalgia. But everyone forgets how everything you feel is wrong; they flick away your concerns quicker than they would kill a fly, and their excuse is the metaphorical fly-swatter: “You’re just a kid; you’re too young to understand; your body is going through changes right now, so you will feel weird.” They always manage to forget that your body is not theirs.

Hirsutism-20 Years

“Well, if the circus ever comes back, you will always have a job,” her dad jokes, referring to the dark bristles rooted deep into her skin, hiding in the shadows of her chin. The hair on her neck grows fast, even quicker than her boyfriend’s beard.

At her dad’s teasing within her shrivels and dies, replaced with an unfillable pit. She tries to explain that she is hurt by the comment. He grows irritated. “It’s just a joke, get over it.”

“Would you say that to another woman you don’t know that well?” She stands in the doorway of the kitchen, bread in her hands, making her sandwich. She reaches up and strokes her neck, feels the prickle of the hairs pricking her hand, the results of not shaving the past few days. Her mind’s eye can picture her standing upon a stage, a beard hanging to her collarbone. She can almost hear the comments, the horror that a women-such delicate, graceful creatures-could grow something that belonged to a man.

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t.” Her father sounds annoyed. “But you’re family. I thought you could actually take it.”

Take a joke. As though her shame was a reason to laugh. She was supposed to laugh at dark shadow lining her neck and upper lip. She was supposed to laugh when her cousin tells her that she has ‘man arms’ because of the darker hairs covering her forearms. She is supposed to giggle when that same cousin tugs her shirt up before telling her brother that she had a hairy stomach, like a man’s.

At school, she doesn’t need to look in the mirror; she brushes her fingers over her neckline. The black bristles stab through her skin. She can imagine the dark shadows lining her jawbone. She finds herself picking at them obsessively. Her skin is sore from daily attempts to pluck the hairs with her fingernails.

The professor is talking; her eyes are on him, and she hopes that her classmates are focusing on him as well. She cringes, tries to place her hand on the desk, tries to not call attention to the fact she had forgotten to shave before class.

Weight-15 Years

“If you eat so little, then why are you so fat?” The boy who tells her this is tall and heavy for his age. His face is round, and his belly jiggles. But he just started a diet a few days ago, so he has a right to educate her on her size.

“I don’t know.” She shrugs, spreads her hands outward. She turns and looks out the bus’s window. Restaurants and offices zoom by the window. She only half-notices them. Something weighs heavily within her stomach, a rock of shame trying to make a path through her intestines.

“You’re big-boned, you know.” Her grandmother tells her. “You look heavier since your bones are so large.”

She is only fifteen. She watches her calories, and never eats more than what’s strictly necessary for survival. She has a rule that she must use her mother’s dumbbells every time the television is on, and she goes for hour-long laps around the house. She eats salads and saves her chocolate coins from her Christmas stocking for weeks until she deems her diet is safe.

But her belly still jiggles when poked. Her arms are still flabby; she cannot gain muscle. Her little cousin once grabbed her arm, squeezed the layer of flesh and tissue. “That’s not muscle, that’s chubbiness.” She declares to their uncle, who scolds her for the inconsiderate comment. Neither one knows what she has done, how far she has gone.

She is nauseated when she goes to bed, her stomach empty, and hunger burning her inner organs.  But she tries to sleep, despite her stomach rolling with pain that makes her want to throw up the soup beans she had for supper. Despite the fact this could all be fixed with an apple from the kitchen. Because for once, she feels skinny. Because she hears her dad bragging on a few friends she has. He tries to explain that she’s pretty, she just isn’t photogenic like the other girls. But she blames her weight for not making her pretty enough.

Years later, she would bend over the toilet. She would attempt to vomit the cookies she ate at lunch. But she is afraid: she hasn’t thrown up in over a decade and doesn’t remember the sensation. Her fiancé would make her promise to go to a counselor when she comes out of the bathroom in tears. She is twenty-one, knows all about eating disorders. And she is afraid.

Diagnosis-17 Years

She struggles to understand what the doctor is telling her. She is two weeks shy of eighteen. Her doctor orders for lab tests, and an ultrasound, but thinks she knows what she has.

The doctor tells her that PCOS can cause infertility, but with early intervention, she could have children later in life. She nods but doesn’t comprehend. At seventeen, she doesn’t care about babies, and conception, not when she hasn’t had a single boyfriend, and it has been made clear that she is not attractive. She only cares about the missing periods and excess hair. About the fatigue that clings to her shoulders, and the fat hugging her muscles.

She has an ultrasound later that day. The gel is cold on her belly. She jerks when it is placed on her lower abdomen. But the machine does what it is supposed to do. The glowing gray silhouette of her covered organs appears on the screen, surrounded by the bright outline of her bones. Her uterus is filled with white round shapes—dozens of them—scattered through her uterus, dotting the otherwise darkened landscape.

Later she would hear the term ‘pearls on her ovaries’ and would find it to be a rather accurate description.

Martha West was born and raised in Letcher County, Kentucky. An UC alumnae, she graduated in Spring 2019 with degrees in English and Public Health.