Bearded woman: I remember feeling like I could throw myself in front of a moving car
Teresia Mumbi, a makanga, was in May 2018 strip-checked by a female police officer to confirm her gender.
“It was a traumatic incident,” she told a local news outlet. “I remember feeling like I could throw myself onto the highway and end my life.” The police woman had suspected Mumbi to be a man because she had a beard – in spite of her other feminine features like her voice.
Then there is the case of Faith Macharia, who while still in college recalls; “I noticed about two prominent strands of hair jutting out my chin.” That was in 2006. She hurriedly shaved the offending strands ensuring no one else saw them. Unfortunately for her, hair grows back within days. And the more she shaved, the more it grew.
“It was like by shaving I was stimulating more hair to grow,” says Faith, adding that the shaving made her chin to develop bumps and “at some point, it was affecting me psychologically: I felt like I was becoming a man.”
Her aunt told her it was normal, but the hollow stares and the chiding carried unmatched intensity compared to pep talks. Wherever she went she became an instant spectacle: at work, at the bank, in a gathering, there was always someone staring, pointing, whispering.
Three hospital visits offered no permanent solution and “one doctor just told me to live with it: to keep shaving – because she just couldn’t see a permanent solution for me,” recalls Faith who had security issues during dates. She would shave until her chin ached!
“He never called me back,” she says of the man who felt her chin bumps during a hug. Another guy – whom she had dated for four years – suddenly stopped communicating and disappeared.
“It is not easy living with a beard as a woman,” says Faith. “Society has not yet accepted that a woman can have a beard.”
Faith registered a non-profit called Bearded Women Organisation (BWO) in 2018.
“I know what life is like for a woman with a beard in our society. BWO was formed purposefully to challenge gender stereotypes that end up hurting people like me.”
Women with a beard, or male-pattern hair growth, suffers from Hirsutism, says Dr Kireki Omanwa, an obstetrician and gynecologist and a fertility expert.
“This hair may appear above the lips (moustache), on the chin area (beard), the chest and the back. Also, the hair could be unusually thick and densely populated on the arms and legs.”
In our society, notes Wandia Maina, a psychologist, feminine features do not include a beard. A woman who has a beard will therefore attract stares. And in extreme cases, discrimination – like it happened to Mumbi, the makanga.
For most women, there are self-esteem issues and for Jackline Mwaka* it was even worse as she had hair on her chin and chest and was the butt of endless jokes from men. “If I was going somewhere and I would pass a group of boys they would laugh loudly,” she says, adding that the ensuing anxiety made her hate herself and being picked on instead of being hit on by men made hairy matters worse.
She survived by shaving – almost daily and used her first salary to see a dermatologist. A round of tests on her hormone levels revealed nothing. “The dermatologist recommended laser hair removal: he said that it was perhaps the most long lasting form of treatment for my condition,” she says.
Peris Mbuthia, a Medical Aesthetician at Timeless Medical Spa in Lavington, says she receives at least 20 women every month seeking permanent solution to their beard and mostly through laser hair removal and electrolysis “because all over the world, a beard is known as masculine and not feminine. “About 90 per cent of the clients are usually women because women care more about their appearance than men.”
She adds: “It is hard to find a woman’s bedroom that has no mirror. We love looking at ourselves and checking if we look good. When a woman looks at herself and is satisfied that she is looking presentable, it also reflects in her mood, and the energy she exudes. The “vibe of good energy drives her to achieve her goals.”
Indeed, a 2006 British study titled ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden,’ published in the journal of Psychosomatic Research, notes that women with facial hair spent over 100 minutes a week managing it.
Two-thirds of the women in the study said they continually check their facial hair in mirrors. The study found facial hair takes an emotional toll. 40 per cent said they felt uncomfortable in social situations, 75 per cent reported clinical levels of anxiety and low scores when it came to their social lives and relationships.
Beyond looks, hirsutism provokes thoughts of inadequacy. Or simply challenges like one’s womanhood.
Mwaka, even today, is so frightened of ever settling down in marriage because she is doubtful of her ability to conceive and carry a pregnancy. “I am afraid of getting into marriage and being dumped because I can’t be a mother,” she says. Even the thought of testing for fertility freaks her out.
As for the beard and chest hair, she can comfortably pay for laser hair removal. Every treatment with laser keeps her hair free for about three years. Faith, like Mwaka, has had people question her gender while at other times she’s referred to as he-she and was happy when she conceived and gave birth in 2011. “My son loves me – beards and all. He has been bullied because his mother has beards,” she says.
Through the support of family, friends, and in a few counseling therapy sessions, she overcame low self-esteem.
“I realised that I can never meet people’s expectations and, therefore, I just have to focus on my own ambitions,” she says, adding that she shaves to spare her son ridicule from his peers.