Beards are very appealing, very hip, and very in fashion – on men. But what about when the proud owner of a beard or moustache is a woman?
Many women routinely wax, bleach, and pluck facial hair, including that which grows between and under the brows, on the upper lip, the sideburns, and on the chin. For most it is fine and fair and few others would notice it – but for some, it rivals that which men grow. What’s the deal with women growing facial hair? And why does your old granny have a forest of long hairs growing out of her chin?
What Causes Women to Grow Facial Hair?
Excess facial hair growth in women is referred to as hirsutism, and it is not an uncommon problem. It is caused by an excess of hormones called androgens; these are higher in men than women, but sometimes women may have elevated androgen levels. Cells in hair follicles respond to androgens, and hair grows darker and thicker as a result.
What causes elevated androgen levels in a woman? The causes are varied, and may include medications such as steroids and the birth control pill, or medications which treat seizures, migraine, hypertension, or mental illnesses. Alternatively, abnormalities in the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, or ovaries (such as polycystic ovarian syndrome) may elevate androgens in the blood. Sometimes a rare tumour may cause hirsutism in women.
One in twenty pre-menopausal women will experience some degree of hirsutism; after menopause, seventy-five percent of women will notice an increase in the growth of their facial hair. For most, it is only noticeable to them and represents a slight annoyance at most.
Most women who experience hirsutism will take steps to remove the hair on their face; this is a reflection of cultural pressure and social stigmas. There are, however, some very famous women throughout history who are remembered for their facial hair, and who have even embraced it as an integral part of their identity...
Famous Women who have embraced their facial hair:
- Wilgefortis was a female saint dating from the fourteenth century, and her most distinguishing feature was a beard. She was venerated by women wishing to be liberated from abusive and controlling husbands. According to legend, when she was a teenaged noblewoman, her father arranged her marriage to a pagan king; she prayed to be made repulsive and vowed virginity to avoid the marriage. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted a beard. Her father had her crucified as a punishment.
- Helena Antonia was a female dwarf at the court of the Holy Roman Empress, Maria of Austria. She had a long, natural beard.
- Julia Pastrana was a Mexican woman born in 1834. She had a genetic condition which caused her to be covered with long, black hair. She was described by Charles Darwin as being “a remarkably fine woman” but with “a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead”. One misguided doctor of the time stated his opinion that she was the result of a human mating with an orang-utan. She became a sideshow attraction and died of complications after giving birth to a baby who shared her genetic syndrome.
- Josephine Clofullia was a Swiss woman who toured with P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as its bearded lady. She was reputed to have had a five centimetre beard by the time she was eight years old. She began touring Europe in 1841 at the age of fourteen, and was even gifted a large diamond by Napoleon II when she fashioned her beard after his own. Her beard officially measured fifteen centimetres in adulthood; her sex was verified by doctors to prove she was not a male imposter, even though she was married and bore two children.
- Jane Barnell worked as an adult in a sideshow as a bearded lady known as Madame Olga. She was born in 1871 and by the age of two had grown a beard. After many failed attempts to cure her of this condition, her mother sold her to the Great Orient Family Circus and Menagerie at the age of four. Her father tracked her down and she was raised by her grandmother. She married four times and gave birth to two children.
- Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist whose self portraits always depicted her unibrow and her moustache.
- Alice Toklas was an American avant-garde and the partner of novelist and poet Gertrude Stein. Toklas was renowned for her moustache. We would have loved to see that thing twirled up using a quality moustache wax.
- Jennifer Miller, born in 1961, is a playwright, social and political activist, professor, and a bearded lady. Her beard began to grow suddenly when she was in her twenties, and she embraced it. She is a member of a sideshow at Circus Amok, and her talents include juggling and fire-eating.
While beards for women are not likely to take off as a fashion statement, all of these women prove that beards and moustaches are not simply for men. And the odd stray hair on a woman’s chin is nothing to get too excited about...