In Defense of Bearded Ladies:
A Global View
By Adam Mudman Bezecny
In contemporary American culture, the standards of feminine beauty have changed very little from what they were a hundred years ago. Women are expected to be clear-skinned, smooth, and thin, with good legs—large breasts and posteriors prominently gain priority in pop culture beginning in the 1950s but can be seen as early as Betty Boop. Such standards often contrast the mainstream conception of ideal masculinity: hairy, rough around the edges, and muscular. While many leading men in films are notably lacking in body hair compared to the Sean Connerys of yesteryear, there has never been a true lapse in the cultural appreciation of facial hair among cisgender men in the United States. The divide between genders in American society perpetuates the idea that one sex possessing the culturally-assigned traits of the other is taboo; consequently, this has led to the demonization of a women or other female-aligned individuals who possess facial hair. This essay seeks to explore the homophobic nature of this taboo and how it relates to differing standards of masculinity on a global-historic scale, and how the cultural response to homoeroticism has declined compared to a once-extant openness whose historical existence is now commonly denounced. In particular this essay is a defense of bearded ladies and other individuals who cross the barriers of gender in what I hope is a prevailing trend of deconstructing patriatchy and cisheteronormativity.
Belief in the fixed nature of modern Western standards of beauty ignores attitudes on sex and gender from outside the traditional Western sphere. One needs to look no farther than South Asia to see a prominent, enduring, genderfluid way of life, due to the recognition of the hijra or third sex. Third sexes are recognized legally in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan (Manik & Barry), but discrimination against them in all aspects of life is tremendously widespread, mirroring trends of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming persons all over the world. (Talwar) This discrimination exists despite evidence of hijra/third sex/transgender individuals existing since the days of the Kama Sutra; but just as support for transgender rights builds, so too does support build for the hijra community. That third-sex individuals have always existed in South Asia supplements the existence of third genders in many other global societies: Don Pedro Fages gives records of third-sex individuals among Native Americans in 1775 (Fages), which points to a long historical profile for the modern identity of two-spirit belonging to Native American cultures. In Samoan cultures, there are third-sex individuals called fa'afafine, and in Albania, people known as sworn virgins also live as a sex outside of a male-female binary. The recognition of sexes and genders beyond female and male may seem to the Western observer as occurring “earlier” in non-Western cultures than in Western ones. Yet, as what we conceive of as “the West” formed in popular imagination throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, the distinct “Western” identity cherry-picked the details it took from cultures like those of ancient Greece, a “Western” society that had conceptions of a third sex, and which engaged in practices that were now defined as “homosexual.” That is to say more succinctly that acceptance of LGBT lives and practices in Western history was conveniently ignored to fit the “proper” (often Christian) conception of history.
Within the patriarchal hegemony of the European empires, the term “third sex” became a synonym for those who engaged in the wide range of acts deemed “homosexual.” Until the 20th Century there was little distinction in European and American society between homosexual and transgender issues and identities; the umbrella term used by some members of the LGBT community, “queer,” is perhaps an appropriate stand-in for this original definition of “homosexual,” as we often use this term to refer collectively to individuals by sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Placing queer existence under a singular term facilitated mass dismissal of it—if there was no differentiation between the levels of “homosexual” engagement then it was easy for gossip or the media to accuse one of all of them, ensuring their label and persecution as an offender of a variety of tastes. After all, sodomy and cross-dressing, the hallmarks of this blanket homosexuality, were forbidden on varying tiers of life on religious grounds. Within this slurry of indictments, all crimes of queerness became equal, and from that slurry arose many of our modern taboos. Mainstream culture is ingrained now with these taboos to the point where third-sex societies within “non-Western” cultures is seen as arising earlier than it did in “Western” societies. The impact this conceptualization had on the racist stereotyping of persons of color as unnaturally effeminate (men) or unnaturally masculine (women) could form a separate article in itself. Western cisheteropatriarchy, bound to rising imperialist identities and Christian values, determined holistically that masculine women and feminine men were, quite literally, freaks.
Thus was born the Bearded Lady. Women who share a condition with the Bearded Ladies who toured with P.T. Barnum and others usually suffer from androgen excess or the rare disorder hypertrichosis, which also produces the people whom the sideshows touted as the “wolf-men” or “dog-faced boys.” (Elston) In a world that was undergoing continual scientific growth these people were seen as curiosities from a medical perspective, which may have tied into imperialist conceptions of ability and body normativity—they were also displayed for the sexual taboo they presented. Bearded Ladies were generally symbols of ridicule, whether as medical oddities (disrupting the imperialist idea of biological normativity), or as men or women costumed to appear as Bearded Women (both falling into the “cross-dressing” taboo of 19th Century homosexuality). The Bearded Lady represented, all in one, an ableist perspective on body normalcy, a pejorative, imperialistic association between race and gender non-conformity, and institutionalized homo- and transphobia.
