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The Monday extract: ‘Bearded ladies’ by Ashleigh Young

Grant Smithies wrote in the Sunday Star-Times this weekend that Ashleigh Young should be ‘carried through the streets of Wellington in a sedan chair, borne aloft by adoring disciples’. Fair call. Her brilliance is evident in the following essay taken from her new book Can You Tolerate This? 

The thing that interested me wasn’t the fact that she had facial hair. It was the fact that everyone can be amazed by it, everyone can be thinking about it, but no one can say anything. – Media commentator Paul Henry on Greenpeace activist Stephanie Mills’s moustache, May 2009

My father wouldn’t look at my face. He looked into the space above my head, or at one of my ears, or he’d close his eyes. This time though, after we hugged goodbye – our brief, angular hug – he looked right at me.

“You’ve got a little moustache,” he said, “just like I used to have.”

His voice was thoughtful. He might have been remarking on a new neighbour or a statistic. “The Joyces used to live in that house,” he might have been saying, or, “I suppose there are some terrible collisions on these roads.”

We stood beside the waiting taxi. My parents had flown down for the weekend to see the hostel where I was staying for my first year at university. Before I could say anything, my mother was talking again. She would not pause until they were both bundled into the taxi. Then they were off.

I kept my head down as I walked toward the cable car. My face was very heavy. It was only inside the car, empty except for an elderly couple, that I put a finger to my upper lip.

I had always known it was there, but knowing and acknowledging are different things. Until now I had managed to avoid looking at it directly. Like my father I found it easier to look at the edges of things.

In my hostel room I looked at the mirror. I tried to see myself through my father’s eyes. My face is mostly eyes. Thick eyebrows, eyelashes that frequently impale the corners of my eyes, a nose already becoming hooklike like my father’s. And then, there it was. The little moustache. Faint, but faint was already a mistake. Faint was more than enough to draw the eye, in the same way the faint lines on a weather map tell us what’s to come. I drew a finger over it and saw that the hair was plentiful enough to move sideways. A moustache must be all or nothing. Dark and bristling, accompanied by a flushed face and small suspicious eyes, like Father Ted’s Mrs. Doyle, or not there at all: the skin bare, innocent of transgression, like a model in Vogue whose skin barely seems made, a shining bubble she will occupy for only a second.

As I studied my moustache, I thought about why it was that my father’s observation had made it this far with me – all the way down Lambton Quay, up the hill via cable car, through the playground, into my room – because it was really no different from the kinds of things he would usually say. His way was to drop incongruous statements into the middle of long silences and no one could ever be prepared. “That boyfriend of yours seems a bit glum.” “Those trousers look like something out of Ghostbusters.” “That music is hideous.” He would follow these statements with more silence, so you would be left upended. Most of the remarks were easy to brush away; with neither of us meeting the other’s eye, I could pretend he was confused, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Yet somehow that old rebuff – You don’t know anything about me – couldn’t carry the weight for me this time. This time he knew exactly what he was talking about. The moustache could not be denied.

The truth was I already had a preoccupation with body hair. It had begun early. I was aware of hair, because compared with other girls, even some boys, I was very obviously hairy. I had hairy arms, especially. “You’re a wee monkey,” said my mother. There was affection in her voice. I didn’t mind being her monkey. It was when a boy in my class saw my arms and called me Wolf Man that my feelings about hairiness changed. In the 1941 film The Wolf Man, the eponymous monster is an oddly sheep-like werewolf, with bristly facial fur and a mostly sheepish expression. I didn’t want to be a monster. I didn’t want to be a wolf. Most of all, I didn’t want to be a man.

After that, whenever it was too hot to wear a jumper I tried to hide my arms. But at school it always seemed to be too hot. The rugby field was parched and prickly. Wet togs and towels heated up in the plastic bags we carried back from the pool. The asphalt was scorching, the Mangaokewa River was flattened by the heat. When sitting, I folded my arms behind me, sat on them, twisted them so that only the undersides, the less hairy parts, could be seen. I wonder now if this is the reason why today I can bend my arms at horrible angles. Self-consciousness can make people contort themselves in incredible ways. The contortions become more than habits; they grow into us, become us.

“Why don’t you shave your arms?” my friend suggested. “Then you wouldn’t look like such a freak.” That seemed an easy way to untangle myself, so one afternoon I did. Sheaves of blond hair clogged the basin, my mother’s leg razor overcome. My arms slowly emerged. They were weirdly soft, as if newborn. I blotted them dry and stretched them out in front of me. I hardly believed that they were mine.

