bearded woman

Beard Stories: Sir? Ma’am?

“You have your pick of liquor stores,” K joked, touting the dubious benefits of the apartment I was viewing. The building, which had badly patched stucco on the outside and badly patched plaster on the inside, was situated next to kitty-corner bottle shops. Across the street was a boarded up house, while next door there was a perky little bright yellow house, remodeled and sparkling, perched like a canary in a cage, inside the tall black spike-topped fence.

When we were done, we sat in the car, figuring out where the next apartment open house was. It was a warm day, so I rolled down the window all the way as we talked. When I pulled out my computer to see the address on my house-hunt spreadsheet, I was a little nervous to be flashing around electronics. The yelling match that had erupted outside the liquor stores earlier and the person who wandered down the middle of the street loudly cursing everything they saw had made me a little vigilant.

So, when a person walking up the street appeared to be headed for my car, my shoulders rose and tightened a little. As she approached the car, I don’t think my posture changed visibly, but I felt my whole body go a little bit more tense.

She was a thin woman, draped in four or five layers of clothing; I could see a white sweatshirt with big polka dots, a black shirt buttoned wrong, and worn navy blue trenchcoat, none of this sat squarely on her shoulders. Her dark brown skin showed deep creases, but I couldn’t begin to guess her age.

“Excuse me, sir?” she said, standing a few feet away from the window and leaning towards us.
She looked again.
“Ma’am?”
She looked again, still puzzled.
“Are you a woman?” she asked.
“Yep,” K replied for me at the same time as I answered.

She then proceeded to explain how she had fifty pennies but they wouldn’t take them at the store because she didn’t have the wrapper to make them into a roll of pennies. So she wanted to know if we had two quarters that she could trade for her fifty pennies, so she could buy something that the store.

We apologized for not having any change. She shuffled away.

 

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Beard Stories: Wishful thinking

(Originally written September 2, 2009.)

“You used to be in Andy’s lab, right?” asked the professor I was meeting with to see about a job as a grader. Her office is across the hall from Andy’s.
“Yeah. I switched  into Gretchen’s lab.”
“You used to have a beard, right?”
“Yeah!” I’m surprised. Almost no one says anything outright about the beard, especially no one outside the queer leather scene.
“I didn’t recognize you without it,” she says, smiling. I think to myself that clearly that isn’t literally true, but I understand her meaning.
I smile with a little shrug and nod. I’m never sure what the next step is in a conversation like this. My failure at small talk. Or the lack of training in my upbringing on how to converse about one’s beard.
She leans back in her chair a bit, taking a more relaxed, conversational posture “You know, I’ve been with my husband twenty-five years**, and he’s always been clean shaven.” Her tone clearly says that she kind of wishes he’d grow a beard.
“It’s fun variety,” I offer, smiling and wishing that sentence had come out with better grammar. “I’ll be growing it back soon,” I continue to show I agree with her that beards are nice. (As if a woman would grow a beard without having a preference for them.)
“Ah, great,” she says, or some other phrase of approval. “Twenty-five years, and he’s never grown it out…”

And the conversation moves on from there to whether or not I’ll be working for her.

**I actually remember it as thirty-five years, but that didn’t seem to add up with her age. Ten or fifteen minutes later in the conversation, I was trying to figure out if I was remembering it correctly or what she might have said, or if she could possibly be a lot older than she looked and had in fact been with him for thirty-five years. Based on her appearance, twenty-five even seems high, but then I’m lousy at judging ages.

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Beard Stories: Me too

(Originally written August 29, 2009.)

“Large chai latte, please.”
“Venti chai. That’s three thirty-five.”
“Thanks.”
I’m in the DC train station, waiting for the next train to Baltimore. Not in a total hurry like usual.
A black woman in her forties, wearing a beige trench coat and a long, business-woman skirt and blouse, is in line behind me, so we end up standing together waiting for our drinks. She catches my eye and asks, smiling in a friendly, wide-eyed way, “How do you grow that?” with a hint of pleasant fascination in her voice.
“It just grows there.” I reply, smiling back and shrugging. “It started growing in when I was thirteen, and I used to spend all this time shaving and tweezing and plucking and doing chemicals and whatnot. So I decided to just let it grow.”
She’s smiling broadly now. “That makes sense!” she chuckles. “If I had one, I’d grow it myself!” she says with a chuckle.
I laugh and say something generic like “Cool!”
“Venti chai.” The barista sets my drink on the counter. We smile and nod, and I head off to my train.

