Shaving tools

Allerleirah with a mustached mug“I can’t speak for all little girls, but I certainly expected to be beautiful when I grew up.  I was thrilled when that first strand of body hair heralded oncoming puberty.  At the time I imagined I was on my way to becoming the princess or the femme fatale I was meant to be. Little did I know that body hair was going to take over my life.  I was on my way to becoming the bearded lady.

It began as more-than-average peach fuzz on my lower face, but by the time I started my post-secondary education the hair had gone so dark and coarse that I was shaving every morning.  I was afraid to wear certain clothes or even tie back my hair.  I turned down invitations to go swimming, camping, and some days I just could not bring myself to leave the house.  Stubble sprouted not only from my face, but also my chest, my shoulders, my stomach, and down my thighs. I was frightened, but even more frustrated.  I was finally a woman but my body was, to me, anything but womanly.

Excessive hair growth in distinctly “male” patterns, called hirsutism, is always caused by hormones. The real trick is to find the origin of the hormonal imbalance.  A majority of the hirsute women I talk to have been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a condition that can also affect fertility, weight, and insulin resistance.  But many other women, like me, appear to have hirsutism with no particular cause, not even a high testosterone level.

Seven years stretched between my first unsympathetic doctor’s visit and finally comprehending my body.  The ignorance of medical professionals wasted my time and money and left me brutally discouraged.  The only thing that kept me functioning was my degree program, which forced me to go out in public and kept me too busy to obsess over my reflection.

The first turning point was starting a blog.  It compelled me to do research, and put me in touch with many amazing women who were going through exactly the same thing, or worse.  And it built up my determination to get my own personal answers, bringing me to my second turning point.

Allerleirah with hair growth on her chin

I was eventually referred to an incredible endocrinologist who knew what tests I should undergo and how to interpret them.  In 2010, I finally had my answer:  Idiopathic hirsutism.  No cause could be found on any test; all my hormone-producing organs were normal.  My hair follicles were simply sensitive to the normal levels of testosterone in my blood.

You would think that learning you had a bizarre and incurable condition would be devastating, but I was relieved.  After so many years, my problem had a name.  It had an explanation.  Under my endocrinologist’s supervision, I started medications to block testosterone from reaching the hair follicles.  Over time, I had less than half the body hair I used to. Of course, my self esteem needed some extra time to catch up.

The thinning and lightening of my body hair made certain wardrobe changes easy.  I began to buy things that made me gasp, “That’s pretty!” rather than, “That’ll keep me hidden!”  I refreshed my drawer of underthings to include lace and bright, cheeky patterns. My first drastic haircut was difficult.  I had always had long hair, the better to hide behind, but I fantasized about a sleek, blunt bob.  A skilled hairdresser gave me exactly what I wanted, and the concern that I no longer had a protective curtain was nothing compared to the constant compliments.  And continuing to talk frankly about hirsutism has kept its less-than-glamorous realities from being quite so off-putting.

Other lifestyle changes helped my confidence along.  I left a miserable job and found something that involved learning new skills and working with children.  Taking on less hours allowed me to hone my talents and pursue more creative goals.  I gave myself challenges, like cooking a complicated meal or sewing a complicated pattern, which do really build your confidence in yourself.  And I got a dog. Having someone else to focus on, who is always delighted to see you whether you’ve shaved or not, makes a world of difference.  And things like volunteering and nurturing my spirituality took the spotlight off my problems and highlighted the bigger picture.  Gradually, I have become much more comfortable with being hirsute.  And that makes this the most exciting time of my life.

In early days, I dreaded being unable to completely eradicate the hair growth.  I didn’t think I could live the rest of my life shaving my face every morning.  But learning about hirsutism has taken the weight of fear off my mind, and treatment has lessened the effort required to hide the hair.  Now I see it is such a small part of my day, and such a small part of who I am.  I am not a bearded lady.  I never was. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, a world traveler, a teacher, an artist, a writer, and an accomplished maker of cupcakes.  Who also just happens to have a beard.  And when you describe yourself that way, don’t you sound much more fascinating than a mere “princess”?”

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