Originally published in Reporter on January 9, 2009. Original magazine PDF available.To my knowledge, I have always been female. So you can imagine my surprise three weeks ago when a mirror’s reflection revealed a long, thick, and dark single hair sprouting from the middle of my chin. I fiddled with it for a bit, thinking, “How the hell did this get here? Is it a case of too many bread crusts?” It seems that this was just the follicle of a new occupation: that of a bearded lady.
I was either lucky or unlucky for growing this bud of a beard on my own. In the times when freak shows were popular (the 19th to mid-20th century), most bearded ladies were simply ordinary women with fur plastered onto their chins. There are various incidents where carnival crowds got out of hand and exposed the bearded lady — and, on occasion, the entire carnival — to be a fraud. At the time, there was no definitive method to stimulate hair growth in women. Usually, the most authentic bearded ladies had either a rare medical condition like hypertrichosis, which is also known as werewolf syndrome, or facial hair follicles that were sensitive to androgens (the type of hormones that stimulate masculine characteristics in vertebrates).
Perhaps the most well-known androgen is testosterone. Although all women’s bodies contain and utilize the hormone, excessive amounts over a period of months or years can render them bearded with acne, a deeper voice, and a longer clitoris. In 1935, a group of scientists at the University of Amsterdam first identified testosterone. Shortly afterward, a patent application was filed and the steroid hormone became infamous. Stories of British neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard resurfaced as common chitchat. 46 years prior to this discovery, he had injected himself with an extract of dog and guinea pig testicles — only to feel much more elated and invigorated. During World War II, other steroids were also used to experiment on concentration camp inmates and prisoners of war so as to test their effects on chronic wasting. Even Adolf Hitler was injected with testosterone derivatives, according to his physician, to combat various ailments.
About 20 years later, an American scientist by the name of Doctor John Ziegler sought out to find an anabolic steroid that would minimize the negative androgenic effects associated with other steroids. What he stumbled upon was methandrostenolone, which was soon marketed as Dianabol and sold to countless numbers of body builders, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva.
It once even doubled as the “One A Day” tonic tablet for women, particularly during the 1960s, until beards started sprouting and once-womanly voices began to deepen. Methandrostenolone was legal until the 1990s, when the customarily slow FDA finally put their foot down. Doctor Ziegler later turned against his discovery by saying, “I wish to God now I’d never done it. I’d like to go back and take that whole chapter out of my life.”As anyone who has ever watched The Elephant Man knows, freak shows were a major moral ill of the time. A person that performed in a freak show was just that: a freak and nothing more. Such is the case with Miss Annie Jones, who, by the age of five, had grown a full-fledged beard that only a lumberjack could envy. Although the reasons for her beard growth are unknown, it has been speculated that it was due to hirsutism, excessive hair growth in women that is a symptom of an entirely different medical disorder. She was quickly noticed by American showman P.T. Barnum, who signed her on to the Barnum Circus troupe with a hefty promise of $150 per week.
Photographs of Jones were widely distributed and she soon became the “must-see freak” of the show. Many people developed an eerie, inhuman fascination with the idea of a bearded lady. Jones was soon kidnapped by a phrenologist and was eventually found being shown at a church fair.
Although the whole affair was likely a hoax put on to generate attention for the circus, Jones could not escape being a shaggy publicity stunt. She became America’s top bearded lady and is said to have toured through Russia, where she turned down the chance to pose as Jesus for several painters. In her adulthood, she tried ardently to eliminate the word “freak” from common language and spoke out against the perception of those employed by the circus.
Nowadays, freak shows are banned in a number of US states and their number has greatly decreased, but the eerie fascination to call women with facial hair “strange” still remains. Perhaps the most popular bearded woman of our time is Jennifer Miller, a professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Miller founded and participates in Circus Amok, a politically-driven circus whose performances address such issues as gentrification, health care, gay marriage, police brutality, public education, and gender identity.
Before her 30s, Miller had grown a full beard, about which she says, “A doctor told me I had high progesterone.” Nevertheless, she refused to remove it, and has since distinguished herself as “a woman with a beard, not ‘the bearded lady.’ ” Miller has made a name for herself as the figurehead of the Circus Amok show, and you can’t help but think that she has a better grasp on some of the social issues she’s tackling as a genuinely bearded female.
Miller notes that freak shows were “other ways of looking that weren’t traditional, white, and Protestant; [they] were another way to allow people to feel superior, less existentially lost.” It is a natural impulse for a person to look at something and immediately demand categorization. So when Miller walks by with her thin arms, feminine figure, and hairy chin, one just isn’t sure what to make of her. By bending the boundaries of what is defined as gender and calling for both political and social change, her beard has rendered her an honest victim; she is a woman still perceived as a “freak,” but fighting for change just as Miss Jones once did.
Miller is comfortable with her beard. She has never looked towards hair removal treatments of any kind. “I don’t think of it as a problem, so I’m not looking for a cause,” says Miller. Even so, it was time for my personal beard experience to come to a halt. With a pair of tweezers in hand and my eyes set on the target, the chin hair was dredged from my skin. No hairs have sprouted since, and the outlook is bleak for my alternative career path as a bearded lady.