In a recent episode of the British TV Show Taskmaster, comedian Liza Tarbuck wears a very convincing fake beard. This is a comedy show, and the beard is worn for comedic purposes, but why is it that a woman sporting facial hair is hilarious when it is commonplace on a man’s face? Similarly, when did beards become so associated with masculinity that women worldwide are encouraged to wax or bleach any facial hair they might have to align with Western beauty standards? Finally, is the queer community reclaiming beards as belonging to all genders? Was it always this way?
Beards have been culturally significant for some time. Representing honour, wisdom, and regality, beards have been worn with pride and well taken care of since ancient times. But only by men. In fact, facial hair on women is so ‘undesirable’ that it has a medical term: hirsutism. There are some famous historical examples of bearded women, such as Helena Antonia and Clementine Delait, who lived happily with their facial hair. However, most examples of women with beards are stories of ridicule and exploitation. Julia Pastrana, for example, was nicknamed ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ and was displayed as a taxidermy figure in a museum by her husband after her death. Jane Barnell was sold to the circus by her mother when she was just four years old and was forced to perform as a ‘bearded lady’ all her life. Such a difference between the revered male beard and the disgusting female one rings patriarchal alarm bells.
In essence, Western beauty standards that have been exported around the world dictate that women should look un-masculine. Where men are broad, women should be petite. Where men have low, deep voices, women should have high, soft voices. Where men have beards, women should have none. It goes without saying that this is sexist as well as racist. Women of any descent other than Caucasian will struggle to fit themselves into this restrictive box. In Iran under the Qajar dynasty, the lines between masculine and feminine were blurred, with the beauty standard for men being slimness and delicateness, and for women heavy brows and moustaches. It was only at the end of the 19th century when increasing numbers of Iranians began to travel to Europe that these beauty standards were reversed. Importantly, whilst the patriarchal distinctions of masculine and feminine were absent, homosexuality and other queer behaviours were also seen as commonplace.
The patriarchal beauty standards that tell women they must wax/ shave/ bleach their natural facial hair are fundamentally anti-queer. However, the queer community is reclaiming the beard to some extent. The term ‘beard’ has been used in the past to refer to a heteronormative coupling where one of the participants is queer, most commonly a woman who dates or marries a gay man to cover up his homosexuality. Hopefully, this is becoming a thing of the past, and as queer figures today blur the lines of heteronormativity, the term beard is moving from covering up queerness to celebrating it. The drag queen Conchita Wurst was viewed by some as ‘very Eurovision’ and others as revolutionary. Conchita went against traditional drag norms on a very public stage, showing that gender is not necessarily one thing or another, it can be a beautiful spectrum of self. Other queer icons such as Jonathan Van Ness are also blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine by combining his beard with long hair and dresses. Facial hair does not belong to one gender.
Finally, beard beauty standards are not only sexist and queerphobic, but they are also ableist. One in five woman-assigned persons will suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome, a common symptom of which is “excessive body hair”. Those who experience this feel the pressure to wax or shave their facial hair daily to fit in with society, something that causes great distress and places their body as the problem, as opposed to those who treat them unkindly. Heteronormativity extends into wellness, presenting one option for health, both physically and mentally. Those who deviate from, frankly, (man-constructed) ideals of medicinal health are ostracised.
In conclusion, beards are more complex, and political, than they might first appear. If you want one, wear one. If you don’t want one, shave it off. Whatever your preference, don’t let it be affected by the prescribed gender norms of our society. You are beautiful because you are uniquely you.