This is an article and photo shoot called The Bearded Lady that was originally published in issue 10 of Things&Ink magazine (February 2015).
Meet an inspirational woman called Harnaam Kaur… She is a 24-year-old teaching assistant who has hopes of becoming a body confidence activist. Here she shares her story of overcoming bullies, taking control of her own journey and learning to love her body…
Photographs by Heather Shuker / Assisted by Maisie Jo Manning / Hair and make-up by Keely Reichardt using MAC Cosmetics / Styled by Olivia Snape / Gold earrings and head pieces by Gypsy East / Editorial by Alice Snape / Photo editing by Lydia Rayner
I am a British-born Sikh female living in Slough in the UK. I had a fairly “normal” upbringing, my parents gave me a lot of love, and we had a lot of fun on numerous family holidays and days out. But on the other side of happy families, I also remember being severely bullied in primary school – starting from as far back as nursery – and even getting beaten up, the bullying lasted until late secondary school. Being bullied day in, day out, led me to become very suicidal and I also used to self harm to release some of the hurt I was suffering. But I managed to stop myself as I realised that I was just causing myself more emotional and physical pain.
Over the years, I feel like I have gone through a rough time with my body. I have always been a chubby child, but then I was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries – it was around the time I hit puberty. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition in which there is an imbalance in hormones within the female body, this has led me to have more male hormones than female hormones, and it is also the reason why I have a beard. I used to remove my facial hair every other day by travelling to beauty salons. I had to have my face waxed two to three times a week, and on the days I couldn’t bare the pain I would simply shave. Having this medical condition also made me to put on a lot of weight, and losing weight with a hormonal imbalance is really tough for me. Now I have come to realise that this body is mine, I own it, and I do not have any other body to live in, so I may as well love it unconditionally. I have now fallen in love with the elements on my body that people may call flaws. I adore my beard, my stretch marks, my scars, these elements make me who I am now, and they make me whole.
But I haven’t always been so positive. When I was diagnosed I hit my biggest low. I hid myself away, I didn’t want to venture out into the public. My bedroom was my home, it was my heaven and it was my tomb – my safe haven. I was hugely depressed. I remember sitting on my bed and thinking about my life. It takes a lot of guts, strength and energy for someone to actually end their life. So I sat on my bed and counselled myself. I told myself “the energy you are putting into thinking about ending your life, put all that energy into turning your life around and doing something better.” At that point I was 16 years old, I decided I wanted to be me, I decided to keep my beard and step forward against society’s expectations of what a woman should look like. Today I am not suicidal and I do not self harm. Today I am happy living as a young, beautiful bearded woman.
Going out into the public for the first time with a beard was a horrifying experience. I remember going out in London with a group of friends, there was about 15 of us altogether. When I arrived in London, it seemed like the whole world had come out to look and point at me. I was stared at everywhere I went, by everyone. I remember being very miserable, but my friends were there to help me and try to keep me happy. After that experience, I started going out more and started to enjoy myself. I do get the odd looks from people, young and old, but I am used to them now. I mean I have been a bearded lady for seven and a half years, if I am not used to it now when will I ever be?
I want people to realise that each and every one of us is different. We are all imperfectly perfect. I want to show society that beauty isn’t just about looking a certain way, we should all celebrate individuality. I used to keep my beard for religious reasons, as Sikhs we are not supposed to remove our hair, but now I keep my hair to show the world a different, confident, strong image of a woman. I love my beard, it has become a part of my body and I do not want to remove it – it is the source of my strength and confidence. People just see the beard as hair, but my beard is much more than that. My beard gives me comfort as a woman, when I look at it I am reminded that we are all different and none of us are born the same. I adore my lady beard and I will forever cherish it. I do not trim my beard at all, I love how it freely curls and flows. People do make comments about it looking messy, but I love how it carelessly twangs in different directions. I love how my beard has body, that my beard has clean lineage on my cheeks and I guess I love the big volume that my beard has.
Now things have changed for me a little, as people have read about my story online and in magazines, they sort of understand who I am. I am currently working in a nursery as a teaching assistant, I love my job and it’s great for the children to see a bearded lady, they love my beard nearly as much as I do. People tend to be genuinely very intrigued and inquisitive about my beard, I do have a lot of people approach me about it and ask me questions – some people even want pictures with me, and I happily pose for them. Many women, who are going through the same medical condition as I am, also contact me for comfort, support and inspiration – I do try and help as much as I can.
In the future, my dream is to become a full-time body confidence activist. I would love to share my story more and help women empower themselves. I want nothing more than to see women fall completely in love with their bodies. I always say to both men and women that they need to love themselves and accept any quirks that they have. We all deserve to celebrate our bodies – we are all beautiful. Growing my beard has taught me that as humans we are all so different in our own wonderful ways. Every person living on this earth right now is different from the next. I have learnt that there is no such thing as being “normal”. I have learnt to accept my body for the way that it has grown. I have learnt to love myself unconditionally. Life is too precious not to.
As far as relationships go, I am not in one, but I would love to be. I want to meet someone who sees me for who I am. I believe that there is someone special out there who will see me for the beautiful, sparkling soul that I carry. I feel that a lot of people tend to judge me just by looking at my face. Only that special someone will realise that I am a woman with feelings, a heart, a soul, an aura and a personality. I shall always keep hold of the hope that I will find love one day, just one day.
My tattoos are also another part of my mind, body and soul, I love each and every one of them. I find peace just looking at them. Every tattoo symbolises a specific event in my life. My phoenix/peacock with the words “strength is beauty” around the wings was tattooed on me a few months after I came out of hospital after an operation. In my life I have been forced to face and battle with awful things and every time I have had to jump back up. I feel that I am a very resilient woman, I face my problems head on and I won’t stop tackling issues in this way. This past year has been the real turning point for me, when I metaphorically killed my old self and gave birth to a more powerful, confident and happier self and that to me is beauty. Strength is beauty. The phoenix to me represents birth, death, and rebirth, and the peacock feathers represent beauty.
I also have a lotus flower surrounded by a henna-style design located on my upper back. The lotus flower sits on top of murky ponds and rivers, which is really symbolic of why I chose this tattoo. I feel that even after all the bad that has happened in my life, and all the bad that I have to face daily, I have stayed afloat and carried on living in this world. The henna design represents those murky waters, even these are beautiful for having created such a stunning flower. I also have the word “love” on my left wrist and “faith” written on my right wrist, just to remind me to always live in love, to forever have faith in what ever I do and in what ever path I choose to take. The butterfly on my right foot reminds me to always spread my wings, to fly happily and beautifully to my next destination.
My bearded lady tattoo is very important to me, she represents me and I love her. The whole design has a story to tell. The tear drops on the roses are there to show the tears that I have shed, and the single petals represent the times I have fallen and hit my lows. The roses remind me of life and how beautiful it is. I also have the words “The Dame” written underneath, this was a title given to me by Brock Elbank and Jimmy Niggles. I am a part of their Project60 portrait series to help show awareness for melanoma cancer. Out of 60 men, I am the only female who is a part of this beard project.
In the future, I really want to have two half sleeves, I am hoping to have a Medusa piece started soon, she is such a beautifully powerful woman. I would love to have my spine tattooed, one more bearded lady tattoo and my left foot done to match my right. I would love to be heavily tattooed, and I am sure that each tattoo will represent me in some way or form. My body is a blank canvas and I am ready to cover it in beautiful art that tells my life story. ❦