My Life As A Bearded Woman, Journeying Towards Acceptance
As I adjusted the visor to shield my eyes from the fierce sun of a summer afternoon, I noticed my husband staring at the side of my face. Self-consciously, I brushed at my cheek, trying to wipe away whatever had caught his eye. “What?” I asked, giving him a sidelong glance. When I touched the spot he flinched, like he had been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing.
“Nothing,” he said quickly, and a little too forcefully, shifting his gaze to the passenger side window. “Really, it was nothing.” He looked guilty, but since I couldn’t see or feel anything wrong, I put it out of my head.
I was singing along with the radio when I felt his eyes on me again, scrutinizing the same spot. I pulled the car over onto the shoulder of the busy street and yanked my sunglasses off as I put it into park.
“Seriously! Tell me what!” I insisted, twisting the mirror toward my chin and searching for a bump or discoloration that might explain his newfound interest in my jawline. “C’mon! What is it?” I pulled at the flesh around my neck, flattening it out between my hands to get a better look.
My husband, who is usually a little too honest, appeared nervous. He looked at me, sheepishly, scrunching up his eyes the way he does when he is about to say something that might get him into trouble.
“I want to tell you something, but I’m worried you’ll get mad at me.” These words, spoken in this combination, are the beginning of every fight we have ever had.
“Well, I’m already mad, so you may as well just tell me and get it over with!” I glared at him and he froze, weighing his options. As the seconds crawled forward, I became increasingly worried that whatever he was about to tell me was unrelated to my face, and was something much, much more terrible. I ran through the list of things he might say that would make me angry; I’m having an affair or, I don’t love you anymore.
He took a deep breath, and began, “It’s just that, uhm…”
“What?” I demanded, panicked, “Spit it out!”
“Well … You have this really long hair on your chin. It’s not a big deal or anything. I just can’t believe how long it is. It’s seriously, really long.” Peering into the rearview mirror again, I saw it. A hair, at least an inch and a half long and as dark as the hair on my head, was sticking straight out of the skin just under my jawbone. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. I gasped, pulling at it gently with my fingernails like it might be something that had gotten stuck there. The skin pulled with it, proving that the hair was indeed mine, and had indeed grown there.
Turning to him, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “I am going to kill you.” With one solid yank, it ripped away from my skin with a gentle snapping sound.
“See?” He said, throwing up his hands, “I knew I shouldn’t have told you!”
I held the hair out between us, like it might explain everything. I shook it in his face, yelling, “I’m not going to kill you for telling me! I’m going to kill you because you didn’t tell me sooner!”
That night, upon arriving home from our very awkward visit to his parents’ house, I hauled out my magnifying mirror. I was horrified to see several long, dark hairs sticking out at random angles from my chin. When did these hairs get there? I wondered, shocked at the sight of my own face. Why hadn’t anyone told me? How hadn't I noticed?
That was when the Eliminate Facial Hair Now! campaign began. I was a woman, so why on earth was I sprouting a manly beard that would make a 14-year-old boy jealous?
After a few clandestine Google searches, I discovered that shaving would only make the hair appear thicker. Bleach the hairs, my online sisters told me, no one can see blond hair.
I bought some cream bleach while keeping my chin safely tucked into the edge of a pretty scarf, and rushed home to apply it. It burned a little, and the fumes made me feel sick to my stomach, but I thought it would all be worth it. I couldn’t have been more surprised after washing away the bleach to realize that you can, in fact, see blond hair. I didn’t think blond women were bald, did I?
The hairs were still long and coarse, and now those visible blond hairs were sitting in a bed of red, irritated skin that had reacted to the bleach. I pulled out a razor and shaved the hairs away, despite all the advice I read warning me to never do so, and spent the entire next day explaining to coworkers that my aesthetician had used a new product. I had faith that people would sympathize with a botched facial well before they would accept my facial hair.
The rash cleared, but then, the hair grew back. The online gurus of beard removal were right; the hair did look thicker.
I was constantly ashamed of my face, and took to wearing make-up so thick that I could have been on a Broadway stage.
Next, I tried waxing. The “no mess strips” didn’t stick well, so I made an appointment with a local spa. The “real stuff,” an amber colored paste that smelled like candy, was administered by a gorgeous, 20-year old blond with spotless skin. She assured me that many women had this particular procedure done, without adverse effects. “You’ll look like a supermodel,” she joked, teasingly, making me feel like a child about to get a shot who was told it wouldn’t hurt at all.
