Style Spotlight: Bearded Ladies

There is undoubtedly a certain standard that constantly looms over the fashion industry which dictates what is popular, trendy, beautiful, attractive, sexy and generally deemed desirable.  While I will write lighthearted articles that tend to feature some of the things because it is what people seem to enjoy reading about, I always maintain that the guides are merely suggestions and one’s personality matters far more than the things they put on their body.  This attitude comes from an alternative lifestyle which embraces equality and is rooted in the sideshow where unusual appearances were not only celebrated but also often what was drew in large crowds and subsequently made the most money.  Whether they were considered too tall, short, fat, skinny, etc. by the rest of societies standards, these women were valued for what others saw as disfigurements and abnormalities – many even became empowered by their roles because they were more popular than the male attractions.  Perhaps the people were fueled by curiosity of how a woman could be afflicted with such ‘horrible’ things yet be brave enough to exhibit themselves and invite strangers to inspect their bodies.

It is said that facial hair on men is associated with attributes such as wisdom, masculinity, sexual virility and a  higher social status.  On women, the beard is something of phenomenal legends and has often led to ridicule, though more recently it is has been acknowledged as a political and fashion statement.  A large majority of men grow hair on their faces as a natural progression of maturity, but there is a very small number of women who have the ability to grow a significant enough amount in order for it to be noticeable.  This growth can be the result of a hormone imbalance, rare genetic disorder and occasionally by use of steroids.  While there were certainly fakes in the sideshow, a few names remain legendary because these women had enough intestinal fortitude to commit to their characterized portrayal of what some may have seen as a novelty act and made it into a successful career.  Todd Browning’s Freaks featured Lady Olga, a bearded lady born in North Carolina who toured with several circuses including Ringling and had worked in a Times Square dime museum.  America’s most celebrated bearded lady of her time was Annie Jones, who acted as spokesperson for P. T. Barnum and worked to have the word ‘freaks’ abolished from the business.  Not only did she display a full, long beard, but grew her hair to over six feet – Annie also expanded her talents to include musical skills and gracious etiquette.  Though she had become  established as a bearded lady at a tender age, Jean Carroll shaved it off for love and acquired over 700 tattoo designs from famed artist Charlie Wagner to become an illustrated lady instead.

Prior to becoming a staple of sideshows, bearded ladies were venerated in mythology and folklore, with documents suggesting that the beard gave a priestess named Athena clairvoyant abilities, while the Middle Ages regarded them as witches.  In the 14th century, a bearded nun was canonized as a saint and the festival of Saint Paula is still celebrated, as is the Feast of Saint Wilgefortis.   Helena Antonia was a courtesan of Polish Queen Constance, though not much more is known other than the fact she was both bearded and a dwarf.  Josephine Boisdechene was among the first women to exhibit themselves during the Renaissance, though she was born with a variant of hypertricosis known as hirsutism, and while in France she met, fell in love with and married a bearded artist.  Adopting the name Madame Clofullia, she became signed by Barnum and appeared in his American Dime Museum as ‘ The Bearded Lady of Geneva’, her feminine features emphasized by a Victorian wardrobe while jewels opulently adorned her styled beard, giving her an overall regal look.

The most prestigious and well known historical attraction is Julia Pastrana, a woman who was excessively hairy – predominantly in the face – and also had what is documented as “ape like” features.  Despite obscure origins and an appearance that earned her the title of ‘Nondescript’, Julia possessed great poise and impressed many with her charm, grace and singing voice.  A reporter in London described her as being “civilized and domestic” as she spoke three languages, enjoyed traveling, cooking and sewing, not to mention willingly lent herself to medical examinations.  During her career, Julia had a few promoters, the last of which was so worried about loosing her as an investment to rivals, he married her in 1875.  Three years later she gave birth to a boy who lived for only thirty-five hours, and subsequently died five days later.  Julia may have been treated like an object by her promoters, but her personal anecdotes give the impression that she was a content woman, though there is a bit of sourness when reflecting on her life events.  None of that can be compared to how both her and her son were exploited as their preserved corpses were exhibited and sold around the world for twenty-five years.  They showed up in a Norwegian chamber of horrors during the 1920s, toured German occupied territories in the ’40s, and went into storage in an Oslo warehouse in the ’50s.  Julia and her son toured Norway and Sweden in 1970, arriving back in the United States one year later when the tour was cancelled due to public outcry.  The exhibition was eventually banned and the mummies were placed back in storage, where they were subsequently forgotten about.