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Beard Stories: Beard in translation

(Originally written August 28, 2009)

Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Romanian = barba
French = barbe (looks to my American eyes like “Barbie,” although I’m sure that’s not how it’s pronounced. But I like the idea of a Barbie beard.)
Afrikaans, Dutch = baard, German = bart, Yiddish = bord
Croatian = brada, Latvian = bārda, Lithuanian = barzda, Slovenian = Brada, Polish = broda
Welsh = barf (ew)
Galician = Barbados (I’m assuming this is a translation error!?)

Hebrew = zakan (If I’m reading it right.)
Slovak = fúzy (! – my favorite)
Cockney rhyming slang = Strange and weird (I like this one!)

More:
Danish = skaeg, Icelandic = skegg, Swedish = skägg, Norwegian =skjegg
Albanian = mjeker
Czech = vousy
Estonian = habe
Filipino = balbas
Finnish = partaa
Hungarian = szakállt
Indonesian, Malay = jenggot
Irish =féasóg
Maltese = abjad
Swahili = ndevu
Turkish = sakal
Vietnamese = râu
(as a sidenote, it was interesting to find out which languages used which alphabets.)

Beards.org says my particular style is called a chin curtain, chinstrap, or Donegal.

Definitions, from various sources. 
v. defy, oppose
n. hair on the sides of the face and chin
(v. t.) To take by the beard; to seize, pluck, or pull the beard of (a man), in anger or contempt.
(v. t.) To oppose to the gills; to set at defiance.n. a tuft or growth of hairs or bristles on certain plants such as iris or grasses
n. a person who diverts suspicion from someone (especially a woman who accompanies a male homosexual in order to conceal his homosexuality)
n. tuft of strong filaments by which e.g. a mussel makes itself fast to a fixed surface
n. Of a woman, pubic hair.
v. go along the rim, like a beard around the chin; “Houses bearded the top of the heights”
(v. t.) To deprive of the gills; — used only of oysters and similar shellfish.
n. An imposition; a trick. [Obs.] –Chaucer.
(n.) A barb or sharp point of an arrow or other instrument, projecting backward to prevent the head from being easily drawn out.

From the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
Cutting the beard. The Turks think it a dire disgrace to have the beard cut. Slaves who serve in the seraglio have clean chins, as a sign of their servitude
Kissing the beard. In Turkey wives kiss their husband, and children their father on the beard.
To make one’s beard (Chaucer). This is the French “Faire la barbe à quelqu’un,” and refers to a barber’s taking hold of a man’s beard to dress it, or to his shaving the chin of a customer. To make one’s beard is to have him wholly at your mercy.
I told him to his beard. I told him to his face, regardless of consequences; to speak openly and fearlessly.

And from Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary:

Beard. The mode of wearing it was definitely prescribed to the Jews (Lev. 19:27; 21:5). Hence the import of Ezekiel’s (5:1-4) description of the “razor” i.e., the agents of an angry providence being used against the guilty nation of the Jews. It was a part of a Jew’s daily toilet to anoint his beard with oil and perfume (Ps. 133:2). Beards were trimmed with the most fastidious care (2 Sam. 19:24), and their neglet was an indication of deep sorrow (Isa. 15:2; Jer. 41:5). The custom was to shave or pluck off the hair as a sign of mourning (Isa. 50:6; Jer. 48:37; Ezra 9:3). The beards of David’s ambassadors were cut off by hanun (2 Sam. 10:4) as a mark of indignity.
On the other hand, the Egyptians carefully shaved the hair off their faces, and they compelled their slaves to do so also (Gen. 41:14).

