I first started growing facial hair when I was 12, about two years after I began menstruating. I was taken to Boston Children’s Hospital, where I was diagnosed with PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome. When I was diagnosed, I basically had all of the symptoms they were looking for except for multiple ovarian cysts.
As an adult, a spinal X-ray showed I have a dermoid cyst, which has teeth inside of it. These types of cysts are benign and basically harmless unless they grow large enough to twist and rupture. Some believe they are the remains of twins that were absorbed in utero.
It didn’t take long for my mother to subject me to a variety of hair removal methods. I was forced to put up with plucking, bleaching, depilatories and waxing. My skin is sensitive, and it hurt. By her reasoning, I was already a fat kid, and she didn’t want me to be made fun of, so the hair removal or camouflage was necessary. My opinion on the matter was irrelevant to her.
It had never even occurred to me to be self-conscious about my facial hair until my mother had worn me down and told me how worthless my natural body was. It was the same way with both the hair and my weight. I wanted a chance to just let the hair be, but my mother and stepfather bullied me so much that I developed deep anxiety issues. It would have made me laugh if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.
She claimed that everything she did was out of love and that she just wanted me to be safe and not be treated badly by my peers, but instead she was one of my first bullies and certainly the one who has done the most damage to me over the course of my life. Sometimes I would cry and beg her to just stop. I actually had daydreams of running off and finding a circus where I could be a bearded lady in relative peace, because a part of me knew that there was nothing wrong with my body and no one had a right to mistreat me.
I left home at 15, after my parents learned that I was queer and went ballistic. It was just the last straw for me. We had a complicated relationship because I was still a kid who hadn’t had a chance to learn how to grow up, despite being forced to grow up too quickly. I kept in touch for far longer than I should have, though we would sometimes go long periods without communicating.
Even away from my mother’s forced depilation and my stepfather’s mocking because I wasn’t feminine enough ― he even mocked me as a teenager for not shaving my legs or armpits ― it had already been deeply ingrained in me that allowing my facial hair to grow was shameful. I could ignore them when it came to my body hair. I was attracted to women with body hair. There were plenty of them in the punk and riot girl scenes. I could see how that was just a bullshit patriarchal standard of beauty. But they got to me early with my facial hair.
Even when I was living on the street, I’d find a bathroom to shave in, or I would lie down with my head in my best friend’s lap and she’d pluck the hairs for me. That was one of the most intimate, kindest rituals that I have ever shared with anyone.
My mother actually never really explained PCOS to me. It was like this dirty secret. I was prescribed birth control pills at 12 to help regulate my periods and lessen the hair growth. I knew that my hair growth was caused by my hormone levels being off, but that was it. And I was constantly made fun of for being fat, by my family and even strangers, but I don’t recall anyone ever explaining to me as a teenager that this different hormonal profile I had was the reason that it was incredibly easy for me to gain weight and nearly impossible for me to lose it unless I was literally starving myself or exercising for eight hours a day.
I didn’t truly know or understand what was actually going on with my body until I went to see an endocrinologist in my mid-20s. She diagnosed me with PCOS once again. Now I knew that there was a connection between my hormonal profile, my weight issues and so many other symptoms that I deal with on a regular basis. The next time I talked to my mother, I was excited to share with her the fact that there was actually a name for what I perceived as the thing that was wrong with me. She simply said, “I know. That’s what they told us at Children’s Hospital.”
The shame, pain and rashes that came along with plucking and shaving my face went on for nearly 26 years. Because it was ingrained in me so early on that my natural hair was not OK, I shaved my face daily, or every other day. The rate of growth fluctuated based on whether I had access to health care and hormones. If there was a knock on the door and I had to answer it unexpectedly before I’d showered, I would be horrified. My heart would jump into my throat, and I’d start panicking. If I had to risk running into people to get the mail or run to a corner store for something, I’d wear a scarf wrapped around my neck. Even then, I’d be completely paranoid and anxious that the scarf would slip or someone would see my stubbly sideburns. I felt like everyone around me could see and was staring at my facial hair.
