The History Books
|La Mujer Barbuda|
A more pragmatic (and to me, plausible) explanation is that some statues of the crucified Jesus were created, wearing a robe instead of the expected loincloth, and the legend of a crucified, bearded woman was cooked up to explain this away.
The next figure from history has been immortalised by the artist Jusepe de Ribera, in his 1631 portrait entitled La Mujer Barbuda (The Bearded Woman). Take a look at the painting. To me, it looks exactly like a portrait of a man; there is nothing feminine at all about the face, including the male pattern of hair at the forehead.
My first impression of this portrait was that Ribera had deliberately painted a man, dressed in a gown and suckling an infant. Then I started to read more. It turns out that the story of the figure in the painting is well-known and corroborated. She actually was a bearded woman; the miserable-looking guy in the background is her husband. Her name was Magdalena Ventura from Abruzzi, and at the time of the portrait, she was 52 years old. She bore her husband three sons before growing a beard at the age of 37. Some aspects of her life are recorded in Latin on the stone tablet at the bottom right of the picture.
The Circus Freak
The next, and most widely-known, archetype of the bearded woman is the Circus Freak.
Freak shows entered their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, exhibiting malformed, and disfigured humans as objects of scorn, ridicule and sometimes loathing. Dwarves, giants, conjoined twins and other rare anomalies (such as Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man") were staples of this form of popular entertainment. In this environment, bearded women were right at home, as this example Annie Jones, shows. I can't imagine what those performers were forced to do, in order to prove that they were actually women (and not simply men in frocks), but I suspect it was degrading and unpleasant in the extreme.
This brings me on to some modern examples. The first one I came across was Jennifer Miller, whom I saw in a TV documentary. Miller's beard started to slowly grow in in her early twenties. According to this interview, she has had an ambivalent relationship with it ever since.
Miller: I embraced the idea of it right away, and then had on-and-off relationships with it over the years. I basically believed that it was a good idea to keep it, but that it wasn’t always easy. I felt stronger and weaker about wearing it depending on what was happening. If at some point I were just feeling more vulnerable in general, that would make it harder. If I was worried about getting a job, I might feel some doubt about my commitment to keeping it.
|Mariam with Harnam Kaur|
And then, more recently, a woman identified only as Mariam was interviewed on British television. Born in Germany, Mariam's beard started to grow after the birth of her son, 28 years ago. According to this article, she used to pluck out each hair every day with tweezers, but eventually decided to let it grow out.
Mariam keeps a blog of her own. She is quite open about how difficult it is to live as a woman with a beard. She writes:
Mariam: I remember, that when I was a child, I always wanted to be a boy. Boys had more freedom than girls. Could be more wild and climb on trees and do all these handycraft things that I liked.
In our family it was better to be a male, because then everybody believed in the success and intelligence of this person.
Meanwhile I appreciate myself as a woman and I see what I can do as a woman, and that I am not better or worse than a man. And I must say I am not all the time aware about being a woman. I feel like a being. And I would say some of my abilities you can name male others female. I do not like this labeling with male and female. I would wish we could just be ourselves and not to be fixed on any gender or sex.
Until now, I have considered only genetic women with beards. But I can't help finding an overlap with genderqueer: an expression of gender which is neither male nor female, but both, neither, or any variation you like. Is a woman who deliberately sports a beard genderqueer? Maybe, I guess.
Conchita Wurst has, without perhaps being genderqueer herself, driven that aesthetic into the public eye. But what about people who live that life all the time, and will continue to do so once Conchita's star has faded?
Photographer Alex Drummond is one such person.
Drummond: Being transgender gives me a unique perspective on my work. Born as ‘male’ but having always identified as female I nowadays embrace genderqueer as a way of living authentically as a trans-female.
Some people will live in a full time presentation of their preferred gender, others will live part-time. And a whole new movement is emerging of people who are living between genders, embracing the potentials of gender-queer and gender-fluidity.