The wax left crusty pimples where the hair had been removed. I read that it could take time for your skin to become used to waxing, but mine never seemed to. Month after month I went from having a masculine beard to having a case of acne usually reserved for socially-shunned ninth-graders. By the time the pimples cleared, it was time to wax again. I was constantly ashamed of my face, and took to wearing make-up so thick that I could have been on a Broadway stage.
At some point in the months of failed waxing, I got the bright idea that an epilator might be the answer. I bought one that was a little more expensive because it came with a “facial hair” attachment. I was not anticipating was the pain that this little machine caused. Epilators hurt like ten pairs of tweezers indiscriminately pinching at your skin, and occasionally yanking out a hair. At least waxing was over quickly, but this took twenty minutes and it stung the entire time.
Giant blackheads began to form in the empty pools where my chin hair had once been. I had ingrown hairs that were filled with a greenish layer of pus. I became obsessed with hair removal, carrying tweezers at all times. By this time, I knew other women were sporting facial hair as well, but they all seemed to have a reason; they had thyroid problems and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It wasn’t their fault. What was my excuse? Ethnicity? Bad Luck?
The breaking point came when my husband came home one evening to find me crying as I plucked hairs with a tweezer in my magnifying mirror.
“Listen,” he said, setting his briefcase down and pulling up a chair so that his face was even with mine. “I want to tell you something, but I don’t want you to get mad at me.” He scrunched his eyes and waited for me to say something.
“Just say it,” I sniffled, assuming that he was going to tell me that he was leaving, that he had found someone with a perfect, smooth chin to spend his life with. Someone who wouldn’t cringe when he caressed their face. I was so obsessed with my beard that I believed he must be, too.
I had convinced myself that no one could possibly love me anymore; not my husband, and certainly not myself. Everything that used to make sense to me had been obscured by a tangle of facial hair.
“I think you should stop pulling out your chin hairs,” he said decisively, emphatically. “It doesn’t really matter if you have a hairy chin. It doesn’t interfere with your beauty. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it in the first place. I don’t care when you don’t shave your legs or your armpits, which, by the way, you rarely do. You don’t care when other people see your hairy legs or armpits. Why do you care so much about this?”
I felt my face flush with anger, and then just as quickly, embarrassment. Quietly, I asked, "Don't you think I'm ugly? No one wants to be seen with a bearded lady." I was ashamed of the tremor in my voice, and the ocean of self-doubt behind it. I couldn't even make eye contact. In fact, I never made eye contact anymore.
"I wouldn't care if you had a beard down to your waist. I would point you out to people and say, 'There's my wife. Isn't she beautiful?'"
When he said that, something collapsed inside of me. I had convinced myself that no one could possibly love me anymore; not my husband, and certainly not myself. Everything that used to make sense to me had been obscured by a tangle of facial hair.
He was right. It doesn’t make me less of a mother or a wife if I have a hairy chin. It doesn’t make me a worse friend. It doesn’t change me in any way. The preoccupation with chin hair did. It made me less open and less likely to leave the house. I had gotten caught up in something that had to do much more with my ego than my wellbeing, and all it made me was sad.
Besides, my face looked much scarier now than it had when I started the hair removal campaign. So I decided to change what I was doing. It was hard at first, noticing a few small facial hairs, but not taking the time to pull them out. I had to force myself to walk away from the mirror and do something meaningful instead. I had to call my mother or read a book or go for a walk to take my mind off the compulsive need to pluck those hairs. It took time to stop applying a layer of foundation to my face that was so heavy it made my face appear rounder. It took time.
In the beginning I had to remind myself, often aloud, that facial hair didn't change who I was. I went through a "making excuses" phase, apologetically ducking my head and tucking my chin into my hand. Then I went through a belligerent phase, where I almost hoped people would say something so I could attack them for being so shallow. I still felt afraid to go outside during the day, when my chin hair was most noticeable, for a long time. I ventured out slowly, testing the water with a toe, and then bit by bit I was submerged.
I gradually thought about my facial hair less and less, and when I did, it seemed less alarming. Eventually, it just became another thing about me, like having blue eyes or broad shoulders. It still isn't something I would describe under my best attributes, but it isn't something that holds me back anymore, either.
Now, I rock a hairy chin just like I rock hairy armpits on a day-to-day basis, and I usually don’t even think about it. I don’t think it’s revolutionary; I think it’s common sense not to let vanity obscure your sense of reality.
Still, if you ever see me driving to a special event, the kind of event that I would shave my armpits for, you might also catch me at a red light with a pair of tweezers. I’ll be the lady pulling out the really noticeable chin hairs in the rearview mirror, and now, I don’t care if you see me.
Images: Meghan Cooper