I raise this point to highlight the intersection between oppression under historical empires and modern taboos regarding transgender and third-sex issues. These issues, especially the disregard of the historical existence of global third-sex and transgender communities, can be provably linked to colonialism and the negative consequences thereof. Many anthropologists conclude that homophobia among Native American communities, and resultant anti-two spirit sentiment, is influenced by European misogyny and homophobia. (Lang 206) Homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are also recognized to be a colonial remnant in Africa—one perpetuated into the present by conservative Christian Evangelicals working on the continent. (Kalende) It is not unreasonable to assume that much of the modern discrimination against hijras in South Asia is a consequence of colonialism in the region as well.
This all points in my mind to the unnatural nature of the sexual taboos that emerged institutionally in the capitalist empires which formed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Global persecution against queer folk largely seems to arise after the European conquests of the colonial era; the homophobic attitudes of Europe were in turn rooted in Church belief, and they were thus aggravated and boosted by the shift towards nationalism that arose as nations moved towards imperialism, which demanded widespread acceptance of traditional Christianity. Within this desire for power, riches, and military victories was a system of conformity that turned Bearded Ladies into freaks. Tropes were set for decades to come ensuring normalized cultural suppression of transgender people, third-sex individuals, intersex folk, and anyone else unable to fit within the comparatively-new standards of the gender binary. Making Bearded Women freaks was one of the most explicit manners the cisnormative system accomplished this; it was explicitly aligning these individuals to “freakishness,” the literal dictionary definition of “anti-normal.” And it was born of the same system of violence that attacks women, people of color, and people with disabilities.
I wrote this article in response to a post which made its way to my Tumblr dash. The original post has been shared on many social media sites, and shows a picture of a large woman with a unibrow and noticeable facial hair. The caption reads: “Princess Qajar. A symbol of beauty in Persia. 13 young men killed themselves because she rejected them.” This was followed by that meme of Samuel Johnson reading skeptically, with the joke being that this woman was ugly. It was pointed out, rightly so, that there were a great many “Princess Qajars,” given that there was a whole Dynasty of Qajars—but more significantly, context was given. (The woman in the photo appears to be Esmat al-Dowleh, who was a member of the Qajar family. [Scheiweiller]) I was referred by this post to Afsaneh Najmabadi's Women with Mustaches: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, which helped give me insight the differences in beauty standards on a global scale all throughout history—as per the title, she covers how in Qajar Iran, mustaches were considered one of the best beauty marks a woman could have. Women would draw mustaches on themselves with mascara if they couldn't grow one. The cisnormative hegemony created by imperialist redefinitions in Europe invalidated these sorts of beauty standards, and made those who embodied them into jokes—into sideshow freaks up on a stage. Like how a lot of us feel even if we aren't Women with Beards...though a lot of us wish we could be Bearded Ladies. Even outside of bridging any sort of spectral gaps between masculine and feminine, the binary as colonially established creates institutionalized sexism among women of all kinds. A lot of us can still be denied jobs, promotions, and social opportunities entirely because of our hair.
It's important that Tumblr was my gateway into writing this essay. I see a great many folks share their photos on social media showing off how little they conform to traditional gender. It's a punch back, I feel, against the violence encoded into the history of this kind of expression. I have seen many Women with Beards, and they are beautiful—not just for political reasons, either. They are truly gorgeous, inside and out. There is no harm in letting people like us exist. Let us get off the stage, and I think you'll hear the whole world let out a sigh of catharsis...whether male, female, or in-between.
Elston, Dirk M. “Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa.” Background, Pathophysiology, Epidemiology, Medscape, 17 Apr. 2017, emedicine.medscape.com/article/1072987-overview.
Fages, Pedro. A Historical, Political and Natural Description of California: by Pedro Fages, Soldier of Spain. Translated by Herbert Ingram Priestley, Ballena Pr., 1972.
Kalende, Val. “Africa: Homophobia is a Legacy of Colonialism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 Apr. 2014, colonialism.
Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. University of Texas Press, 1998.
Manik, Julfikar Ali, and Ellen Barry. “A Transgender Bangladeshi Changes Perceptions After Catching Murder Suspects.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Apr. 2015, changes-perceptions-in-bangladesh.html.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. Univ. of California Press, 2010.
Scheiwiller, Staci Gem. Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies. Routledge, 2017.
Talwar, Rajesh. The Third Sex and Human Rights. Gyan Pub. House, 1999.