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A Rising Star Model Shares Her Journey With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Photo: Dorian Ulises

When she’s in front of the camera, Marsella Rea is invincible. Whether she’s posing in ads for brands like Dior and Loewe or within the pages of glossy magazines, the 27-year-old from Monterey, Nuevo León radiates confidence—it even comes through on a Zoom call. “This is an interesting period for me because I’m doing things I’ve never done before,” Rea shared from her home in Mexico City. “I’ve been taking singing lessons, going out more, exploring new things and just sharing parts of my life I never thought I would.”

A high-fashion star in the mold of Freja Beha and aughts beauty Liliana Dominguez, Rea felt like a breath of fresh air when she landed an exclusive spot at Bottega Veneta’s spring 2020 show in 2019. That auspicious debut led to bookings with some of the industry’s biggest names, but as she soared to the heights of success, Rea’s health took a turn for the worse. While working in Paris during the summer of 2022, she began to experience symptoms of the endocrine disorder, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a.k.a. PCOS. “I didn’t understand what was happening, and it was scary,” Rea says. “I was doing all the right things; drinking water, eating healthy, exercising, but something was wrong.” Alone and far from home, when she began experiencing severe pain and weight fluctuations, Rea attempted to treat the issues on her own. “I tried changing my diet, cutting out carbs, but that left me without energy, and I was still feeling bloated all the time and gaining weight,” she says. “I started seeing changes to my skin, and the first few days of every period were unbearable.”

Photo: Dorian Ulises

Making matters worse were the mixed messages about period pain Rea saw all around her. “We normalize everything,” she says. “Society tells us that experiencing pain each month is normal, so you try to force yourself through and ignore what your body tells you. I was doubled over crying in the bathroom every time I had my period but I didn’t want to let this interfere with work.” Still, as time passed, Rea found the rigors of modeling increasingly challenging. “The [PCOS] had such a negative effect on my mental health,” says Rea. “I became very depressed. I was doing what I had wanted to do for so long but couldn’t enjoy it.” The pressure to fit into designer samples proved equally taxing. “In this industry, there is the expectation of thinness,” Rea explains. “The fear that no one will want to hire you if your body changes. Already I’d felt insecurity around my body because I’m naturally more curvaceous, but once I started to get sick, those anxieties increased.”

A communications student prior to being scouted online weeks before graduation, Rea even debated leaving fashion altogether. “There were moments where I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this isn’t for me,” she says, recalling a turning point conversation with her manager, Carlos Castellanos. “He encouraged me to take a break. I came back to Mexico City to rest and to find a doctor who could help me figure out what was going on.”

Rea’s experiences echo those of millions diagnosed with PCOS yearly. Visible symptoms ranging from weight gain, acne, and skin tags to hirsutism and hair loss can be exasperating. The damage the condition causes to the reproductive system can result in fertility issues. Though it affects approximately 5 to 20 percent of women of reproductive age, according to the World Health Organization, PCOS remains under-discussed—so much so that many do not realize they have it. Even those seeking treatment can find it difficult to get answers. “It took more than one visit,” explains Rea. “I met a lot of doctors, from general [practitioners] to gastroenterologists, and it was scary at times. I’d Google symptoms and see all the possibilities, but it wasn’t until I spoke to my gynecologic oncologist that I got a diagnosis.”

Photo: Dorian Ulises

Learning the details of her condition was only the beginning, as there is currently no cure for PCOS. “The first thing the oncologist told me was that this was something I’d have to deal with for the rest of my life,” says Rea. “There are treatments, but it’s an ongoing journey.” While birth control methods like hormonal contraceptives can be used to manage PCOS, Rea and her doctors decided against that. “I wanted to find a natural way,” says Rea. “When I spoke to my oncologist, she explained that I could make lifestyle changes that would help, but they’d take time.”

Chief among Rea’s changes were reducing her stress levels, improving her diet, and making room for self-care. “My cortisol levels were super high,” says Rea. “I needed to relax, so the break was essential. I had to take a step back and prioritize my life. My doctor also recommended reducing my sugar levels. The changes in diet weren’t to lose weight; they were to gain balance.” Cutting down on carbohydrates and sugar took time, but so did fine-tuning her exercise routine. “I tried yoga and knew pretty quickly that I needed something else,” Rea says. “I need movement, or I’ll get bored!”

Helping Rea along the way was a new addition to her family, her adorable rescue dog Shy. “I’d always wanted to adopt a dog, but I was working so much it never seemed like a good time,” she says. “In January, I saw a post from a shelter about seven puppies looking for homes, so I reached out. Once Shy came into my life, I stopped thinking about my problems and issues; it put things into perspective. He came into my life during a time when I was incredibly vulnerable and has been one of the best parts of my new life.”

Photo: Dorian Ulises

Making time for herself and Shy has helped Rea’s symptoms, but it’s also given her a new outlook on life. “The last few years, it felt like I was on autopilot,” she says. “One moment I was in New York, the next Milan, or Paris, but I wasn’t happy. Now that I’m taking care of myself, I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.” Rea’s high spirits have allowed her to approach modeling with renewed focus, stepping back into the spotlight with a place at Dior’s resort show in Mexico City. “I want to explore the industry again, but with this energy,” she says. “To bring this vibe into my work and just enjoy the beauty.”

Rea also hopes to raise awareness about PCOS and encourage young women to be screened. “If you’re feeling sick or in pain, don’t ignore it,” she says. “So often we’re told to ignore what’s happening in our bodies and work through the pain, but you must prioritize your well-being. Talk to your doctor, seek help with what’s bothering you—you don’t have to go it alone.”

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