Etymology
Beard O.E. beard “beard,” from W.Gmc. *barthaz (cf. M.Du. baert, Ger. bart), seemingly from PIE *bhar-dha “beard” (cf. O.C.S. brada, Lith. barzda, and perhaps L. barba”beard”). The verb is from M.E. phrase rennen in berd “oppose openly,” on the same notion as modern slang get in (someone’s) face. Pubic hair sense is from 1600s; in the 1811 “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” the phrase beard-splitter is defined as, “A man much given to wenching” (see beaver).

And, related –
Bizarre – c.1648, from Fr. bizarre “odd, fantastic,” originally “handsome, brave,” from Basque bizar “a beard” (th notion being of the strange impression made in France by bearded Sp. soldiers); alternative etymology traces it to It. bizarro “angry, fierce, irascible,” from bizza “fit of anger.”

And finally, some beard quotes:

“All the men in my family were bearded, and most of the women.” – W.C. Fields
“To a man, ornithologists are tall, slender, and bearded so that they can stand motionless for hours, imitating kindly trees, as they watch for birds.” – Gore Vidal (Maybe that’s why I keep doing bird research.)
You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.” – G. K. Chesterton
“There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. This period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard. ” – Jean Cocteau
“If you are really Master of your Fate, it shouldn’t make any difference to you whether Cleopatra or the Bearded Lady is your mate.” – Ogden Nash
Wisdom is in the head and not in the beard” – Swedish proverb. And, “If the beard were all, goats could preach” – Danish proverb
Or, more graphically, “A beard creates lice, not brains” – Greek proverb.
Alternately, “Chins without beards deserve no honour.” – Spanish proverb
I have the terrible feeling that, because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theatre, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.” – Orson Welles
Kissing a man with a beard is a lot like going to a picnic. You don’t mind going through a little bush to get there!” – Minnie Pearl
Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind” – Bulgarian proverb
“Upon shaving off one’s beard. The scissors cut the long-grown hair; the razor scrapes the remnant fuzz. Small-jawed, weak-chinned, bug-eyed, I stare at the forgotten boy I was.” – John Updike
When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.” -Shakespeare

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Beard Stories: Poker Face

(Originally written August 26, 2009, while I was temporarily clean-shaven in preparation for starting a job.)

 

My aunt A has a better poker face than her husband.
It’s the little widening of the eyes, the tell off a repressed startle. In some people it’s the tiniest flash. In some people I can’t see it at all.

Often I miss the obviously inquisitive ones. D tells me about them.
The waitress at the Chinese restaurant the other day, nearly craning her neck to check my chin for shadow, trying to figure out if I was the same person she’d seen with a beard (maybe 3 times in the past year, but still memorable).
The dyke-looking woman walking down the street towards us who gave me a full head-to-toe scan.
The couple we hiked past, who stopped hiking and turned around to figure me out. D was several paces behind me, so they didn’t realize we were together and that their staring might be reported.

I like watching the eyes though. Seeing if I can see the question, the surprise. Hardly anyone ever comments or asks.

Even when I shaved the beard, almost no one commented.
Joanna asked if I’d gotten a haircut. So did Kyle.
The scruffy guy down at the Lagunitas store asked what had happened to my beard. When I told him, he said he thought it looked good before and I should grow it back.
One of my labmates, Jeff, who I hadn’t seen since April, said “You shaved your beard!” in a friendly, disappointed way. He too seemed happy when I said I was growing it back. Then we asked how each others’ summers had been and he showed me pictures of his newborn son.

I wish I knew what was behind that flash in the eyes. I can see the question but I can’t tell what it is.
I wish I could know what people say and think about me. Not because I want their approval. Just out of curiosity. It’s like a secret. The flash in the eyes is, to me, the little kid taunting, sing-song “I’ve got a secret! I’ve got a secret!” Maybe I’m just nosy. Maybe I spent too much of my teen years with people gossiping about me. Maybe I’m bad at reading people’s expressions and that fires my curiosity more. I want to know who sees me as a woman with a beard and who sees me as a guy with tits and who’s just confused and whose mind works in a way that they see me without an instant label. I want to know what my relatives wonder. I can see all the questions people have, that they don’t ask.

