An Essay by Robin Gow
I want to look at us in communion with other bearded women.
Your mom has a beard, will you end up like that? Brett Asher, asked me on the first day of second grade. I felt the urge to cover myself. I toyed with the zipper of my teal sweat-shirt, pulling it up to my neck.
From as early as seven or eight I was aware of the obligation we have to shave—to become smoother and touchable. I already had hair on my shins. I sometimes pulled out a strand or two as an exercise of maturity or curiosity. The white root on the end intrigued me.
No, I don’t get that.
I don’t remember exactly what I said after that, but I know I made a joke about you. I felt guilty about it after school when you set two bowls of stew on the counter for Billy and I. Red potatoes, cubed beef, thick carrots, onions. I dipped a potato roll in the broth.
Is there a part of a girl’s body that should be allowed to grow? To be wild?
That night I inspected my own face in the mirror, analyzing each follicle on my chin and cheeks. There was, of course, hair: soft and light like the fur of a newborn animal, mouse, downy corn husk, the gentle side of the Velcro.
There was always evidence: foam in the downstairs bathroom sink. The scars across your lip and cheeks. The shreds of toilet paper you’d stick to your face when you were done. We never spoke of it. We’ve still never spoken of it.
Darwin and his contemporaries have several ideas about why women might grow beards. Ambling, on the hunt, they traced their way through every US city where they were sure to find these women on display. A glass box. A medicine cabinet to stand in front of. The altar where you washed your face every Sunday before church. Accompanied by the light scent of lavender and lemon verbena. You brushed my long-knotted hair while I sat at the end of the kitchen table.
…evolved from a single-celled hermaphroditic organism and still bore the evidence of this hermaphroditic past on their bodies.... (1)
I am 22 and only one month ago did I learn that we both have PCOs (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). One of the prime markers of the disorder being the growth of facial hair in females from a young age. I wonder how many other bearded women have had it too. I wonder how many of them didn’t have words to articulate the pounding fists beneath their abdomens. How many wondered what could be wrong with them—why god gave them beards.
It explains the surgery you had last spring that you didn’t tell anyone about until after it was over. It explains the months we spent silently together bleeding week after week after week.
Often times people with PCOs will have irregular cycles, missing months and then having periods that can’t find an ending. The sentence. A run-on.
When I was younger, I never had the courage to ask you if there was something wrong with me. I didn’t talk about it. Like most aspects of each other’s lives, we have somehow inhabited the same space without speaking of it.
I don’t tell people that we’re both writers.
You taught me where we keep the green plastic squares; How to hide them in your sleeves so the men in the house don’t notice us. How to ask for more without asking for more. How to wrap yourself in toilet paper. Wash the razors out in the sink, leave the dull heads in the waste can by the toilet.
I still feel guilty sometimes for not being your daughter.
At my first gynecologist appointment, only this June, the doctor handed me the speculum and my impulse was to hand it to you.
In our house we wash out Ziplock bags to re-use them. I felt like that when they went inside me. A see-through person. The doctor’s countenance changing as she caressed the abnormalities in me.
Before driving home from the clinic, I laid in the backseat of my green 1994 Volvo, knees tucked into my chest.
I texted you to tell you I had my blood taken and that I didn’t faint.
There were two instances where we painted each other’s nails. 1) you made mine look like watermelons, you had worked all day and in the dim light of the kitchen still found time to paint my small pink fingernails. 2) I was too young for nail polish and we spilled a primrose color all over the stones of the back porch. I learned what nail polish remover was and that I hated the smell.
One of the prime subjects studied by these biologists at the turn of the century was named Viola. A sketch of her from an 1877 book entitled Archives of Dermatology depicts a regally dressed woman with a full-on beard. It’s lush and it’s curls mimic the vitality of the spirals of brown hair pouring from her head. The beard goes past the scope of the portrait, out of frame. Her report reads At about the age of ten the hair of the face began to grow more vigorously, the cheeks, chin and upper portion of neck showing an abundant production. I find magic in this. I want to touch it. Is that weird?
It has been a long time since I pressed my forehead up against your face. This is not something grown men do with their mothers. Should it be? I’m thinking of you holding me in the tired rocking chair that still waits in my old bedroom. The back of the chair has an inscription that reads “On the birth of my granddaughter, Sarah.”
For good reason, not all transgender people feel comfortable letting you know their birth names.
You all still call me “Sarah,” so, in a sense, it is not a dead name.
The definition of a name is “a word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.” If you continue to know me as her, then she must be a person.
