Saturday 24 May 2014

Women with Beards

My recent article on Conchita Wurst (and all of the discussion she has provoked) got me thinking in a more general way about women with beards. In fact there are many variations on this notion, which I hope to explore briefly below, and round up with a discussion at the end.

The History Books

La Mujer Barbuda
There are two bearded women which I am aware of from the history books. First, the semi-legendary Saint Wilgefortis, dating from the 14th century. I've actually written about Wilgefortis before in this blog. According to Wikipedia, no precise details of Wilgefortis' life can be verified. The legend is that, as a beautiful teenager, she was promised in marriage to a cruel nobleman. She prayed to God to deliver her from this fate, and promptly sprouted a beard. This angered her father and he had her crucified, and her traditional depiction is a crucified woman, with a beard (often with one shoe missing).

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.

Annie Jones
Some aspects of the painting are allegorical: at 52, she would be too old to bear a child or breast-feed, but Ribera has included this aspect to deliberately underline the female sex of the subject of the portrait. Ribera also had a reputation for deliberately painting accurate but cruel depictions of people with disfigurements, such as The Club-Footed Boy. What this says to me is that Ribera's depiction was probably reasonably accurate. Did he go out of his way to enhance the apparent masculinity of the image? It's hard to say for sure; I think probably not. It's clear, however, that he didn't make any effort to flatter the subject.

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.

Jennifer Miller
A debate continues to this day over the role of such shows. Some showmen, such as Tom Norman, argued that his shows allowed people who were unable to work normally to provide a living for themselves. (Indeed, some people continue to deliberately exhibit themselves in this manner even today, such as the performer Black Scorpion). Critics argued that the shows were cruel, exploitative and inhuman. Eventually, of course, they were banned, but I see their echoes today in documentaries about conjoined twins, or people with morbid obesity. I think the public appetite for gawping at unfortunate people has not, in general, gone away.

Modern Examples

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
Miller has worked as a circus performer, but also a writer and a university lecturer.

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.
Alex Drummond
Mariam describes unpleasant incidents in public places, such as people taking pictures or video of her on their phones, without permission. As a result, she (naturally) avoids very public places.


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.
Part of Drummond's website is given over to a blog, but as you could expect from a photographer, it's quite image-heavy. I wonder to myself whether Drummond experiences the same public reaction as Mariam? And is it a problem?

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...
A local news website has reported that men with flowers in their beards are "the latest hipster trend".

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.


  1. Hi Vivienne,

    Obviously, when someone makes a decision to wear facial hair it is a personal choice. Personally, I don't find facial hair (or any other body hair for that matter) very appealing, whether it appears on a man or a woman. And in my own case, I detest having it and generally make the effort required to keep it removed. That said, I do let my beard grow occasionally but it is because I am being lazy. I wonder if at least some of the women that have to deal with heavy facial hair eventually just give in to it out of weariness or frustration.



    1. Hi Sally,

      It's true that shaving every day requires effort. Many women are willing to put in lots of effort to remove body hair: shaving your legs is a lot more trouble than shaving your chin! I am not sure why a beard would be so different, but I can understand that "weariness or frustration" would be good reasons to let it alone.

      I guess my other question is particularly for Harman Kaur: why not trim it a little? Harman has let her beard grow extremely bushy, much more so even than many bearded men do. I know that Sikhs don't cut their head hair: I wonder if that is the reason?


  2. Hi Vivienne,

    Well, after two wives and a few girlfriends, I think it's fair to say that women are obsessed with not having facial hair and obviously the fashion/beauty industry has a lot to do with setting standards of beauty. I would also have to wonder if biology, or at least masculine views of womenhood, acts as a deterrent to women that would look like men by just wearing a beard. It seems that gender queer with the beard is just a little much.

    I must admit that I thought this particular aberration was somewhat limited to those few drag queens that sought the notoriety but boy was I mistaken (a future article on Sister House). One of the more amusing You Tube video series are the "People of Walmart". Yes, we are treated to a large number of outrageous outfits, prominent butt cracks, skimpy skirts, humungous love handles and crossdressers. In a review of about 20 videos, I collected pictures of over 100 crossdressers, of which 14 were bearded and these are (questionably) the average middle and working class Americans. Some were even accompanied by woman companions which seemed to be wives or daughters. I hate to think that the trend is catching on :). But for sure, I'll worry less about how I'm dressed in the grocery store because there are others that take center stage far faster.


    1. Hi Tasi,

      How extraordinary! I can't wait to check out the video! 14 bearded crossdressers? Wow!