Some people seem to just like the deliberate androgyny, the deliberate mixture of male and female, that you get by combining an essentially feminine aesthetic, with an undeniable statement of masculinity: a beard. One example seems to be Bulgarian singer Azis, pictured here. Azis is apparently another Eurovision alumnus, having co-performed Bulgaria's entry in the 2006 competition, which finished a resounding 17th.
And I guess finally there is farce, the deliberate use of the beard with female costume as an instrument of amusement or comedy. As I have frequently mentioned on this blog, I don't think crossdressing as a vehicle for comedy is funny. Likewise, I find deliberate farce to do with crossdressing to be, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, hurtful.
|Richard Branson: seriously?|
Nonetheless, it's hard to get too steamed up by Richard Branson's performance. After losing a bet with Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandez, Branson had himself made over as a Virgin stewardess, complete with uniform, high heels and fishnet stockings, and served drinks on a 6-hour flight from Australia to Kuala Lumpur. I can't say that he looks especially gorgeous, but I admire his courage and his sense of humour in agreeing to honour the bet (and no-one could accuse him of somehow not fulfilling his end of the bargain).
What do I think about all this?
My first thought, on seeing photographs of Jennifer Miller, Mariam and Harnam Kaur, is that they look very strange. Without doubt, the juxtaposition of a beard-- that most masculine characteristic-- on a woman, causes a slight jolt of surprise, which makes you look again. For whatever reasons: hormonal, or genetic or just plain bad luck, it is clear that women can also grow beards.
I am certain that the women who keep the beard represent the tip of the iceberg. (On Mariam's blog, some of the commentators admire her courage, while admitting that they rid themselves of their own heavy facial hair). I think therefore there are probably many hundreds of women out there who deal with the facial hair with wax, or electrolysis, or laborious plucking. I can completely understand this: the societal pressure must be huge.
That makes me think that for those women who embrace their beards, there must be something different that makes them willing to resist that societal pressure. Unlike Annie Jones a century or more ago, women in the 21st century have a choice about whether to have a beard. Having it permanently removed would be reasonably expensive, and reasonably uncomfortable, but certainly doable.
For bearded women, it must come to be their defining characteristic. It reminds me of the old joke about the two men in the pub overlooking the little village in Scotland. One laments to the other that, despite his lifetime of contribution to the life of the village, they still haven't honoured him with a decent nickname. "Do they call me Hamish the boat builder? Or Hamish the roofer? No! But you shag one sheep...!"
The same is true of bearded women. Do we know these women for their other accomplishments or qualities? No. The reason they are here for me to write about is their outlandishness. Is that what they like? The notoriety? Does that make up for the whispers and the stares and the rude picture-taking? Is that why they keep their beards?
And yet, Mariam speaks on her blog of simply wanting to live as herself. Isn't that exactly what I want? What other trans people want? Doesn't it bother us when people focus on why we cross-dress? Isn't it enough that we say that the why doesn't matter?
What Alex Drummond and other genderqueer people do is (from my perspective) a also bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable. And yet, is what I do not a bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable from someone else's perspective? How can I plead for sympathy and acceptance while not granting it (automatically!) to someone else?
Comments welcome, whether you are bearded or unbearded. If you are interested in women with big muscles, why not read my article about Female Bodybuilding? You might also be interested in the related, but different topics, Men in Skirts, and Men with Long Nails.
Addendum 17th July 2014
|If you're going to Saaaan Francisco...|
Apparently "spreading like wildfire" across image-sharing websites, the website gives 10 examples, captioned with more than a hint of mockery.
Though it doesn't especially do it for me, I don't really see what the fuss is about.
Meanwhile, I have been discovering that one of the reasons Harnam Kaur (above) does not remove her beard is that her particular religion, Sikhism, mandates complete acceptance of the body in the way it was born, and forbids the cutting of hair for both men and women. I think that helps to explain her motivation. For some people, that must be a pretty tough commandment to live up to, and I salute Harnam Kaur for her adherence to it.