I see her sometimes on the other side of the bathroom mirror, especially when I shave. She’s holding an eye-liner pencil. She’s straightening her hair, steam swimming off each strand. She’s not a bearded woman. There is a tangibility these women posses that never existed in me. I hang onto the hems of their skirts. I am small in their presence, in your presence.
A list of other marks of womanhood I learned from you: butternut squash, bare-feet, a crockpot, the right side of the sofa, a full-length mirror, and, sometimes, a brown wool coat.
I did you know that I used to try on your clothes when I was home alone in the summer?
I would take off my clothes in the mirror that stared at me from your bedroom’s corner. I ran my hands across your black lace bras and your broches all in a row on the dresser. Clumsy, I put on your half-inch black heels and paced back and forth at the foot of your bed.
You kept your makeup in a soft red leather pouch. Inspecting it once, I spilled foundation on my wrist. The texture terrified me and I rushed to the sink to wash it off. They felt like art supplies. I wanted to learn from them.
There, alone, I worked. A thumb as a brush. Smoothing a visage into place. Hiding stubble beneath a thick layer of liquid skin.
I know the day and time when I first told you that I was your son. It wasn’t some momentous moment. Thursday night on the third week of December. My heavy wooden dorm room desk. A week after I took my first shot of testosterone. I had lined up the needles in the second drawer along side three little vials of yellowish liquid. I checked on them throughout the day, between finishing up finals and reading books of poetry. That night, I sent you a text message.
I know that it’s hard for you but I go by “Robin” at school
everyone uses he/him pronouns for me.
I walked away from my phone and didn’t check it for more than three hours. Doing small household chores. The laundry, wiping counters, taking the trash out to the back step.
When I came back you’d replied.
I don’t know if I can ever see you like that. I love you.
Furious, I deleted all of our messages. I took a walk out into the eerily warm night. There was fog on all the windows of my dorm. Some other students meandered around with backpacks. I thought how can you love me if you don’t even see me?
I don’t know what it is like to be entirely disowned by your family for being queer or trans. I had hoped that you would have been angrier with your unacceptance.
8 percent of the transgender individuals reported having been kicked out of their home because they were transgender, and 10 percent reported having been subjected to violence at the hands of a family member.(2)
What’s morbid is, sometimes, at least back then, I wished that you would have, that you would have gone away completely—kicked me out of your lives. That you would have taken all the books left in my old bedroom and thrown them out on the porch. That you would have melodramatically seized the family pictures and cut out the girl with long brown hair and bruised purple eye-shadow.
Instead I feel haunted by myself as a girl. Whoever I am now is revoked on the front step of the house in Kutztown.
I am a conditional person.
I visited that Christmas in a new blue blazer and black polka-dot button up, as if I could will myself into existence as a son and a brother and nephew. As if enough chest binding and short hair could take away the 18 solid years I existed as a girl for everyone. For the single pink balloon tied to the mailbox out in front of the old house in Fleetwood where you brought me home. A girl, a girl, they had a baby girl.
Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. She, she she she she—she’s always so organized, she always works hard, she just goes off on her own, she’s so independent, so different, the way she dresses, she cuts her hair so short short short.
For the first time, in front of you all, I let my mustache grow. I checked it in the mirror of the bathroom where you shave. The smell of white foam lingered there. A fresh pack of razors on top of the cabinet.
On the way home, I repeated an assortment of nonsense words aloud and hoped that the one shot of testosterone in my body was enough to start digging my voice deeper into my throat. That maybe soon, my voice at least, would kill her.
Her voice has always been feminine. It has not been in any way remarkable. The throat for some years has been irritable and liable to colds accompanied with tenderness and slight cough.(3)
What is the gender of a voice?
I love these bearded women in the sketches and the studies, because, despite being cataloged as animals, they have found a way to make a living out of their ability to grow hair. Does anyone do that anymore?
Did they have families to visit on holidays or did they build their own?
Another image from an archive of PT Barnum’s Circus depicts Annie Jones. The poster reads “La Vertiable Femme A Barbe” The True Bearded Woman. There have existed very few women able to wear a beard. I want to know if this woman was proud of her beard. I think I wonder this because of how much you resent your own. Shave close to the skin. Shave on Sundays. Shave before work.
A beard means something different for me now.
Even before I started taking testosterone I could grow one. It became something I could hold onto. A fragment of stereotypical manhood. I know that I needed to think of my facial hair like that back then, but, I want to think of The Beard differently now. I want to think of beards as motherly, for us.