      I think that we are, in general, "programmed", which is to say, powerfully accustomed, to associate certain features with male or female owners. I wonder if that's why I find female body-builders so uncomfortable: because I don't "expect" to see powerful musculature on a woman. In the same way, I don't expect to see a beard on a woman.

      I am reasonably sure these preferences are not innate to us, but are learned and reinforced by our life experiences. In that way, we can "unlearn" our immediate reactions, and learn to see the whole person, rather than just what first meets the eye.


  3. Tasi, of course (if you see my profile picture or read my blog) I take the opposite reaction and dearly hope this trend DOES catch on! There are indeed a small minority like me who consider ourselves all male all the time, but prefer clothes that in our culture are associated with women. Check out the "Freestyle fashions" section of Skirt Cafe:

    for examples of this viewpoint. Maybe it's a tactile fetish; maybe it's the result of some long-forgotten childhood trauma; maybe our brains are wired differently; maybe we're fully trans but in denial. All I know is I *like* being a man, with all the hairy, filthy, juvenile, overcompetitive, neanderthal stereotypes that entails, but I also like long soft skirts around my legs, satin sheets to lie on, satin pillows to cry on...

  4. I also wasn't quite so aware of the many women with beards or men with beards that liked dressing feminine. I must admit I'm not surprised though. I enjoy being a man and I enjoy being a woman. I sometimes enjoy growing a beard and moustache as my wife likes the look, but I don't dress as a woman when I am sporting facial hair. To me it seems like a contradiction in terms. I do, however, support another's person to sport facial hair while dressed feminine or for a woman to sport facial hair.

    Luvs .... Janice

    1. Hi Janice,

      I think that's it, for many (most?) of us. We want to be one, or the other. We don't want to be seen as "neither", or "both" or "somewhere in between". But, like you say, it's reasonable to accept those who do.


  5. I communicate at times with a fellow who considers himself an androgene. I met him once for a poetry reading. I wore a dress, hose, heels and wig. He was wearing a lovely beaded velour top, tight woman's jeans with sequins and decorative stitching, hose and 3" heels. He sported longish (for a guy) gray hair and a neat gray beard and mustache. On a different outing I met a fellow who had facial hair and a regular guy's haircut, shirt and jacket but wore tight girls pants with hose and 3" booties.

    I suppose Sly Stone had it right when he sang "Different strokes for different folks".

    1. Hi Pat,

      Thanks for mentioning this. I assume that the audience at the poetry reading was generally accepting, but my question is: between you and your androgene friend, which did they think was the more unusual?

      I also suppose that we (in society) tend to consider it more acceptable for arty types (poets, painters and the like) to be outlandish in their self-expression, while we prefer our professional types (doctors and lawyers and teachers and so on) to be much more conventional.


  6. Hi Vivianne, interesting this article so many aspects that you are looking at.
    You write that hundreds of women might be out there taking off their facial hair. I am quite sure it is more than 100.000 and even more that have to deal with this on this planet! - And it is not as some people might think a reason of illness or hormonal disbalance. It is quite "normal" in some ethnic groups to have more facial and body hair, in men and in women than the media and advertisment makes us think. - And it is very strange to see it the first time, and why because they told most of us in scholl that this is not possible that women have a beard. And because women try to hide it we did not have a chance to see it often. When i started growing my beard it was about being myself and at the same time I had the wish to inform people that this is something that is possible and that there are so many women out there that could grow a beard. I was wondering if perhaps in these ethnic groups where women are more likely to have a beard it might have helped them to survive! For example in Iran women are or had been hardly allowed to be part of the life in the street and where locked at home. But having a beard they could have gone out as a men....well it is just a phantasie I have no prove if they did so....but might have helped sometimes not to be raped too! - Lots to say. Thank you for writing about this issue so openly!

    1. Hi Mariam,

      I am delighted that you have left your comments here. First, I want to thank you for teaching me a lesson about tolerance and acceptance.

      I think you are right, that some ethnic groups have more facial and body hair than others. I also think that the current fashion is for women to remove ALL facial and body hair including pubic hair, and I think any woman who doesn't conform to that is considered a bit odd. It is interesting to think that if all the women who CAN grow a beard, did grow a beard, then it might just become normal and acceptable.