I want a little pin to wear on my backpack strap that says “It’s ok to ask.” Saying that aloud when I see the eye-flash seems rude, like I’m calling them out on an impolite moment. But I want people to ask. For my own curiosity about the questions and so I can give them the answers they’re seeking. The questions I do get are often so simple – “How do you grow that?” “Are you a boy or a girl?” Not hostile, just seeking information.

I want more people to know how to ask respectful questions. How to precede a personal question with “May I ask you a question?” How to gracefully accept when a person declines to answer.

I’ve been told, by other queers and genderqueers, that I’ll get tired of the questions. That I’ll get tired of being an involuntary public educator. But I don’t see that yet. I’m not burdened by people asking me questions. It’s interesting for me to see what they ask. I hesitate to suggest, when teaching workshops on gender, that it’s good for people to ask when they’re curious, because I don’t want to increase the burden on the people who don’t want to answer. But I fear that valuable conversations and questions are much too often avoided out of fear of being impolite. It seems like the standard is to politely pretend like the person is normal. To do one’s earnest best to hide the flash of the eyes and to suppress the questions. I worry about this polite silence – how it denies the “clueless public” these tidbit chances to learn about queerness. For the vast majority of people who will never attend a queer-awareness training, I’m happy to do this bit of public-outreach queer-ally education. I know not every queer is, but I am. But no one starts the conversation.

And, to be honest, I’m not very good at starting it either. I don’t want to force queer education on people who’d rather not know. i don’t want to come across as having an agenda or hosting the all-about-me show.

Speaking of the all-about-me-show, I start teaching tomorrow. So, failing to find a tidy conclusion to this pondering, I’m off to bed.

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Beard Stories: Cherry Medicine

…Continued from prior post.
(Originally written August 26, 2009).

D picked me up at the airport at 9am and drove me home.

We set up in the bathroom. Sheet on the floor, sarong around my shoulders.
Got out the scissors, electric razor, electric beard-and-mustache trimmer, and safety razor with shaving cream. Hot towels at the ready.

I’d been thinking about shaving for weeks. Alternately arguing myself into and out of shaving. Getting second opinions, and third, and fourteenth. Thinking about how it would be to be beardless. Trying to answer for myself the questions others asked. Grappling with the harsher, barbed questions I aimed at myself. Would it be denying my identity to shave? Would I be closeting myself – with all the implied queer guilt? Was I missing a chance to find out how wonderful and accepting my new employers really were? Was I being a responsible adult – getting rid of childish, attention-grabbing grooming habits?

I’d been pretty calm about the whole thing. Fretting a bit. Over-analyzing more than a bit. But generally, as usual, keeping it all on the ‘head’ level – analytical, not emotional.
So, with the scissors in hand, I had a last-ditch emotional flash of “shit I don’t really want to do this but I kinda have to and I’m fast approaching the point of no return.” I whined, I pouted, I got wriggly. I was five and didn’t want to take my medicine.
I clenched my jaw, opened my eyes wide with a last ‘please i don’t want to do this’ pathetic look, grabbed the scissors, grabbed a big tuft of beard, and, with a snip that seemed too inconsequentially easy for such a big change, cut off a clump of beard.
Then I did it again. And again. Remember discovering, once the dread medicine is in your mouth, it’s easier to swallow than to spit it out? Once I was committed, suddenly it was easy. I expected to feel unsettled and upset through the whole process of shaving. But after the first few snips, it was just like shaving always was. A non-event. The beard was mangled. The damage was done. All that was left was taking the rest of it off.

My beard is curly. Very curly. The severed tuft stayed together as a unit. We set aside a piece, and D put it in an abalone shell on the altar, between the candles I’d lit in asking for a job.

I trimmed with a scissors, then D took over with a scissors when the angles got strange. When it got too short and I got scared Dossie was going to snip my chin by accident, we switched to the electric trimmer. And, although we had the hot towels waiting to do a barber-style shave, I opted to shave in the shower, by feel, like I’m used to doing after all these years.