Annie Jones, from the Circus Poster, is most well known for being an advocate for the “Freaks” section of Barnum’s Circus. I feel awful having to type out “Freaks” because she spent the majority of her professional career trying to eliminate that word from the circus world. I see her sitting in the trailers of the traveling shows, maybe, perhaps telling a story to the rest of the group. I imagine her as a writer like us. A mother.
When I Google images of “Bearded Women” the first search suggestion is “PCOs.” These stories are interlocked.
Only this past summer did I dig more into what PCOs even really is. The body making alien—distant. Surreal. I think of our ovaries like two moons. The medical images of polycystic ovaries covered in cysts resemble the faces of planets. I prefer to think of them like this. It makes them less malicious, less impending.
Maybe on these moons there are only women, only bearded women. Deities in long robes. We visit them for confession. Where a sin is only an unspoken truth.
Sometimes I go to call you and I stop because I know it will mean saying, “It’s Sarah” aloud. If I can’t make myself real then who will?
When I do call I start “It’s me!” hoping that you’ll recognize me and we can avoid the name all together. You don’t. My pitch is different every time and I have to say it.
She’s a girl on the porch in the rain. She cuts her hair and it always grows back. She wants to sleep, in the backyard maybe underneath the big pine tree where we buried the eight goldfish.
I attended at transgender health conference this past summer and I was in a session about hysterectomies. All I could think about was you. I wanted you to sit with me. I wanted you to tell me that I would be okay even it I took out the parts of our bodies that we share.
I see us walking on the surface of these moons.
¾ of Transmasculine people have PCOs.
The physician tossed out the statistic in a long spew of others. I wrote it on my thigh in ball point pen. ¾.
I wanted to remember to tell the 3/4ths to you. As if, now, maybe now, you could understand that there was something chemical to it.
But then, of course, there’s you. There’s all the bearded women. If not chemical or medical than what is a body?
You used the word “mutilate” when I told you that I’m going to have surgery this coming summer. It hurt because I had crafted a future-memory of me recovering in my childhood bedroom. The one that’s full of her clothes. The one with the bunk bed and the green curtains.
For myself, I think of my skin as clay. You see, I have to, or I’ll also think of the word “mutilate” too.
I’ll wonder what is so wrong with me that I need to be taken apart.
I want you to tell me that you love me as whatever I am and mean it.
Do you remember me asking you to do the first shot for me? I knew you wouldn’t, but Mom, I was scared. The first time I gave myself a shot of testosterone I called you because you used to have take needles too, subcutaneous, the blood thinners, their vessels still stacked in the back of your closet.
Tears came like blood, like fingers pricked with the thin gauge needle. Will the shots ever be easy? Like second-nature-part-of-my-body. The vials on my shelf between poetry books and earrings. If I drink them will it be over? Somedays I want to be less aware of my gender. I love it, I do but it’s so so so bright. It fills syringes.
I’m not becoming complete, I’m making a body and I want you to help me. I want a mother. Grow out a face with me.
Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.(4)
You know the gravel road? The one where last year they planted soy beans and the year before they planted wheat? The road we would walked down when I was in middle school and still had a round face and long brown hair with knots in the back. This is now the surface of a new planet.
There will come a point when both of us will have to have our ovaries removed. PCOs often can evolve into cancer—the cysts can become painful—volcanic. When the doctors peer in at them I look away. I don’t let them show me images.
I see them as mauve in color. Gentle. Can we now, though, can we now just take a moment to trek across them while we still have them in our bodies?
I don’t bleed anymore and occasionally I want to. I’m not supposed to say that as a man becoming a man.
I still shave, though I have been attempting to grow out the hair on my lip. It helps me pass. I hate the idea of passing as something I already am. I hate the idea that for so much of my life the hair on my face was a mark of a Freak and now I have stripped it of that meaning. I hide behind it. I make my beard something it never asked to be.
A lot of times I feel more kinship with the word “trans” than the word “man.” I am afraid of what I could become if left un-checked.
I’m reaching for these Bearded Women because they give me hope that all that is beautiful and feminine can still live in me somewhere. I think this is something all men should want. I’m hoping they can still keep me safe. I’m reaching for you.
In a world where women are supposed to feel and men are supposed to act, I stand in the middle and comprehend what both of them are doing, and why. But I remain a stranger in each of these territories.(5)
I’m not asking you to grow out your hair. No one could ask you to do that.
I’m asking you to look up the images of bearded women and call me after. Call me when you’re driving home from work. You never call me. I should call you, I know, but do you know, do you really know what that feels like? I know. I know I should too.