While her life is certainly marred with exploitation and manipulation, there is also the story of Percilla that is based on true love, inner beauty and respect.  Having been born in Puerto Rico with hypertricosis, Percilla’s parents brought her to New York to seek out help from doctors, and her father developed the idea of exhibiting her for profit to take advantage of her appearance.  A showman and promoter named Karl Lauthner took immediate interest in Percilla and subsequently adopted her when her father died.  Lauthner is said to have been sensitive to public perception, disliking when she was called “freak” or “monkey girl” – that latter moniker stuck and was used in promoting her as an exhibit.  While performing in the late 1930s, Percilla met Emmit Bejano who was known as the Alligator-Skinned man, and their ability to see past each other’s physical features led to a blossoming romance.  The pair wound up eloping in 1938, were dubbed the World’s Strangest Married Couple and shared the stage while successfully traveling with several shows for many decades.  Eventually they retired and moved to Gibsonton, Florida where they remained happily in love until Emmit died in 1995.

In contemporary society, the new voice for women with beards is Jennifer Miller, a performing artist who has worked with numerous choreographers, dancers, circuses, and the Coney Island sideshow over the past twenty years.  She is co-founder of Circus Amok, a NYC based political performance troupe which has been the subject of many documentaries, has taught at multiple universities, is widely recognized for her work and has received several awards.  In an interview with Vox Magazine, Jennifer stated that she embraced the idea of having a beard right away, but the decision to do so was not always easy.  She credits her strength to being raised in a feminist environment and finding encouragement from peers, though admits that using the public restroom can be difficult.  “Having a beard is a stigmatized thing,” she says in response to the subject of whether her sideshow status effects the ability to have social relationships.  “I have to deal with that in the way that so many other people have to deal with the stigma of disability”.  An article in the New York Times describes Miller as someone who “confronts her audience head-on as a ‘bearded lady’, in an amalgam of old-time vaudeville and feminist theater” and notes that traditional bearded ladies had a feminine quality to their portrayal.  Miller, on the other hand, rattles expectations as “she parades her beard, forcing the audience to look at it and ask questions”.  When asked why she did not shave, there was no doubt that the answer was complex yet confident when she asserted, “[But] if I didn’t keep my beard, it would be a statement of hopelessness.  Keeping secrets requires energy that’s debilitating, especially when it’s out of shame and fear”.

Women are certainly victims of shame, because no matter what one does with their appearance, it is constantly criticized and held to unsolicited opinions.  Body shaming occurs constantly as an endless barrage of images from magazines, television shows, movies and even pornography are constantly telling both men and women what is deemed acceptable as being sexy and attractive.  Anything that strays even slightly from this warped ‘norm’ becomes the subject of jokes that individuals are expected to take because of their choices.  It is one of the most childish things that someone can pick on because no one is ‘perfect’ and beauty is subjective, so there should not be this exhausting competition to be more or better as you sacrifice physical, emotional and mental well-being for superficial purposes.  There is nothing wrong with change as the evolution of self is a natural process, but make sure that you making them for yourself and not because it is what someone else likes or wants.  You are the most important person in your life, and when you are confident in who you are, I guarantee that others will see it too.  People fear what they do not know and so they tend to revert to a mentality that expresses this emotion with ignorance.  If the women of this article teach us anything, it is that one can face fear with all the grace and elegance of a queen, utilize inquiring minds for profit and tackle gender boundaries with the greatest poise.

Though the image of a bearded lady is still one that can be characterized into a costume – which I personally feel if not done with respect and some level of skill can come off as appropriation – she is still a champion of standing strong against the stereotypes of women that are generally shoved down our throats by the mainstream media.  She inspires an incredible amount of art that has surfaced in a number of mediums such as illustrations, tattoos, screen-print shirts and even jewelry.  If this is not indicative of how empowering people find bearded women to be I don’t know what is, and on a personal level I have to say that I find a bit of happiness seeing that these things are inspired by such an intriguing image.

Resources: The Human Marvels

Photo credit: 1 – Jane Barnell, 2 – Helena Antonia, 3 – Hirsutism

4 – Lisa’s History Room, 5 & 7 – Sideshow Ephemera Gallery

6 – Off To the Circus, 8 – Modern Tattooer

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6 comments on “Style Spotlight: Bearded Ladies

  1. portiaiversenPortia Iversen says:

    Very thoughtful and well done article. Thanks.

  2. Benny says:

    this is an amazing article. Thank you for this!

  3. yasminselena says:

    I came across this piece from another site as I saw in the press that Julia Pastrana has finally been bought home to Mexico by a woman who was so upset about her story and the way her body had been treated. It might interest you?

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2277608/Ape-woman-Julia-Pastrana-buried-150-years-Body-Ugliest-Woman-World-returns-Mexico.html

    I hated that she was tagged as ‘ugly’ or ugliest – that was so extremely cruel.

    I loved your piece, you are a great writer! I read Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love years ago and it got me interested in the human stories behind the freakshows, I was really pleased you referenced Percilla : )

    • Thank-you so much for the link, it is nice to know that someone out there cared enough for Julia and that her body is now in a safe place. Sharing the history of sideshow oddities is something I am passionate about because despite their physical appearance, they were still people who deserve respect and it’s awesome that others enjoy my efforts.

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