When Seattle resident Little Bear Schwarz turned 13, she started to notice some hair on her upper lip, which she chalked up to her ethnic heritage. But by the time she was 16, that sprinkling of hair had turned into a full beard and extended to her chest.
What she didn’t know at the time was that she had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age (read: puberty), and results in symptoms like prolonged or irregular periods, polycystic ovaries and excessive androgen, the male hormone.
“When we first noticed how abundant my facial hair was, we went to the doctor and at the time, the diagnosis for PCOS wasn’t what it is now,” Schwarz, a performer and data entry clerk, tells Global News. “The doctor gave me an ultrasound to scan for cysts but didn’t find any.”
Luckily, hirsutism (excessive facial and body hair) is her only symptom; she doesn’t have insulin resistance, diabetes or cysts, which often accompany the condition. But her facial hair plagued her throughout her adolescence.
She shaved her face and neck daily in the shower — “so I wouldn’t have to watch myself do it and face the ludicrousness of it” — sometimes until she bled, and took a razor to school with her in case stubble appeared during the day.
But as Schwarz reached her mid-20s, and started reading up on body positivity and feminism, she began to realize that a lot of what women are expected to do is mandated by men, and she had an option. She stopped shaving her body hair at 28 and three years later, she moved from Florida to Seattle and stopped shaving her face.
“It dawned on me that I never had a choice in the matter and was told by society that I needed to remove my hair,” she says.
Seattle proved to be a serendipitous move for the 35-year-old: she spotted a flyer advertising a beard competition one day, entered and won.
It also sent her on a path of advocacy. She refuses to be a “shut-in” but she’s well aware that her decision to grow out her facial hair opens her up to scrutiny and ridicule.
“It’s worse when people stare at me or think I can’t see them taking my picture. At least if someone makes a comment it can open up a dialogue,” she says. “I accept that going outside is both a breach of my safety and a step in the right direction.”
Recently, Schwarz took to Facebook to express her disdain for Halloween, a holiday she says she hates unless she’s performing.
“Being in public in Halloween when I’m not performing is genuinely scary for me. It’s vulnerable. It’s panic-inducing. When people ask me about my ‘costume’ it reminds me how far I have to go in my mission to make Hairy Women valid and visible,” she wrote. “It reminds me that above all my merits — talent, beauty, sensitivity — I am seen as above all else: strange.”
And to those who inevitably counter with the reasoning that she brings this judgment upon herself, she has a clear response: it’s OK to complain.
“There’s this idea that complaining about something and doing something about it is antithetical,” she says. “But to complain is to put out a beacon call; it makes people aware and allows you to reach others, bond and go into activism with numbers. So when I complain, that’s not the opportunity to say that I chose to look this way. It doesn’t erase my right to be treated with dignity.”