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Updated 30 August 2018

'Bearded ladies' not just a circus sideshow

Women with excessive facial hair are frowned upon by society. There are some women, however, who are not afraid to flaunt their hairy chins.

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Major Hollywood productions like American Horror Story and The Greatest Showman have exposed audiences to the wonder of the "bearded woman".

These women were previously displayed in circus environments, where their masculine beards were marvelled at and put on display. Women with excessive facial hair are, however, not restricted to freak shows and for many it is a daily reality. 

Let it grow

Hirsutism is a condition where a woman experiences a facial and bodily hair growth pattern resembling that of a male. Hirsutism, or the excessive growth of facial and bodily hair, is caused by high levels of androgens, described as "male" hormones. Androgens are typically also present in females, but in smaller quantities than in men.

In women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), facial and bodily hair growth can be more aggressive than in the average woman as hirsutism is a symptom of PCOS.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder that affects the functioning of the ovaries and various other bodily functions controlled by hormones.

PCOS causes the ovaries to enlarge, as well as the development of small follicles on the ovaries. Although these follicles are harmless, they do inhibit the release of ova (female reproductive cells) from the ovaries. This inhibits ovulation and results in irregular periods. In extreme cases, it may cause infertility.

According to the South African Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, up to 40% of female infertility is caused by PCOS.

Other symptoms of PCOS include weight gain, acne, thinning of scalp hair and darkening of the skin. 

Social pressures

Although this hair growth is harmless, due to social norms and prejudices women with hirsutism are often shamed for their facial hair. According to various studies, the risk for depression is much higher in women with hirsutism than the average female.

Hair removal practices and shaming women for having facial and body hair is not a new trend. Facial hair on females tends to be viewed as "undesirable" and too "masculine" in modern society. Studies have found that increased depression in hirsute women is due to their high levels of testosterone and not a result of societal shaming. 

Diagnosis and treatment

Doctors are able to test for hirsutism by taking a blood test to determine the androgen levels in the body.

Treatment includes hair removal methods such as laser therapy or electrolysis, the use of oral contraceptives to balance out hormones or anti-androgen medications. 

Body positive

Recent trends, however, are showing an increase in females with hirsutism embracing their facial and bodily hair. 

In an interview with People magazine, Harnaam Kaur, a British body positive activist, said, “I feel that my appearance empowers and strengthens me to walk into the world, knowing that I stand up for a diverse look in beauty ... I believe that we cannot label what is perfect in society these days, as people are different from each other. It is beautiful to see people accept who they are regardless of what they look like.”

A post shared by Harnaam Kaur (@harnaamkaur) on

Slowly but surely, more women are stepping up to the plate and flaunting their beards. This can be seen in characters like Lettie Lutz from The Greatest Showman, who accepts her beard and gains self-confidence by embracing her features. 

Speaking to Marie Claire, Annalisa Hackleman, who has hirsutism, said, “I like having my beard because it makes me unique. I think it gives me a talking point to people, to educate them or teach them about PCOS. They think that if a woman can grow a beard, she must have crazy body hair, she must be a werewolf. And that’s just not true.”

Image credit: iStock

 
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