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Beard Stories: Remedial teen boy lessons

(Originally written August 20, 2009)

Earlier this summer, I saw an listing for a part-time job managing educational programs for Sonoma State’s biological preserves. The job description pretty much listed my entire resume. It seemed perfect. Part-time, interesting, well-paid work for while I finished grad school. I applied, hopeful. Even did a ritual with Dossie, just to hedge my cosmic bets. Pondered whether or not it would be wise to shave my beard to get a job this good. Never heard anything back from the job.

Then, on a Saturday in late June, my friend L mass-emailed her friends, saying she needed someone to sublet her place, asking to borrow a car for a road trip, and that the high school where she works was looking for someone to teach one section of AP Biology. Excited, I emailed her back saying I was definitely interested in the job. On Monday morning, L passed my name to her boss and I sent in my resume. By of lunchtime, I got a request for an interview. Problem was, I was scheduled to fly to the east coast on Tuesday, to teach at leather events for 3 weeks. So I did a phone interview on Tuesday with the head of school and on Wednesday with the head of the department. Both were barely interviews at all. No hard questions, just discussion of what the school was like and a bit of chatting about my background. It pretty much seemed like I had the job. I just needed to pass an in-person interview.

When I started growing the beard, I intended to grow it for 6 weeks, while I was in between jobs. Then, I decided to keep it for the summer. Then I decided to keep it until I needed not to have it – assuming that would be when I finished grad school and applied for real jobs.

Last year, I taught one day a week in a middle school. So, I know from experience that teens, teachers, and school administrators could all be fine with my beard. But, I figured I should shave. It would suck to lose a job that was nearly mine just because of the beard. I didn’t want to shave. I’d grown to like my beard, and I resented having to hide it out of fear of not getting the job. I knew that having it would distract the interviewer from my qualifications, but I wished that wasn’t the case.

I asked different people what they thought. When I was talking to Dad about shaving, he told me that when he shaves off a beard, it takes a week for his skin to get back to normal. Having never shaved off a beard, I hadn’t even thought of that. It was fun and funny to be getting remedial lessons in teen-boy-personal-grooming. I asked D, and I asked friends. I asked L what she thought, since she knows the school. The consensus seemed to be that I should shave. A new friend who’s inclined to the woo offered a quick divination on the matter. I pulled a rune, which he said represented “rapid change.”

I’d thought about trying to have some fun with the shaving, but the priority turned out to be getting me shaved as quickly and smoothly as possible so that my skin wouldn’t be visibly irritated at the interview. G suggested I call M, who was raised by a barber and a beautician and was a natural with a razor. So, with the benefit of M’s shaving experience, I asked Dossie to pick up a Mach 3 safety razor and Edge shave gel so I could shave as soon as I flew home on Sunday night. Airline delays ensued, and I didn’t get home until Monday morning. The interview was scheduled for Tuesday morning.

(To be continued.)

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Beard Stories: Rare

(Originally written August 19, 2009, when I had shaved my beard in order to get a job.)

 

It’s strange writing up the beard stories while I currently don’t have a beard. I guess it works as a consolation-prize connection to beardedness, while I adjust to the unsettling feeling of walking through the world looking relatively normal.

The curious scientist in me wishes there was a way to rigorously compare people’s reactions to me bearded and unbearded, but of course my presence and behavior completely negates any neutral controls. So, as a biologist raised in the biology culture of looking down on social scientists, I’m now adjusting to the seductive appeal of reporting single, uncontrolled incidents as significant data. The idea that an incident counts because it happened and is therefore true and is therefore important and worth discussing is strange, unsettling and enticing to my well-trained biologist brain.

