The little-known disorder getting a big platform with Miss Universe Nepal

Published On: June 6, 2024 10:45 AM NPT By: Yam Kumari Kandel

Worldwide, PCOS is often missed in teenage girls as they go through puberty. Jane Dipika Garrett draws on her own struggles with the disorder to boost awareness — and self-acceptance.

KATHMANDU, June 6: When Jane Dipika Garrett’s family learned that she’d applied to compete in Miss Universe Nepal, they assumed it was a joke. “No one,” she says, “believed I would win.”

As a teenager, Garrett was bullied for several years for being overweight. She didn’t make any friends. She avoided people. Later, she attempted suicide several times, and after overdosing on drugs in 2022, she received a five-day treatment at a Kathmandu hospital.

But in 2023, she made history when she became the first plus-size woman to compete and place at Miss Universe. Now, she uses her platform to spread awareness about two diseases that have shaped her life: depression and polycystic ovarian syndrome. She’s become an icon of body positivity and inclusivity, especially for women who don’t conform to a beauty ideal that favors slimmer women.

What is PCOS?

Several months after Garrett’s historic win, the 5-foot-7 woman beams as she enters a hotel event hall, wearing a pink gown and her “Miss Universe Nepal” sash. The crowd lights up. Most only know her from social media and television. Garrett is the guest of honor at an event organized by the PCOS Society of Nepal, and she’s there to recount her struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome.

She speaks to the audience about body shaming, mental health, self-love and PCOS, a condition that affects an estimated 8% to 13% of reproductive-aged women, with 70% of cases going undiagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.

As a teenager, Garrett experienced irregular periods. She also suffered from frequent mood swings and mental health issues, but she was unaware of the cause. Doctors told her that everything was normal.

“But I wasn’t normal,” Garrett tells the audience. “I had a combination of mental health problems and PCOS.”

PCOS, a hormonal disorder, affects people differently, with symptoms including irregular periods, infertility, acne, weight gain, and excessive hair growth or hair thinning. PCOS also comes with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and endometrial cancer.

The cause of PCOS is unknown, but women with a family history of Type 2 diabetes are at higher risk. And while there is no cure, symptoms can be managed through exercise, a healthy diet, and birth control or other medicines, according to WHO.

Garrett was finally diagnosed with PCOS in 2020, at the age of 20.

“It gave me an essence of hope because I know what the problem is and I can work on it,” she says.

One of the event participants, 16-year-old Shweta Shahi, who also has PCOS, says that Garrett has normalized the condition for her. “I came to meet her to motivate myself,” she says.

PCOS and depression

In 2013, Garrett was diagnosed with depression, and she struggled for years with suicidal ideation. Women with PCOS are at four times greater risk of depression, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Following her 2022 drug overdose, Garrett began attending regular psychotherapy sessions. She also quit smoking and drinking alcohol. Soon, she felt free. With the will to live, she began going to the gym in the mornings and meditating in the evenings. She also decided to work toward a childhood dream: becoming Miss Universe.

She applied in July 2023. Two months later, she competed against 500 other hopefuls — and won. She went on to the global competition in El Salvador and placed in the Top 20 in front of 7,000 spectators. International media covered her story. The humiliation she felt as a teenager evaporated.

“All the shame is gone,” she says. “That is success for me.”

Jane Dipika Garrett relaxes during a facial treatment given by AkritiBhujel at a spa in Kathmandu.

Catching PCOS early

“After Jane started sharing her PCOS problem,” says Achala Vaidya, president of the PCOS Society of Nepal, “many teenage girls started coming for treatment.”

In Nepal, PCOS is found in 1 in 10 women who see a gynecologist, but diagnosing PCOS in adolescents is difficult. PCOS and puberty have similar features, including irregular menstrual cycles and acne. Vaidya says girls aged 16 or 17 have a higher risk of problems because of their diagnoses. They avoid socializing due to their body hair and other stigmatized symptoms.

But it’s vital to diagnose PCOS early.

PCOS is the most common cause of anovulation (having irregular or no periods) and a leading cause of infertility, according to WHO. Women with PCOS are 15 times more likely to report infertility, according to a 2015 study of over 9,000 women aged 28 to 33.

According to a 2019 report by the United States National Institutes of Health, 50% to 80% of women with PCOS face insulin resistance that leads to the buildup of glucose in the blood; 61% are either overweight or obese; and half become prediabetic or diabetic before they turn 40. PCOS also leads to an increased risk of heart disease.

Miss Universe Nepal’s legacy

Garrett has been visiting schools, health institutions and events, as well as interacting with patients, to raise awareness about PCOS and mental health. She promotes self-love on TikTok, Facebook and YouTube. But she’s just one voice speaking out on a pervasive problem.

Surakshya Panta, a social media influencer who served as a judge for Miss Universe Nepal 2023, says, “Whether she can make her voice resonate with the Nepali environment and Nepali identity remains to be seen.”

But for now, Garrett has motivated those with PCOS and depression, plus-sized women — and herself. Over and over, she says, “I learned to love who I am, love my body, and love my mind.”

Bhagawati Thapa, 48, a plus-sized woman in Kathmandu, says that after Garrett gained popularity on social media, she began to love her body, too. After Garrett’s win, she started wearing the types of outfits she prefers. “Now,” she says, “I am no longer afraid of what others will say.”

Global Press Journal is an award-winning international non-profit news publication that employs local women reporters in more than 40 independent news bureaus across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

(This story was originally published by Global Press Journal.)

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