      The way that women look, and think of themselves, is driven by the fashion industry, which invests millions of dollars saying to all women (1) this is what beauty looks like, (2) you don't look like this, (3) you can look like this if you buy our products, and (crucially) (4) if you do look like this it will bring you happiness, fulfilment, love and success, and even (5) if you don't look like this, you are strange. There is, I think, a backlash against those messages from women who are saying it's possible to be beautiful (and happy) without looking like a covergirl (too thin, too young). And there is, I think, some acceptance among the wider community that the fashion industry is taking things too far; that the image of beauty it portrays is simply impossible for most women to achieve.

      I am not sure that Iran is a good example of how women with beards might achieve success. First, do bearded women really want to succeed by passing as men? Second, some Islamic countries rigidly separate the sexes from puberty onwards, and severely punish people who show any transgression: homosexuality, crossdressing, and so on. I fear that bearded women would be categorised as unacceptable in the eyes of Islam.


  7. Hi Vivienne I just wanted to correct my text i might have written your name wrong, if so i appologize, was already gone when i wanted to check again.....

    1. Hi! Please don't worry. Shall I call you Mariam, or is there another name you would prefer me to use?


  8. Odd how masculine the faces of the bearded women are in the non-modern pics. Wonder if they were intersexed, since the faces look like they've been exposed to plenty of androgen?

    I wonder if men sometimes cross-dress for comedy because it's the only way most think they can get away with it.


    Georgia Platts
    BroadBlogs: A broad blogs broadly on women's and men's psychology

    1. Hi Georgia,

      I wondered the same thing: if La Mujer Barbuda was actually an intersexed individual. On the other hand, perhaps she lived in a time where women were not exposed to the modern ideals of beauty or pressure to conform to them. I think it's a fair bet that her contemporaries, beardless women, wouldn't have (say) shaved their legs or their pits either. It's also impossible to say how flattering or otherwise the painter was.

      I think if we look at the photograph of Annie Jones, it seems reasonably clear that her forehead was also hairy, suggesting hypertrichosis as a cause of her hirsutism (but La Mujer Barbuda does look pretty masculinised; if you saw only the face you would probably conclude she was a man).

      Your point about men using humour as an excuse to crossdress is a good one, which I hadn't considered before. I tend to think that most humour involving crossdressers is about mockery or ridicule, and therefore it isn't especially funny (at least, to me). Mention humour and crossdressing and one automatically thinks of Eddie Izzard, although I must say I don't know much of his work.

      Thanks for your comments.


  9. Georgia,

    You may have a point about the comedy defense. The one and only time I dressed in public -- for Hallowe'en, of course -- I played up the comedy to the max. I deliberately didn't shave for several weeks so I was good and hairy; I exaggerated my typical ungainly neanderthal gait and all the rest to go with it -- scratching myself in indiscreet places, muttering random curses as I stumbled around on heels that were too wobbly for me, picking my nose and wiping my finger on my dress, etc. Looking back on it, the whole routine was to emphasize my claim that "I am NOT enjoying this, I'm just doing it for a lark!" Even back then I knew perfectly well how untrue that was... I secretly enjoyed it more than I could say... but I had to keep up appearances.

    Viv, your remark about mockery had me starting to say that men who use crossdressing as comedy aren't mocking women, they are mocking men. By combining the delicate and graceful dress of a woman with the boorish lout of a man, they're making fun of the MAN for being unable to look pretty, rather than making fun of the woman.

    Then I thought about what I was about to say and I realized... that doesn't make it any better. Mocking men for their (perceived) oafishness is no more civilized than mocking women for their (perceived) fragile physical and emotional state. That's exactly WHY men will never (mark my words) be accepted in dresses, because of the universal belief that we are unable, unwilling, and undeserving to carry ourselves with delicate beauty.

    Only if we ever get past mocking both men and women for outdated stereotypes will we see more equality in what both sexes can do, say, and wear.

    1. Thanks for this interesting point of view Ralph. I have also passed your comment along to Georgia in case she doesn't catch it.

      I find myself thinking about people like Andrej Pejic, the man who models women's clothing for the fashion industry. Nobody seems to bother that he is a man (nobody in the fashion industry anyway).

      Is he opening that door a crack? Showing that men can be elegant and delicate and beautiful (all of which he seems to be)?

      Or is he the fashion equivalent of the talking dog, a man who looks like a woman, a one-off so unusual that an industry craving the new and individual has embraced him as a talking (and selling) point? (In other words, do they consider him, not a delicate and beautiful man, just a very unusual woman?)

      Or is he a sign that the fashion industry has taken ideals of feminine beauty farther and farther away from what normal women can actually achieve?

      Perhaps it's a bit of all three.