Along with other trauma that I experienced at a young age, this high level of anxiety led me to self-medicate with alcohol for over a decade, from when I’d left home until I was in my mid- to late 20s. I just couldn’t handle the immense pressure that I felt to hide natural pieces of myself. I will be eternally grateful to my spouse for gently convincing me that I was better off without the booze and helping me to make a lot of progress in dealing with my trauma through honest self-examination and just allowing myself to process experiences and emotions that I’d swallowed and buried for years.
I was about to turn 38 when I finally stopped shaving and allowed my beard to grow last fall. I’d first tried nearly a year prior, but between food sensitivities and medication side effects, I was shocked that my first attempt was really weird and scraggly. I tried to just be proud of having tried, but I was pretty heartbroken to start shaving again.
When I’d adjusted my diet to accommodate my food sensitivities and stopped taking the meds I was prescribed, which were giving me awful side effects and also lessened the hair growth, my second attempt was much more successful.
I was very quickly amazed by how confident I felt, just being myself and not caring what others thought. All I had to do was stop shaving and let go of the shame that had been instilled in me at such a young age. I didn’t think that it would happen so quickly or effortlessly. It’s amazing how human beings flourish when we are allowed to simply be our authentic selves.
I started actively seeking out and connecting with other bearded women. Many of them talk about how they embrace their beards as part of their femininity, how their facial hair is in itself feminine. I have so much love and respect for all of them and their messages, and I’d always admired the few women I encountered who embraced their facial hair the way that I’d wished I could when I was younger. But that didn’t resonate with me at all. I started thinking about my literal androgyny and about how I’d always embraced androgynous people and concepts. I began to think of myself as nonbinary, but I was afraid to say it out loud.
I was afraid that people I loved and respected would think that I was appropriating an identity that didn’t belong to me, simply because I wasn’t only female ― but no part of me had ever felt male. Instead, I range from female to androgynous and places in between, depending on the moment. I am a trinity of female, androgynous and genderqueer. Realizing this and sharing it with others has made me feel like I’m being truly open with myself and the world for the first time, and it feels amazing. All I had to do was stop hiding a piece of myself that I’d felt forced to deny since I was a child.
Recognizing and embracing my own identity has been so powerful. Even though I cut ties with my mother seven years ago, I have made a chosen family over the years. Their love and support for me don’t waver based on how much or how little facial or body hair I have. They don’t criticize me for my weight or for chasing my dreams that don’t fit society’s narrow definitions of ”normal” or ”acceptable.”
While most people have been really lovely, some people have been positively awful, of course. It’s usually men who stare angrily at me, visibly trying to figure out what I am and whether I am somehow a threat to their identity when I’m just standing in line somewhere or trying to shop for groceries. Though none of these people have actually approached me, I’ve started carrying pepper spray as a result of how unsafe they’ve made me feel in those rare moments. Of course, there are the internet trolls, but there are always internet trolls wherever people are being brave and vulnerable.
The unfortunate thing that has occurred, however, is the fact that there is a subsection of mostly straight cisgender women, including many with PCOS, who seem to only be able to find it within themselves to attempt to shame and belittle me when they come across my story. Some simply can’t seem to stop themselves from offering unwanted hair removal advice in response to my posts celebrating my beard and promoting self-love.
I began this journey of putting myself out there with the hope of helping to normalize women’s facial hair, after being inspired to finally stop shaving by the stories other bearded women were telling. It never even occurred to me that I might become someone else’s inspiration, but when I started receiving feedback from bearded women, including trans women who choose to keep their facial hair, and from genderqueer folks with whom my story has resonated, it shifted my entire perspective.
Then I met Kate Bornstein, who has been a nonbinary trans trailblazer for decades. I’ve written elsewhere about how moved I was by her presence and grace, but the one thing that stood out to me more than anything else was her explanation of the Buddhist definition of eloquence: “How much of the easing of suffering you affect with the telling of a truth, that is how eloquent you were.” I wept in the audience. Suddenly, I felt like there was a greater purpose to all of this. If I can be the voice that I needed to hear for so long, as the bearded woman or the less obvious but still valid genderqueer person, then I’m doing something right. The people who need to hear my voice will find me.
It’s been seven months since I finally found the courage to stop shaving my face and let my beard grow out. In that time, I have been amazed at how much happier and more confident I have become. People who have known me for years comment regularly about the fact that they’ve never seen me so bright, joyful and unapologetically myself.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.