For hirsute women, the appearance of thick, dark hair on places not usually deemed “feminine” kicks in during puberty, and it affects 5 to 10 percent of American females. While conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome can cause the growth of such unruly hair, idiopathic hirsutism usually has no underlying cause, other than a higher-than-usual prevalence of androgens (i.e., testosterone).
Women with the condition tend to grow thick, dark hairs on their back, upper-lip, breasts, chin, chest, or tummy, and battling the fuzz as well as the stubble and ingrown hairs associated with removal may lead to frustration and insecurity. While there are treatments available, like a drug called Spironolactone, which blocks androgen receptors and reduces testosterone, or creams like Vaniqa, many are costly. In addition to cost concerns, taboos about feminine hair growth, or just sheer embarrassment, can prevent women from seeking treatment (let alone spreading their legs at a waxing salon or presenting their beard to a professional for laser hair removal).
There are, of course, those who chose to embrace it, like 23-year-old Harnaam Kaur, who was the only woman to pose for a recent photography exhibition celebrating facial hair (she’d been growing her whiskers since she was 16), or performer and Pratt professor Jennifer Miller, a modern-day bearded lady who proudly subverts the nineteenth century “freak show” staple and used to declare in her sideshow act that “hair is a symbol of power.”
Science of Us recently spoke with Renae M. Gylbert, a 32-year-old program analyst from Virginia who is living life with a full beard caused by idiopathic hirsutism (Gylbert has a blog and YouTube channel dedicated to the subject).
When did you first notice that you had more body hair than other girls?
When I was about 11, I noticed my first chin hair. My sister and I laughed about it and I shaved it off and just went about my business. Later, when I was about 15, I found myself with a freaking beard. I’ve contended with that, and excessive body hair, ever since.
How much facial hair are we talking?
Without any maintenance, it’s clearly a beard. The hair is thick and dark and it goes from my sideburns to my neck and my chin. The hairs around my mustache area are softer, but I’d have whiskers and I could definitely grow a goatee. I’m African-American, so my hair is naturally thick and curly, but it’s extra coarse, like a man’s.
And what about the rest of your body?
I grew hair on my chest and breasts, and my pubes and bikini line are Amazonian — there’s a lot going on down there, from a happy trail right down to my mid-thigh.
How did you know it wasn’t the same amount of hair most other girls develop during puberty?
When I looked at the women in my family, I knew I was different. They were hairy, but not like me. In the locker room, when we were changing into leotards, I saw that other girls didn’t have noticeable hair on their “lady parts.” When I started to get interested in boys, I wanted to show off my legs, but I looked like a beast. It wasn’t sexy. I had no idea where it came from. I thought I was cursed. I was the only woman I knew who had to shave her face every day. I’d get stubble within 12 hours.
Did you tell your family?
I told my mom, who just said, “Tweeze it, the hair will go away.” I love my mom to death, but that was the worst advice. Since she was my mother, I listened and I tweezed and tweezed and tweezed praying to God that it would disappear, but it never did.
You’d pluck your entire face?
Yes. From the top of my sideburns to the bottom of my neck, and it would take about two or three hours. I’d do one side and then get tired and think, Oh my God, this shit sucks. But then I looked completely ridiculous, so I’d have to tweeze the other side. It was hell and I did that every four days. I was constantly thinking about it. It was a nightmare. I fixated on my beard for about 20 years.
How did you control the rest of your body hair?
The hair on my arms and legs didn’t bother me too much. I can get away with about two days between leg shaves. But I’d lather up my nipples real good and very carefully shave everything off. There was also some in between my breasts, but they were finer than usual and not as dark as the ones on my face.
What other sorts of hair-removal methods did you dabble in?
I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t tried. I’ve used epilator devices, creams, waxing, painful self-threading, and in-home laser removal. When I started working and earning money, I tried some “professional” laser hair removal, which was successful at getting rid of some of the hair, but I couldn’t afford to keep it up. I was stupid, and didn’t get good treatment or read the fine print. It cost me $3,000.
I imagine ingrown hairs are a real pain?
I could probably write a book about them.
Did you go on picking benders?
