In a world that dwells on its differences over its similarities, virilization offers a thought provoking and perplexing backlash to humanity’s attempts to focus on the menial differences. History is replete with cultures and societies finding new and inventive ways to create schisms between one another as a means to affirm their own uniqueness in the world, whether it is through race, religion, wealth, or among endless micro differences. However, no difference is as natural and ancient as that between the genders. Removing all the gender stereotypes various cultures have assigned to the individual sexes, the light shines on the real differences between the genders. Since the beginning of time, the development of most species has depended on the coming together of the two sexes which fulfills the basic biological bottom line of reproducing and having offspring. Physiologically and biologically, the shape and anatomy size differences between males and females are not opinions of equality and societal roles to be debated, but rather tangible and measurable. As civilization has grown comfortable with gender roles and differences, however, virilization offers a stark counterpoint to even these most basic truths of the inherent physical differences of men and women.
In biology and medicine, virilization refers to the biological development of the sex differences between the two sexes. It is synonymous with the masculinization of the body, which begins at the prenatal sexual differentiation and is reinforced at any period when hormones go hog-wild. What is consistent about most of these physical bodily changes are that they are dictated by the hormone, androgen. Androgen serves as steroid hormones that are produced by the ovaries in women, testes in men, and in the adrenal gland in both. While androgen production is present in both genders, it is produced at much lower levels in females. The body has a way of maintaining the balance between the disproportionate quantities of female hormones to this predominantly male one. But the body and all the processes that maintain it is such a complicated system that an excess in androgen production can happen. Androgen disorders are the cause of the masculinization of a woman, which in its extreme form is known as virilization.
The androgen circulating in females that claims responsibility for many of the physical changes accompanying virilization is testosterone. This hormone is secreted in females by the adrenal glands, ovaries, and it is produced in the adipose tissue, or more commonly known as the body fat. Even more potent than testosterone during virilization though is the secretion of the androgen known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which is converted within hair follicles and within genital skin. With these abnormal hormonal occurrences in women, their physical appearance follows suit.
When one wanders down the beach and notices a nice sunbathing girl sporting a noticeably unshaven exposed region, the joke is often that she is sporting the “Mediterranean look.” This joke is based on some truth and explains one root cause of virilization: Certain characteristics of virilization, such as masculinization hair growth, reflect that virilization is partly an issue of inheritance. The growth of androgen-dependent hair in areas where hair is not typically found in women is a process known as hirsutism. Hirsutism is only one manifestation of the more severe masculinization known as virilization. In addition to abnormal hairy regions in females, virilization is characterized by features that are commonly associated with males, such as deepening of their voice, broadened shoulders and muscle, involution of breasts, or even balding. Other characteristics of virilization effect physiological features, such as clitoral enlargement or menstrual disruption due to anovulation or the absence of ovulation. Many women who suffer from this excess production of testosterone that causes such masculinization suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which affects approximately 5% of all women in the world. Today, it remains the leading cause of pre-menopausal infertility.
In its most typical form, virilization coincides with the period of excessive production of testosterone, particularly in males. Puberty especially is powered by the production of hormones, creating maturation, growth of the penis and testes, development of more hair, and many other physical and mental changes. Yet, like women, malfunctions in the proper secretion of androgen can happen in males too, even though it is less common and usually occurs prenatal. Undervirilization, for example, can occur if the male’s body cannot produce enough androgen; as a result, this leads to female features in the body or even ambiguous genitalia that are neither fully male nor female.
[ad#downcont]The signs and symptoms of androgen excess vary, but there are diagnostic procedures that can be used to document hormonal activities happening in the body, including determining measurements of androgens, thyroid, or adrenal hormones. Prescribed medication can be assigned to counter or lessen the hormonal activities, but virilization is influenced by many things.
Virilization and its physical consequences shake the understanding of what it means to be female or male. While society has always believed to have a grip on gender roles, ultimately, it is humbling to realize we are but slaves to a system more entrenched and complicated than any civilization and gender identity: our bodies.