For a few days I loved my new arms. I studied the moles, elevated after so long undercover. I loved being able to feel towels, sheets, and polar fleece on my skin. This was how a girl’s arms should be, as long and smooth as pieces of bamboo. But only a few days passed before the hair came back. A dark wave of stubble began to rise.

“Your arms are prickling me,” another of my friends complained. “It’s like you’ve got thorns.” We were sitting together on the wall between our school and the road. In the hollows of the wall on either side of us, there was a garden filled with pink, red and yellow roses. Often we buried our faces in the petals. It was almost too much, the smell of school roses; they were more potent than the roses that grew in our garden at home. When we got tired of smelling the school roses, we played Rhinoceros, snapping off the thorns and sticking them onto our noses. As far as I could see, thorns had only one purpose and that was Rhinoceros, the game where the person with the most thorns won.

As soon as I could, I took to my arms again with the razor. But a few days later the same thing happened. First the ominous prickling, then the hair coming out like barbs. I knew now there was no escape and I would have to give myself over to my fate. I left the hair to grow, which it did, and it seemed more wolf-like than before.

*

Each time we visited Hamilton, I went to a bookshop to rifle through a box of postcards on the counter. For $1.50 each I would buy the most mysterious postcards I could find so that I could add them to the lattice of pictures on my bedroom wall. It was in the box that I found a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo.

I placed Frida Kahlo’s picture between the picture of the red girl in the mirror and the flying woman tugging on the hand of her earthbound husband. I took a long time to bring myself to closely study the self-portrait. It was because of her moustache; I was a little afraid of it. It made her into a double-sided optical illusion, like the image of the old woman and the young woman concealed inside each other. But once I saw that she was beautiful I couldn’t see anything else. The moustache was not only incidental but a mark of her strength and conviction. It couldn’t have been any other way. It was like the crumbled-away shoulder of the Venus de Milo.

There must be other women, ordinary women, who had moustaches and body hair but who were also beautiful – even if they lived in the depths of strangeness, even if to so many of us they were more frightening than alluring. Didn’t that just mean that their beauty came from a different place, that to find it you needed to learn a different way of looking? Perhaps it was only in the future that the way would be found. I read a quote somewhere by Francis Bacon. ‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.’ I had no idea who Bacon was, but I decided this was true. The question seemed to be how much strangeness our eyes would allow before the balance tipped too far.

If I had liked confrontation, I would have shown my father the portrait of Frida Kahlo. “Look, she’s got a moustache,” I’d say, “and you have to admit, Dad, she’s beautiful.” Only I don’t think he would have agreed. The only person I remember him describing as beautiful was Michelle Phillips, the singer in the Mamas and the Papas. It was on Christmas Day. We were sitting on the lounge room floor as “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” played on the dusty speakers. My father was staring at Michelle Phillips’s picture inside the CD booklet. She had long golden hair with a centre part, and a perfect elfin face. “She is the most beautiful woman in the world,” my father suddenly said. His voice moved up the register as it always did when he was insisting on the truth.

I didn’t like that he had said “beautiful” – in his mouth it was embarrassing, it was explicit. But at the same time I was taken aback, I was impressed, that he saw beauty and then said so.

Please ignore this stock photo and keep reading the essay. Photo: iStock

There is a description of a woman named Barbara Urselin, also known as the Hairy Maid, in the diary of the seventeenth-century English writer John Evelyn. Barbara almost certainly had hypertrichosis, a rare condition of excessive hairiness, sometimes known as Human Werewolf Syndrome. From an early age in the 1630s, Barbara had been paraded around Europe as a freak.

Evelyn recounts how “…her very Eyebrowes were combed upwards & all her forehead as thick & even as growes on any woman’s head, neatly dress’d: There comes also two locks very long out of Each Eare: she had also a most prolix beard & moustachios, with long locks of haire growing on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Iceland Dog: the rest of her body not so hairy, yet exceedingly long in comparison, armes, neck, breast and back; the colour of light browne, & fine as well dressed flax.”

What strikes me about this description is its gentleness. To Evelyn, Barbara’s appearance is not monstrous or even ugly. Behind all that hair is a civilising influence that sees the flaxen hair carefully combed and smoothed. Barbara has ‘locks’, not the rampant fur of a wolf, and the hairiness seems to grow with design: a lock grows out of each ear; the hair appears ‘on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Iceland Dog’. Barbara is unusually hairy but she is still a lady. By writing about her in this way Evelyn transforms her condition into something that might be beautiful.