Actually, this is just one symptom of my larger crisis of confidence in science. Partially influenced by my recent life as an outlier, I’ve found myself receptive to arguments that scientific research and the statistics that support it are problematically reductionist. D loves to remind me of Kinsey’s assertion that those with atypical sexual practices should be viewed not as deviant, abnormal, or diseased, but as “rare,” with all its jeweled connotations of alluring value.
In introductory biology, I was taught to delete anomalous data, presumably because it was the result of poor lab technique or random errors. But, as a proud anomaly, I now wonder. I still believe in the utility of science when it is applied. I can accept that a medicine that cures 99 people might kill the outlier hundredth, but I’m willing to accept imperfect medicine in the interest of saving more lives. Same goes for applied conservation. But, for pure academic work, in the interest of increasing the world’s body of knowledge, I’m becoming less certain of the intrinsic value of research.
I was already frustrated that research concerns itself with the minutiae, and that only rarely does a discovery have implications outside of its community of a dozen specialists worldwide. And now, I’m starting to believe that the practice of research in general is flawed. It’s awfully inconvenient to be losing my faith in research right as I need to finish my masters thesis in biology.
This isn’t quite as bad as when I took a class in existentialism my first semester of college, but it feels familiar.

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Questions | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beard Stories: And again

A tall, thin man with stringy blond hair shook a paper cup, rattling a few coins. He wore an oversized nylon windbreaker that once was white, and the creases in his pale face were highlighted by a faint accumulation of dirt from days without washing. “Spare some change?”

“Sorry,” I said. I didn’t have any in my pockets. Pan-handling must have been easier in the days before credit cards.

I turned to enter the store. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, I like that!”

I turned. Yes, he was pointing to my chin. “Thanks!”

“That’s awesome!”

“Thanks!”

 

I used to be kind of scared of homeless people. They were foreign to me, and, growing up in suburbia, I associated them with a kind of rough urban grunginess that included muggers and pickpockets and people who smashed in your car windows – various kinds of people who were trying to get some tidbit of the relative wealth I enjoyed. The overlap in homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues added to my apprehension. I knew, growing up, that giving money to homeless folks was a complicated issue, because of the potential that they would spend it on drugs. I had seen homeless people (or people I perceived to be homeless – I conflated homelessness and panhandling and dirtiness) screaming and yelling at the sky, or, worse, at passersby. I saw homeless folks as irrational, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.

As I started to collect the beard stories, I started to notice patterns. Who responds and how, under what circumstances, and with what emotions.

Of all the people I see, talk to, interact with, or walk by on any given day, almost none of them have any visible reaction to my beard. Now and then, someone will ask a question or say something about it. But, out of the hundreds of people I might pass on a given day, typically none of them respond.

Far and away, the group that’s most likely to comment on my beard is homeless people – or people I perceive to be homeless, anyway. Today, for example, I probably walked by a few hundred people who live under roofs, and not one said anything about my beard. I walked by two men panhandling, and one of those two responded.

But, what surprised me more than the number of responses from homeless folks was the quality of those responses. Almost without exception, the responses from homeless folks are enthusiastically, sometimes jubilantly, positive and complimentary.

I don’t quite know why that is. D suggested that maybe it’s because they’re a group of people who are used to living outside of society’s rules and expectations, so they may have more fondness for other folks who are living outside the rules, including gender rules. I wonder if some of the mental health issues might be working in my favor – maybe folks who struggle with impulsivity and following standard codes of politeness are, in general, more apt to blurt out whatever’s on their mind, while others maintain good manners and “appropriate personal distance.”

I wonder what the homeless subculture might be like. I imagine that there’s some subculture there, forged by these groups of people who live and eat and sleep and beg together. I’ve heard of rules of etiquette and territory among those who work the freeway off-ramps. I imagine there are many details of the subculture that I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m seeing a little glimpse into this subculture through these responses to my beard. What is it about homeless subculture that makes folks so easygoing about talking about my beard? What makes them compliment me so enthusiastically?

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Beard Stories: Published!

I got an email the other day asking me to write an article about my experience as a bearded woman.

Here it is! http://www.yourjewishnews.com/Pages/23059.aspx

It was interesting figuring out what to focus on in writing this article. I realized I know what’s interesting to me but not very much about how these stories are received. So, I’m interested in your feedback! What do you find interesting about these beard stories? What do you want to hear more about? What do you think of the stories? What questions do you have? What has struck you or stuck with you from these stories? Thanks!

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Questions, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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