Payal Padmanabhan was in her final year of college when she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD), a syndrome characterised by multiple cysts in the ovaries that is seen most commonly in women of reproductive age.
The 27-year-old Delhi University PhD student’s journey to managing her PCOD has been full of ups and downs. She has tried healthy living among various other things and is still trying to find her feet.
In a series of illustrations titled Her-sutism, Payal draws from her own and other women's experiences to start a conversation around PCOD and how women have to deal with not just the disease, but also societal pressures.
It is a play on the word Hirsutism - abnormal growth of hair at uncommon places on the body, such as the face, which is a common symptom of PCOD.
"People ask questions. They make jokes. It becomes hard to deal with it. It is such a private thing that can be seen publicly. And instead of having a public conversation about it, it is being shamed," says Payal, who is currently in Germany on a fellowship.
How it started
Last year, Payal took part in InkTober, a social media challenge for artists where they have to make an illustration for 31 consecutive days in October and share it on social media.
For the artist, who had been teaching in DU for a couple of years and led a busy life, this got her back to drawing. She then authored Rangoon to Vadakara, a comic which was part of an anthology of non-fiction graphic narratives published by Yoda Press. During World War II, her aunt was living with her family in Burma, and the story revolves around how they had to return home after the bombing of Myanmar in 1941.
Payal had for some time also been wanting to do something on body issues. And the trigger came earlier this year when the Principal of a prominent college in Mumbai made a comment on PCOD which, Payal says, exposed her lack of understanding of the disease.
"I have heard theories on why girls suffer from PCODs (Polycystic Ovarian Diseases) at an early age. When they dress like men, they start thinking or behaving like them. There is a gender role reversal in their head. Due to this, the natural urge to reproduce diminishes right from a young age and therefore they suffer from problems like PCODs," the Principal, a woman herself, had said.
"I was very angry and it was very upsetting," Payal recollects. "She did not understand what PCOD is but seemed to be in a position to influence the lives of young women. I wanted to tell what it means to have PCOD and what it is like to live with it."
When she started out with the panels, Payal wanted to achieve multiple things like accepting one’s bodies, dealing with their struggles, wanting to put information out there and also to challenge the concept of beauty.
"Sometimes you are working towards living a healthy life, but PCOD may lead to weight gain. It is a vicious cycle. And while denial is a huge part of it, maybe acknowledging it could help," she says.
None of the characters in the stories that she tells through her illustrations have names. That is because Payal did not want it to be a story of one woman.
Even as her project was underway, she started getting to know how different women dealt with various problems related to PCOD. Some bled for months at a stretch. Some had diabetes and thyroid. To control periods and hirsutism, some were prescribed oral contraceptive pills which could have adverse effects on long-term use.
Payal heard these stories and incorporated their experiences in her 'Disney princesses' panels.
Payal finished 34 panels over one-and-a-half months. "Putting something private on a public domain made me feel strong. For me it felt political since I felt so strongly about something and I spoke about it through my art."
Many women wrote back to her saying how well they could relate to the drawings.
"A conversation about this needed to happen, but hadn't happened so far. So in whatever way I could, I started a discussion. Though it began as something personal, I also wanted it to be about something big, for it to reach out to a larger audience," she signs off.