You could compare Evelyn’s description with one that appeared two hundred years later of Julia Pastrana, another human werewolf who, like Barbara, featured in her very own freak show. In 1854 Julia was exhibited in New York at the Gothic Hall on Broadway as “The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman” with the promotional flyer for the show proclaiming that “its jaws, jagged fangs and ears are terrifically hideous . . . nearly its whole frame is coated with long glossy hair . . . this semihuman being is perfectly docile, and speaks the Spanish language.” According to this description, Julia was not human. But in her famous photograph she wears a lovely dress covered in flowers. Her stance is masculine, with hands placed casually on her hips, feet far apart; her shoes are pointy winklepickers. Her lips protrude as she gazes nonchalantly to one side, like a bored cowboy. Her mass of hair is pulled back off her face and pinned with what looks like flowers. She wears a string of pearls. These are all the trappings of a beautiful human woman – but there she is with that tremendous beard, ruining it all.

Julia Pastrana was a show woman. She could sing – the newspapers praise her “harmonious voice” – and during her exhibition she sang romantic songs in both Spanish and English. She could also dance: she waltzed with soldiers at military galas and performed elaborate Spanish dances on stage. Far from humanising her, these performances must have made her that much more a spectacle: hear the ape sing! see it dance! Her talents did little to persuade her audience that she was a human being, much less a woman. In the late 1850s her “handler” married her – and we can assume that he did so only to claim legal ownership of his exhibit, because after Julia died in 1860 during childbirth, her husband had her mummified, along with her hairy stillborn child. The pair was placed in an anatomical museum, Julia dressed in a colourful dancing costume and her son in a sailor’s suit.

You can buy a hand-embroidered doll of Julia. An artist has set up an online store that specialises in dolls of travelling freak show exhibits. The Julia doll is made from leather with little hairs painstakingly sewed into it “for a more realistically hairy effect”. It wears a Russian dance costume of soft yellow fabric.

My moustache was negligible in comparison to the hair on the faces of these women. But I think my response to my moustache, and maybe also my father’s response to my moustache, came from the same well of fear and fascination that once insisted that a woman like Julia Pastrana belonged in a freak show. Maybe it is the same fear that others have too. You can see it in the great variety of ways that a woman may get rid of her moustache, of all of her unwanted hair. She can dissolve the hair with a special cream; pull it out by its roots with a pair of tweezers or with hot wax; deaden it with a laser; electrocute it with a metal probe; have it plucked out, hair by hair, with a quick-moving thread; with a mechanised device she can rapidly grasp and extract the moustache; with chemical bleach she can create the illusion of soft, fair hair; she can shave it off; she can slough it away with sandpaper; she can smother it in a paste of turmeric and rock salt each day. Our discomfort with hair has moved underground. Many of us now simply accept that the hair cannot stay. The discomfort seems to grow from within, as if it had its own dermis, epidermis, follicles.

*

Like me, my mother had a moustache. Not dramatic, but noticeable. She, too, decided to banish it with a razor. Of course, she was doomed to repeat the task for evermore, often leaving the hair to grow bristly for weeks at a time. When she kissed me, I could feel the soft prickle of her upper lip, like a man’s. My father never mentioned it. But I did, once or twice. I felt an urgency to tell her.

“You shouldn’t shave your upper lip,” I told her sternly.

She put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, dear. Does it look terrible?”

I just grimaced. My cruel work was done. Even if she didn’t do something about it, at least now she knew. There was power in knowing. Then you could make the call yourself over what you wanted the world to see.

Whether moustache-less or moustachioed, my mother never succeeded in getting my father to say she was beautiful. He was the first to call her “Toad”, the pet name that eventually became her family nickname, an ill-fitting one because she was not like a toad at all – she towered over all of us, was lean and strident, she wore polka-dotted skirts and bright velvet blouses. Sometimes she asked me to give her ‘a facial’ and I would push an elastic headband into her hair and rub creams into her face, wiping them off with a face cloth that I dipped into a baking bowl full of warm water. I would study her face while her eyes were closed, and with her hair pushed back, her skin damp, her face lost its sternness and looked almost girlish. Later, dressed up to go out, she would say, “Doesn’t Toad look beautiful?” Standing in the kitchen, with her coral-coloured lipstick on, she would put her hands on her hips and push out her bust. My father would give a soft laugh as he bent to tie his shoelaces or reached up to smooth his hair.

*

In another story I shrug off my father’s comment. Like a proud, eccentric man I grow my moustache long so that I can gel it into spikes and twist it into curls. I walk down the street wearing winklepickers and a tophat; maybe I carry a cane and have a little dachshund on a lead; I wear a faint smile under my moustache.