Sometimes I’d lock myself in the bathroom and tweeze and pick away and leave curly hairs all over my sink. It was gross. The crazy thing is I knew it was no good for my skin, but what else could I do? I thought it was a necessary evil, but I know better now. Girls don’t realize that shaving is probably the better thing to do to control facial and body hair. When you remove the hair from the root, you’re giving it more energy and your body treats it like a wound, which could cause more blood flow and hormonal activity to the area, strengthening the follicles. Basically, the hair could grow back stronger. I didn’t have anyone to give me good advice.
How did your friends and classmates treat you. Were you teased at all?
One time when I was in high school, I got sick of the tweezing and shaving and went to class with a full beard. That was the biggest mistake of my life. An older kid spotted me and said, “Oh my God — you have sideburns,” and the entire hallway stopped and stared. I went home in pieces, crying the whole way there. A few years later, a girl started prank calling me pretending to be a hair-removal company. She also left notes on my locker with drawings of a bearded lady.
What were you like when you were growing up?
My folks split when I was about 10, but I had a pretty sheltered childhood. I loved video games, especially role-playing ones, and I still do. I was so into Final Fantasy VII that I’d cry when characters died. I remember my mom said that a couple of my elementary school teachers thought I was “strange.”
That school wasn’t very diverse — I didn’t experience racism, but I remember feeling like an outcast because nobody looked like me. It wasn’t until fifth or sixth grade that I went to a more mixed school, but I think that experience made me a little more reserved. I wrote a lot — I was imaginative and I daydreamed. When I was into Zelda, I was a female African-American Link who killed monsters and didn’t like the princess. As I got older, I dreamed I had perfect skin, finer hair, better grades.
Did you have much of a social life?
I was pretty reserved. I’d occasionally go to movies or football games. I had a handful of good friends, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as popular. I really didn’t want to be. I was antisocial. I didn’t talk much. I put on an uppity façade so people wouldn’t get close to me. One of my tactics was to draw attention away from my beard through my clothing. I wanted people to think I was pretty and flashy to distract them from my five-o’-clock shadow.
How’d you dress?
One teacher told me that I looked too “grown.” I don’t think I looked slutty, but there was a time when I got sent home for having a skirt a little too short. I wore boots and leggings and things that showed off my figure. I was trying to look more feminine through my dress.
What sort of things did you avoid, because of the hair?
I was very self-conscious in a bikini. It’s one thing to shave the hair, but it’s another thing to deal with those unsightly ingrown hairs and blemishes from shaving. Those gross dark marks around my bikini line made me so insecure, so I’d avoid the beach or situations where I had to show my body to other girls.
Did you go to college?
I got a bachelor’s in communications and a dual MBA/masters in marketing management. In undergrad, I didn’t stay on campus. I wanted to be in the comfort of my own home. I was self-conscious in class, but since I was older I didn’t care what the cheerleaders were thinking or saying about me, so I managed to make some friends. I do regret not getting more of a college experience. I just went to class and straight home every day for four years. I did my master’s online because the school I wanted to attend was out of state. But it was also an excuse to avoid people.
Can you tell when someone is looking at your hair?
Their eyes shoot down and dart around my face, and I know they are looking at my chin or my moustache or a hair on my neck. It’s a harsh reminder that I have one of the most embarrassing imperfections for a woman.
What sort of coping mechanisms did you develop?
I’d pretend it didn’t bother me and I didn’t talk about it. When I was in college, I worked at a supermarket. I had to look at customers in the face and they could see everything. If anyone said something to me I’d laugh it off like it didn’t bother me. I used false confidence to cover the hurt.
Did you identify with men when you were growing up, as if you had something in common with them?
I had a tomboy period where I didn’t care for dresses. I like male singers more than female ones. My all time-favorite is Prince — he’s such an eccentric. And Sam Smith’s voice is everything to me. As far as women, Amy Winehouse and Sade are my tops. My voice has always been very deep, contra-alto even. I was told I sing tenor in middle-school choir.
I felt quite embarrassed singing with the boys then, but now I actually welcome my deep sultry voice. But of course, Prince, Sam, Amy, and Sade sound flawless singing and I sound like a dog who got shot in the foot.
Did you date?
I was pretty stuck up, so boys didn’t really talk to me. I just didn’t want guys up in my face. I was still trying to figure out my body and I didn’t want to gross anyone out. I met my first steady boyfriend during eleventh grade. He was a Pacific Islander and there weren’t many Asian cats with black girlfriends so we got plenty of odd looks. He had insecurities, like most boys, but in retrospect, he was the sweetest boyfriend I’ve ever had.
