In late 2020, Keke Palmer made the decision to share a deeply intimate part of her health story: She’s one of the one in 10 women who lives with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) — the most common hormonal endocrine disorder in women.
Characterized by small cysts growing on the ovaries and excess testosterone in the body, people dealing with PCOS are known to experience symptoms like hair loss, excess facial hair, cystic acne, weight gain, and fertility issues (due to the testosterone keeping ovaries from releasing eggs). In a video shared on Instagram, Palmer was totally frank about her PCOS and how long she’d dealt with its side effects — particularly her lifelong struggle with painful cystic acne — and her struggle to get an accurate diagnosis over the years.
“[PCOS] has been attacking me from the inside out my entire life and I had no idea,” she wrote. “…But it took me taking a personal look into my family that has a history of diabetes and obesity, to understand what was actually happening with me. And unfortunately doctors are people and if you don’t ‘look the part’ they may not think that’s your problem. They may not even suggest it if you ‘look healthy’ — whatever that means!”
Now, in an interview with SheKnows, Palmer opens up about how it’s been “freeing” to talk about her PCOS experience — and how it’s helped her refine her approach to skincare and self-care in 2021.
“To me, [talking about it] is informative — because a lot of people are struggling with stuff like what I’ve been struggling with, but not everybody makes them conscious of it,” Palmer says. “Like PCOS is not even something that we hear about often. But I think it was very freeing and also very vindicating because so often people would think ‘oh, drink more water,’ or ‘oh, you should stop using all that makeup.’ And it’s like, yeah, I got a condition.”
She says that while it was increasingly frustrating, living with a condition like PCOS and not having answers, it was just as frustrating to have people offer unsolicited (and often judgemental) advice without any knowledge of her personal health situation.
“It’s like a lot of people don’t realize, when it comes to acne, that it’s a condition. So I’m glad that I finally could discover it and hopefully push other people to advocate for themselves and to find out when they’re having something like chronic cystic acne to know that it’s something deeper and it has nothing to do with the makeup,” she says. “It’s so stupid when people [give unsolicited advice] and they should keep their comments to themselves unless someone asks them. It’s trivializing to say that to someone. That’s the thing that’s very annoying to me when it comes to people that are struggling with their skin or people that are struggling with their weight, everybody assumes that it has something to do with their inability to control themselves. It’s wrong.”
In her position as a brand ambassador with Olay — working to help them share the good word of their latest launch, a Cleansing & Renewing Body Wash and Rinse-Off Body Conditioner with Retinol — Palmer says she’s gotten a chance to find out about the products that can do more to help her skin and really geek out about the kind of ingredients that will help her do right by her skin.
“I can only share my light when it’s beaming.”
And getting to empower herself with all the sweet, sweet skincare knowledge she can get her hands on has been an exciting part of her self-care journey: “It makes me feel like I’m caring about myself. I love just being engaged like that. I think that, to me, it becomes so much more important to be skin conscious — it could be just my age and me growing or me understanding what I’m dealing with once I realized I had PCOS, but I’ve just become more engaged.”
We also got to talking about the past year — which has been an overwhelming one for just about everyone — and how Palmer has navigated looking after her own mental health as the world is increasingly stressful and heartbreaking — from a global pandemic to large-scale conversations and protests around racism and police violence.
Talking about the now-viral video of her from a protest in June, pleading with National Guard members to hear and stand with protesters, we asked Palmer how she’s balanced her call to activism and her natural inclination toward community care with her own needs and well-being.
“I think that’s a big way that I protect myself because I don’t make it this full 24/7 job. I literally just do what I can when I can and I don’t put pressure on myself to be a savior to anybody because I can not save everybody,” Palmer said. “I can only share my light when it’s beaming. And so that’s what I do. And then I also take time to retreat when I need to retreat. I really listen to myself and, like I said, I don’t feel bad when I don’t have anything to give. I literally accept my limitations as a human being.”
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