It hurts most because our love has always been made all the things we hold in common and don’t speak of.
Will you search for them with me, the bearded women?
Present Condition: She is woman of small stature, measuring in height not more than five feet one or two inches, and of slender frame, but well-formed and proportioned…Her character is strictly womanly, all her tastes being remarkably feminine and domestic. She possesses quiet, composed manner, and is reserved, taciturn, and modest in disposition. Her facial expression, without being melancholic, is habitually thoughtful.
I am not one of them, then, am I? I do want to be I think, but not bodily.
That word “woman” has always scared me. She seems tall or sturdy. She seems like there are statues made of her. She flows. She has a presence. She smells like lilies. She eats strawberries without cutting off the little green leaves. She owns a red velvet bag: inside is infinite. She keeps planets. She keeps recipes. If she has ovaries, they are as mundane as a bowl of fruit to her. If she doesn’t then she has more room for peaches.
Who is a woman anymore? If ask this, you would be all I could think of.
On mornings like this when none of my housemates are home and I just have a mirror, the hair on my face feels like a relic of my girlhood.
Would you have braided mine?
Could we have traveled with a circus? A mother and daughter.
In all of Darwin’s reports he hypothesizes of these women as the “missing link.”
This doesn’t faze me because I already know that’s how society sees women with beards. Animal-like. Inspectable.
[Viola] was married at the age of seventeen-and-a-half to her present husband (who, it may be remarked, possesses no peculiarities), by whom she has had two children, one boy, the other girl. They were born at full term, the labor with both having been easy and perfectly normal. The children were well developed and showed no signs whatsoever of the mother’s deformity. (6)
She could have been us, all of us. One boy and one girl. Only I defected. The un-perfectly un-normal.
What would the researchers have to say about us? I have them scribbling in their notepads. They peer in our bedroom windows.
And one of her children, so impacted by The Beard, chose to become a man.
and of course, we cannot forget how lucky of her to find a husband with no peculiarities. Did he have a beard too?
I hope he loved her. I hope he really loved her, more than a man has ever loved you or me.
I hope he touched her face, kissed her neck. I hope he picked wildflowers and set them in a vase on the kitchen table.
I hope he left the door unlocked for when she escaped to the planets inside her abdomen. Maybe she took him there with her. The pock-marked surface. A picnic on a Sunday afternoon. His hand around her waist.
If Sarah is still alive somewhere, even if only because of you, I hope someone loves her. Not despite her beard, but because of her beard. I hope he or she or they or them brush the knots out of her hair like you used to.
Yes, I’ll place her on the gravel planet. The one inside both of us. There she can worship with the other bearded women. She can know her people.
That boy I dated in high school once said, after kissing me and brushing up against the prickly hair on my lip.
You’re going to take care of that right?
I’m speaking up now, nearly a decade later. Years of dabbing blood off my face. Years of watching you put band aides on your chin, your neck.
I’m going to take care of us.
and Viola and Anne Jones and all the other women who bit razors in half—who lived inspected and spectacle lives. They’re here. Maybe our grandmothers that neither of us met.
Darwin was never going to find the missing link; it’s is not one body, but the distance between them.
On Christmas this year, after it’s all said and done and the men of the house are finished eating and the sink is full of too many dishes to begin washing, I think we should go. We should leave out the back door. We should take your blue station wagon and just drive off. We should talk about everything.
You can tell me what you’re writing and I’ll read you a poem. You can ask me what it’s about but I can’t guarantee I’ll know.
You can tell me why you hate the color pink and I can tell you why I love it.
When we’re done we can park in the driveway. Turn the car off.
I’ll smile and show you how my beard is spreading. It has, it’s grown thicker since I started hormones. I’ll point from my chin to half-way down my neck, the stray new follicles, scattered and uneven.
I’ll tell you that you can touch them, the hairs. They’re scratchy and remind me of the tall grass that sprouts up around the garage. I know you would think that’s weird. I just want to know each-others bodies somehow. I want to rest my head on your shoulder. I don’t have long hair for your to brush, can I brush yours?
There’s a man who lives on Long Island who is your son, but if Sarah is still a bridge for you, you can call me Sarah; she’ll arch her back and you can step on each vertebrae. She’s a strong name. I know you’re scared of bridges. Do you remember the one we had to cross each year on the way to Chincoteague, Virginia for vacation? I do. You’d close your eyes while I looked out the window at the wild blue ocean on either side. This bridge is sturdy. You know her, you still know her.