Did he care about the hair?
He didn’t mind it. He teased me here and there but never to the point where it was like, You’re an asshole — I can’t be with you. For the most part, I’ve been with guys who accept that I have this flaw. But, of course, when I’m with a guy I try to manage it discreetly — nobody wants to see their girlfriend shaving her beard! I suppose it’s definitely barred me, even as an adult, from dating too seriously.
What happened with that relationship?
We were pregnant fresh out of high school, but I miscarried just after I started college — at five months. She was a girl and we named her Jasmine Atlantis for the Isley Brothers song. We were both heartbroken and split shortly after. That was extremely hard for me, especially because he decided to move to another town to get his life together. Later I got into another long-term relationship and had my first daughter when I was 23, and then another when I was 25. We split up in 2009.
What’s dating like now?
I have to be on a certain level to show my body to a guy. But it’s not just the hair. I’m a single mom and I don’t want a bunch of men around my girls unless I know they’re worthwhile.
How do you manage intimate situations? Do you feel like you need to discuss it first, or do you “don’t ask, don’t tell” it?
When it comes to sex, I honestly don’t have to worry too much because if you look at me, you already know I’m hairy. Most of the guys I dated really didn’t care that I didn’t have things nice and pretty down there. They were having sex with me, not my pubic hair.
When you were dating, did you tend to end up with a certain type?
If there was a pattern, it was insecure guys. I look back at each of my serious ex-boyfriends and see their insecurities. One was really concerned about his masculinity. He cared so much about what he looked like, what kind of car he had, how much money he made, how macho he was. It got to a point where he wanted me to look a certain way and be a trophy girlfriend and that’s when I got rid of his ass.
Another had abandonment issues, so he had trouble getting close to me; one had been burned by an ex. I’d think, All I have is this one problem: hirsutism. Y’all have lifelong struggles with depression and shit: Y’all need to be fucking medicated. It just got so exhausting and that’s probably why none of my relationships lasted.
Did you seek medical treatment as a teenager?
I was too embarrassed. I was 18 the first time my gynecologist mentioned my hirsutism. But I wasn’t given anything for it — probably because I was pregnant. The doctor was doing a breast exam and noticed the extra fur. She simply said, “You may have some mild hormonal imbalance,” and blew it off. I wanted to say “bitch, you call dark curly hair on your nipples and tits ‘mild’? This is not normal. I know it’s not normal.” But it came from a doctor, so what could I do?
When were you diagnosed with idiopathic hirsutism?
I didn’t get an official diagnosis until mid-2012. I got so sick of being depressed and constantly thinking about how to get rid of all this hair and I went from sadness to anger to this desire to feel beautiful and get my life back and see my skin again. I had a fuck it moment. I didn’t want to look like Miss America; I just wanted to look normal. I went online and started doing my research. I pretty much diagnosed myself before any medical professional did.
Then I spoke to a general doctor who sent me to a gynecologist who tested me to see if my progesterone was abnormal, and it wasn’t. She sent me to an endocrinologist who officially diagnosed me with idiopathic hirsutism, but she didn’t give me anything because I didn’t have a serious underlying condition. I was so angry; I demanded a second opinion. The next specialist was amazing — she gave me a drug called Spironolactone. I’ve been on that for a couple of years now. It was slow, but it does work. Now I hardly have any bikini-line or nipple hair and my happy trail is almost gone. It’s slowly working on my neck. I’ve recently had very successful laser hair removal sessions on my neck and have pretty good clearance. I don’t have to cake on foundation to cover up my blemishes or wrap my hair around my chin to hide it. My facial hair is almost completely gone and my skin is clearer than it’s ever been.
The laser sessions I had ten years ago were a lot more expensive, and while effective temporarily, the hair eventually returned due to my lack of touch-up treatments. Also, I’m finally in a financial position where I can afford the follow-up treatments, which are important.
Almost immediately after the diagnosis, I started a website because I’d found very few online resources completely dedicated to my condition. I wanted to show women how certain hair-removal products and methods can work. I taught myself how to blog and edit videos. It was a pain considering I was a single mom, but I wanted girls to understand that you shouldn’t feel like a victim in your own body because you don’t look “normal.” I’ve been managing this since I was in middle school and I’m 32. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. Twenty years is too long to feel that self-conscious.
This interview has been edited.