I am like Jennifer Miller, one of the famous modern-day bearded ladies, a circus performer who juggles clubs with muscular arms and wrestles herself out of straitjackets. “This act has been done for centuries,” she cries. “It means something to people: it means freedom!” And she breaks free. In photos, her beard flows over the edge of her pretty face. “Hair is a symbol of power,” she says. “So, here I am, a gal with a beard, prancing around the streets of New York.”

I have the calm demeanour of the little girl Tognina in a portrait by the Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana. The girl has dark eyes and rosy lips and her face is covered in hair. She looks soft, like a cat. Her dark eyes, rimmed with pink, gaze calmly out of all that hair. Tognina belonged to a family who all, except their mother, had thick, dark facial hair; and later she bore several hairy children herself.

I once saw an exhibition of moustachioed and bearded women. The canvasses were huge. Some women wore lipstick and eyeliner; on these women the facial hair looked like just another frill or ornament, like a piercing. Other women had gone out of their way to look masculine, with white shirts buttoned to the neck, buzzed haircuts and no makeup. There is no doubt that all of the women were deeply interesting. They had brave, compelling faces. They looked their audience straight in the eyes. “Ask me anything,” their faces seemed to say, “and I can tell you.”

I looked hard at them. I closed my eyes and opened them quickly to surprise myself. I couldn’t see beauty – not yet. If they were beautiful now, their faces wouldn’t have filled the art gallery so that people could stare and be challenged to decide: beautiful or ugly? Maybe, in another story, I would answer with conviction worthy of Frida Kahlo’s moustache, worthy of Julia Pastrana’s song, “Beautiful.”

In this story, however, I couldn’t sleep after saying goodbye to my parents. Again I saw my father studying my face as if seeing me for the first time. That was the last picture he had of me: a girl with a moustache, speechless. Again I saw the taxi driving away. I needed to defend myself, but what could I say out loud? I had an argument, but it belonged in a first-year essay. “In itself, hair is meaningless,” the essay began. “It is only our way of seeing that makes it socially unacceptable.” I curled into a ball in my bed, alternately reciting my argument and berating myself for caring what my father said.

If the bearded lady Jennifer Miller could see me now, she would put her strong, veined hands on my shoulders and give me a shake. “Listen to me. Hair is power! That’s why men don’t want women to have too much of it.”

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As we faced each other in bed the day after my parents’ visit, my boyfriend suddenly reached out and touched my upper lip. “What happened?”

I turned away. “Nothing.”

I heard a smile in his voice. “Did you get rid of your moustache?”

“What? No! What moustache?”

“You did get rid of it. It’s not there anymore.”

I turned back. “All right. I did. Does it look terrible?”

He squinted. “It looks . . . bare.”

He was right. Deforested, the skin looked unnaturally bare. I had waxed it off, and my face looked smaller and paler, as if I’d been down a well for a few days. But it was also, I felt, the face that everyone should have seen all along.

“Does it look bad?” I asked again. I waited for him to say it didn’t. This was how it worked between us. I would talk about how ugly I felt, and he would be upset. Over and over again, he would tell me I was beautiful. “I’m going to keep saying it until you believe it. I don’t care if it takes ninety years.” He’d say, “Even if you weighed 300 kilograms I would still think you were the most beautiful woman in the world.” He’d say, “Why don’t you believe me?” The next day we would do it all over again. It was true, I didn’t believe him, but I couldn’t get enough of being told. It was as if I gorged on the words, stuffing myself full. Later, in private, I purged myself of them.

He squinted at my face again. “It does look kind of weird. There’s something missing, but it takes a while to figure out what it is,” he went on. “You know? You’re still you, but there’s an absence.”

*

There’s an old photograph of my father and me together – me at seven with a heavy fringe, Dad in his thirties with his glossy black hair and V-shaped pilot’s moustache; some would call it a Chevron moustache. (As a recreational pilot, my father does not wear a uniform – his flying garb is polo shirt, beige shorts, velcro sandals.) While he chuckles about something, I’m peering off to the side, distinctly glum.

“Glum” seemed to be one of his favourite words, and I remember him saying it to me often as I lolled mournfully on a chair or pulled a duvet around my head in my parents’ huge flannelly bed. “You’re looking a bit glum.” When I didn’t respond he would pucker his chin, look troubled, and say nothing else.

The next time I saw him after the weekend in Wellington, I watched his face closely. I wanted him to see my new face, the one he should have seen all along. I made sure I stayed in his line of view, and I checked his expression now and then. I am still waiting for him to say something.


Can You Tolerate This? (Victoria University Press, $30) by Ashleigh Young recently made it to number one in the Unity Books best-seller chart.

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