“No, don’t look at her!”
“Uh, too late…”
You’d be surprised at the things whispered behind your back when people think you can’t hear them. We tend to assume that this sort of thing is the stuff of immaturity, only lasting through the torturous years of junior high and high school. But that’s not always the case. I’ve heard things whispered in public, at work, on the bus, and caught furtive stares just about everywhere.
And it’s something I knew would happen, and it’s something I’ve come to accept as part of the reality of my existence. It is, for lack of a better term, the price I pay for daring to buck the norm, and to do so in ways that are outside the “acceptable” ranges of strange, even among the weirdos.
Before the newness of 2013 had worn off, I was finally diagnosed with PCOS. My symptoms first started to manifest in the early 2000s. Lack of insurance, money, and a horrible fear of doctors meant that it wasn’t investigated until 2011 at the earliest. The first doctor I asked about it decided I didn’t have it despite the plethora of symptoms I display, and that was that. I put up with her for far longer than I probably should have. Sometime between giving up on that first doctor and finding the determination to find a new one, I looked at myself in the mirror, said “FUCK IT,” and…started to let some of my facial hair grow.
I had never made such a simultaneously terrifying and liberating decision in my life.
The thing is, I’d been wanting to do this for years. Ever since shaving became a regular part of my daily routine, I wondered how I’d look with styled and groomed facial hair, but fear did a good job of quashing my curiosity, and every morning, like clockwork, I lathered up and made sure my jaw was nice and smooth before going outside. Over the years, though, I stumbled upon a few things started to poke holes in my fears and get me thinking. First and foremost, though, was a spectacular graphic novel called Castle Waiting. I picked it up on a whim at one of my local comic shops, and was instantly enchanted by the black-and-white line art and whimsical story. But then this happened:
The story then focuses on the history of the castle’s charmingly eccentric nun, Sister Peace. And how one day…
Eventually, Peace joins an order of nuns dedicated to St. Wilgefortis; each and every sister is hirsute to a greater or lesser degree. And, toward the end of the forward by Jane Yolen, was this:
“And…and…and…LADIES WITH BEARDS! I who do pucker and plucker every day, am in love.”
Wait…I’m…not alone? Sister Peace isn’t entirely fantasy? I mean, sure, there are the classic bearded ladies one associates with carnivals (a modern example being Lila from HBO’s “Carnivale”). But a real (and famous!) woman admitting to battling facial hair? OMG! And Linda Medley didn’t just make up St. Wilgefortis? Holy crap!
But wait. This was not the definitive revelation you probably think I’m going to hail it as. No, it was a few more years before I screwed up the courage to let my face-fur grow. I took Castle Waiting to heart, but did so by tucking it in carefully and holding it close without much fanfare. Even though it didn’t suddenly solve all of my problems, so to speak, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Castle Waiting for its influence.
I started slowly at first. Just a little bit of sideburns below my temples. I kept them short and close-cropped, but I was both daring and terrified. Would people on the street point and laugh at me? Would it freak out my coworkers too much? What would happen?
And the truth was? Nothing. Seriously. For months and months, nobody said anything at all. I gradually gained more confidence, and let my fur grow into full-on mutton chops. And it felt great. I was taking a thing that used to be a source of shame and fear and not just making the best of it but enjoying it. It was awesome!
Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. I occasionally heard whispers behind me on the bus. I caught stares and furtive glances in the street. And when those blows hit, they sting. But I found myself somewhat more resilient than I expected. I rolled with the hurt, and reminded myself that the opinions of total strangers don’t really matter. I’ve taken a kind of risk that they probably never will and most likely never would if given the opportunity. Conversely, however, one acquaintance quite respectfully asked me straight-up about my choice. The question of whether or not I was transitioning was asked, and seemed entirely reasonable at the time. I didn’t mind answering this person’s questions, because I knew they were coming from a place of good intentions, without any conscious malice, and I was okay with that. I have no problems discussing things frankly when the questions come from a place of respect and a desire to understand.
That said, however, I began to really notice and appreciate references to body hair and grooming in fiction whenever they came up, like in The Hunger Games and Tipping the Velvet. I found more camaraderie in “Bearded Lady” by Mara Altman, which is a short memoir about the personal hell the author put herself through in dealing with her body hair in relation to what the media tells her she should do. While I have never (and hopefully will never) gone to the extremes that she did in order to combat unwanted facial hair, I took heart in further reinforcement that I wasn’t alone, and I was right there with her as she came to terms with her own situation.
While I am, for the most part, quite content with my appearance, some nagging fears still worry at the edges of my conscience from time to time. I get mistaken for a man every now and then, and that by itself doesn’t bother me, but what if it happens when I’m en route to use the restroom? It hasn’t happened (yet), but the niggling fear of being harassed when using a public restroom creeps up on me sometimes. That’s just about the last time I want to be mistaken for a man. I prefer to avoid confrontation if at all possible and restrooms are perhaps the last place I want to get into a fight, especially when it’s such a notorious point of conflict for trans* and/or gender-nonconforming persons.
For the most part, I count as blessings the support I’ve gotten from friends, the praise and affection from admirers who find me attractive, and the refreshing indifference of my coworkers. Not all risks have the kind of satisfactory ending mine did. I’m grateful that I landed on my feet after my leap of faith, but I also realize it could have gone very differently. I’m glad it didn’t.
Edited to add the requisite selfie. ;P