We, Women With Beards


We, Women With Beards

The smell of Old Spice aftershave is one-of-a-kind. 

You could be dodging thieves and preachers in downtown Nairobi and still notice the smell if you chanced on a whiff of it. It’s not unpleasant, just potent. And I put it on my neck and chin, right under my nose, so I get a heavy dose of it each time. It’s also expensive as hell. A 100ml bottle goes for KSh 3,000. Daylight robbery! But apparently, it stops ingrown hairs? Can’t confirm yet. I’ve just been using it for a few weeks now.

I don’t remember the first time I grew hair on my chin, but it must have been around when puberty hit me and armpit and pubic hair materialized.

However, the reason it mustn’t have registered as abnormal – a girl having facial hair – is because my mother has them too, so I didn’t see it as a weird thing. It’s called hirsutism, which means unwanted male-pattern hair growth on a woman’s face, chest, back, lower abdomen or inner thigh as a result of excessive male hormones, especially testosterone.

I’m generally really hairy on my arms and legs – got lots of nasty nicknames for that in school – but I also have chin hair and a few chest hairs. The chin hair stands out the most, though. If I let it grow out it will definitely be noticeable, so that’s what symbolizes this situation for me. 

It’s a situation, not a condition, because the word condition makes it sound like a disease and it’s not that for me, though for some women it can be a sign of tumors, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or Cushing Syndrome and other conditions. It may also come about as a result of certain medication.

It’s just now in my late 20s that it’s come back to the forefront of my mind. And that’s partly because I saw a post on Twitter mentioning how prevalent hirsutism is among Igbo women. That stood out for me because my mum is Igbo and I’m half Igbo. So this was intriguing. Is there really a relationship between being an Igbo woman and having hirsutism?

So I decided to ask my mum how many of her relatives have it too. She can only remember her mother having chin hair and none of her sisters. And my sister doesn’t have it either so it’s not a given in my family, just more of a game of chance. But the tweets I found made it pretty clear that it’s a prevalent situation with Igbo women in Nigeria. Ethnicity and other takes aside, this led me down a rabbit hole on the internet of reading various Igbo women’s experiences. 

Other than the superstitious stuff, I didn’t really find anything conclusive or scientific that could explain the connection. Either way, even if it’s more common in Igbo women in Nigeria, women of other ethnicities also get it.

When I think of the few times I’ve seen any media coverage in Kenya about women who have hirsutism, it’s always reported in the same way someone with a chronic disease would be covered. Not to take away from anyone’s experience (I shave my chin hair for the same reason – society is not kind and those with visible male-pattern hair face a lot of ridicule) but in the cases where the woman in question has not had any adverse effects other than a deviance from the ubiquitous aesthetics of femininity, it shouldn’t be as much of a ‘woe-is-her’ story as it usually is.

The most recent story I’ve seen in the media is that of Everlyne Wangila, who narrated her story to Tuko as she was pregnant with her third born. During the interview she had grown out both her chin and chest hair and she wore a blouse that looked like she was intentionally showing them off. It really struck me because I don’t think I could do that. I found it really brave. She narrates her life journey being a woman with a beard and the various ways people around her reacted over the years, especially the cyberbullying she faced.

The fact that she did the show while pregnant was notable because one of the stigmas associated with hirsutism is the belief that women with the condition are barren. But the fact that society automatically connects the two can be a sore point for most women, including Everlyne who narrates her doubts that she would ever give birth due to her fibroids.

I personally have always shaved off my chin hair. My mum used to get hers tweezed at the salon but now she’s stopped and just lets them grow out. My Old Spice adventures came about when I started getting tired of the bumps and hyper-pigmentation on my chin due to shaving for years (which a friend told me she had always thought were just an effect of acne). 

I started looking for different solutions to permanently remove hair and came across laser hair removal but was disappointed that it doesn’t work that well for dark skin. I’m not willing to let my chin hair grow out for now, so I will contend with my Old Spice aftershave and hope for the best.


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