Several friends have forwarded me links to the photo of a bearded woman on reddit, followed by her response and a flurry of internet discussion.
It’s exciting to find another bearded woman. I know of a few of us – women who have decided to let our facial hair grow, for one reason or another. I know of bearded women in New York, Provincetown, Germany, and now Ohio, plus myself in San Francisco. I think it’s interesting that there are a scattered few of us out there, living similar lives in disparate parts of the world.
I’ve had the experience that Balpreet had, minus the internet notoriety. I’ve had my picture taken, with and without my consent. Sometimes I’ve found these pictures online. I’ve had a blogger post snide and mocking comments about my facial hair. I’ve had a blogger make an apology of questionable sincerity when confronted on the issue. I’ve had people call my facial hair disgusting. And, most commonly, I’ve had people compliment me, my beard, and my courage and dignity in letting my facial hair grow.
I admire Balpreet Kaur for having such a clear and strong rationale behind her decision to grow a beard. She articulates her choice and her faith clearly. I was a little disappointed to see her apologize for “causing confusion” or “uttering anything that hurt anyone.” I could find nothing in her post that was hurtful, and I don’t think that “causing confusion” is a problem that any person should apologize for.
A lot of the discussion of Balpreet Kaur’s beard centers around the religious basis for her decision to be bearded. Sadly, many of the negative internet comments have been critical or hateful towards Sikhs, “unusual” religions, religious individuals, and people of color. Similarly, many of those defending and praising Ms. Kaur have focused on her religious conviction. The discussion of gender has been secondary to the discussion of religion.
My reasons for growing my beard are varied, and, to be honest, I’m still discovering some of them. Artist (and part of my chosen family) Nayland Blake (http://naylandblake.net/) has written that he makes art in order to figure out what he thinks – the process of creating art leads him to an understanding of his own thoughts and mind that he didn’t have previously. I feel similarly about my beard. I started growing my beard out of a “why not?” curiosity. I had six weeks between jobs, so I didn’t foresee any real-world consequences to growing my beard. I started growing my beard because I didn’t have a strong sense that I shouldn’t. I was raised to believe that, as a woman, I could do anything I wanted. I was raised to believe that there are many ways to be a woman. My parents taught me I could be a woman who wore skirts or a woman who wore pants, a woman who raised children or a Nobel laureate science geek (or both); either way I was still a valid and valuable woman. My parents never said I could also be a woman who had a beard; I extrapolated that part on my own.
I didn’t expect to keep my beard. I expected to grow it for six weeks, see what it looked like, and then shave it. I didn’t expect a lot of things. I didn’t expect the compliments. I didn’t expect the women who whispered to me that they had facial hair they took great pains to remove, who told me that no one knew about their facial hair and that I was the first person they were openly talking to about it. I didn’t expect the silence – the general lack of reaction from people around me, the collective unfazed shoulder-shrug. I didn’t know I would like how it looked on me. I didn’t guess that people to think it was sexy and to flirt with me because of it. I had no idea that it would feel so comfortable and so right. And I didn’t expect the near-total absence of vitriol, scorn, and mockery. I suspected that it might expand my ideas about my own gender, but I didn’t realize how far it would throw that door open. I didn’t realize it would change how I interacted in the world, to pull me out of a life as a wallflower. I didn’t expect it to teach me about my assumptions, about other people, about race and class and nationality. I didn’t expect that it would teach me about the experience of being disabled. And I certainly didn’t expect that it would give me a special fondness for homeless folk and street beggars.
I’m excited that this story about Balpreet and her beard is getting so much attention on the internet. However fleeting the attention on one bearded woman is, it’s undoubtedly reaching scores of women who have facial hair that they hide. One of my reasons for growing my beard was that I met a bearded woman. Jennifer Miller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Miller, http://www.circusamok.org/about-us/jennifer-miller-2/) was a visiting artist and scholar at the Claremont Colleges during my time at Pomona. I barely met her, but seeing her was enough. The idea was planted in my head: this could be possible, that could be me.
I hope that there are others out there, the potentially-bearded women of the world, who might see in Balpreet’s story some hint of possibility, some glimmer of bearded ease.
And, for the vast majority who aren’t Future Bearded Ladies of America (or elsewhere), I think Balpreet’s story has been one more tiny step forward in the long march towards women’s rights, queer rights, trans rights, and religious freedom. From what I’ve read in the comments, this story has left most people with a positive impression of one bearded woman. So that now, when they meet another one of us, the first thing that comes to mind with be that nice Sikh girl.
Thank you, Balpreet.