Bearded Ladies: Essay

From Freak Shows to Feminism by Maddy Killick

by Central Saint Martins .

Clémentine Delait attracted spectators from afar when she established ‘Le Café de La Femme a Barbe’- ‘The Café of the Bearded Lady’ - and Jane Barnell, who was otherwise known as ‘Lady Olga’, appeared in Tod Browning’s film Freaks from 1931 after her mother sold her to the circus at the age of four.

No longer is the ‘beard’ a defiant symbol of one’s laziness or eccentricity: it is a trend, a hobby, a ‘Movember’ fundraiser - it is a cult that has developed faster than the bumfluff of a pubescent boy. With ‘tache’ oil flying off the shelves and pageant-style ‘Beard Conventions’ dominating arenas across the world, the beard is the modern man’s rendition of the eighties perm.

From the budding craft-beer hipsters of East London, with their scruffy-chic beards and compulsory hair-buns, to Eurovision’s stubbly siren Conchita Wurst aka Thomas Neuworth, these days face fuzz is everywhere.

Just as our drains are now prone to being permanently clogged with tufts of regret and forgotten beards of the past, our Instagram feeds are congested with images of glittery goatees and beards embellished with daisies. Is that macho – or metrosexuality? Hard to tell. After all, cavemen are said to have needed facial hair to brave the elements whilst their feeble, follicle-free female counterparts minded the cave. Beyond the Ice Age and, yes, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, it remains unfashionable for women to disclose any form of body hair, especially the facial kind.

The hoo-ha surrounding society’s obsession with the latter is comparable to John Ruskin’s repulsion towards his own wife’s ‘hoo-ha’ and preference for the girlish form of young girls. If woman does not present herself as some smooth, baby-skinned goddess, she might as well be Medusa - no wonder Botticelli entitled his painting ‘The Birth of Venus’… And, given that women continue to pay ‘Pink Tax’ for female grooming products, it’s unsurprising that Medusa used her lethal locks to turn men into stone - she was probably enraged by the price of a ‘Venus’ razor at Boots.

Men don’t have to worry ‘does my beard look big in this?’ Nor do they have to spend hours meticulously planning their next wax appointment. But they can get away with showing a bit of stubble and continue to be hailed as ‘sex-gods’- even though their ‘sexy apparatus’ can contain more bacteria than a dirty toilet.

Yet at least 40 percent of women have some sort of facial hair; a reality ignored and feared, regarded as shameful. But in ancient legend and myth, women grew beards out of sheer piety and sexual purity - and they were celebrated for it. According to Hippocrates, the goddess Phaethusa of Abdera sprouted a beard out of love for her husband Pytheus. And, in other tales, the female beard has been regarded as an emblem of faith and devotion. In taking her vow of virginity, the fourteenth-century saint, St. Wilgefortis, prayed for help in resisting marriage to the King of Sicily. Consequently she grew a beard as a visible sign that she belonged exclusively to God, though it did lead to her pitiless crucifixion.

Despite these examples, and the success of Conchita, in general the plight of the ‘Bearded Lady’ has never been easy. Often considered as dirty, cursed and beastly, women with excessive facial hair were vilified by the 19th century entertainment industry. Featuring extreme examples of physically unusual humans, the Victorian ‘Freak Show’ appealed to an audience fascinated by irregular human characteristics, diseases and performances: “These are thy freaks, SENSATION” wrote Dublin University Magazine in 1864.

The ‘Bearded Lady’ was quite the phenomena in these shows, with some ladies becoming star attractions by their own right. Clémentine Delait attracted spectators from afar when she established ‘Le Café de La Femme a Barbe’- ‘The Café of the Bearded Lady’ - and Jane Barnell, who was otherwise known as ‘Lady Olga’, appeared in Tod Browning’s film Freaks from 1932 after her mother sold her to the circus at the age of four.

But the leading lady of them all was Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born with Hypertrichosis, a condition that caused her to be severely deformed and hairy. Pastrana was advertised as a ‘Bear Woman’, and even Charles Darwin made time to take her in, describing her as having a ‘gorilla-like appearance.’ However, Pastrana went on to delight the world with her dancing and music playing abilities in her touring show. When Pastrana and her son died in infancy, her husband and manager had them mummified and displayed in a glass cabinet, which went on to tour Europe for more than a century.

It wasn’t until 2013, 153 years after her death, that Pastrana was finally laid to rest in her native home of Mexico. Today, in an age of greater respect for human rights and disability, the bearded women no longer tends to participate in such demoralising acts of ‘amusement’. That is unless you are the ‘postmodern performance artist’, writer and professor, Jennifer Miller who performs out of choice and desire. Since establishing her career as a juggler/ fire-eater/ performing artist well over 20 years ago, Miller, who prefers to be referred to as ‘a woman with a beard’, is most prominent for co-founding the acclaimed performance troupe Circus Amok in New York.

Though we now live in an age of laser hair removal, Miller confronts the stigmas surrounding female facial by calling it ‘a symbol of power.’ She isn’t the only woman to embrace her beard. Harnaam Kaur, a 24-year old woman from the UK who has been growing a beard since she was diagnosed with Polycystic Over Syndrome at 16 confounded her bullies when she signed to the modelling agency, Wanted Models.

Whilst John Galliano’s ‘freak show’ inspired S/S 06 collection featured bearded male twins in sheer dresses of golden silk, last season Kaur became the first bearded woman to walk a runway at London Fashion Week for the jewellery designer Marianna Harutunia. And, the previous year saw Harnaam as the only woman to feature in Beard, an exhibition at Somerset House that explored and celebrated all shaves of the beard in eighty images.

From social outcast to female liberator, the 21st century’s Bearded Lady embodies diversity and body confidence. 2016 marks forty years of Punk - perhaps the bearded lady should be seen as part of that celebration of individual freedom. Gentlemen, you better watch out because the bearded lady is here to stay – and ready to take you on, in the gin bars of Shoreditch – and elsewhere.