Bearded Lady Little Bear Schwarz Makes Facial Hair 'Intensely Feminine'
When she developed polycystic ovary syndrome as a teenager, Little Bear Schwarz thought she was destined to a life of shaving. We talked to the opera singer and performer about coming to terms with her hair and how she realized it could be gender...
Photo by Monica Valenzuela
2015 was the year Miley Cyrus died her armpits pink and more women than ever challenged the expectation that they remove every last bit of their supposedly unfeminine body hair. But one question most of us have not had to ask is whether we should shave our beards.
This very conundrum confronted Little Bear Schwarz when fuzz appeared on her chin at age 14. She didn't know at the time that she had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance that can lead to facial hair and male-pattern baldness.
During her adolescence, the only question on Little Bear's mind was how to get rid of her unwanted hair. A beard is not a style women are taught they can sport, after all. But as she got older, Schwarz started asking a different question: Was her facial hair a problem to be solved or just another part of her body she could choose to reject or embrace?
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Over the past year, Schwarz has come to celebrate her beardedness in all its hirsute glory as an opera singer, writer, spoken word artist, burlesquer, and sideshow performer with the Seattle revival troupe Wreckless Freeks. On stage, she belts arias and show tunes in poufy dresses, her beard an ostensible contrast to her high, delicate voice. But that's not how she sees it. To the contrary, she views her facial hair as another facet of her femininity.
"Little Beardy Bear," as she introduced herself, told me about how she came to terms with her hair, how it inspired her performances, and why it is not an expression of her "masculine side."
BROADLY: How did people react when your beard first popped up?
Little Bear Schwarz: [My parents'] first concerns were a) "Why is this happening?" and b) "How do we fix it?" Numerous medical tests resulted in nothing—PCOS testing having come a long way since then—and we didn't have the money for a more permanent solution, so I just shaved every day for 16 years. If anyone else noticed, the teasing was behind my back because I worked very hard to make sure my face, neck, and chest were shaved, sometimes to the point of rash, and covered up with makeup.
Did you internalize your parents' reaction?
I absolutely internalized it. Through no fault of their own, society not conveying any other reaction, my parents were worried and concerned about my hair, so I grew up thinking it was wrong, a mistake, something to fix. It never occurred to me that a bearded lady was something a person could openly be, at least without sacrificing employability or date-ability. Not shaving wasn't an option as far as I knew.
Hair—any of it—has no gender.
Does anyone still give you a hard time about it?
Because I've only been allowing my beard to grow for a little over a year, dealing with people's harassment, staring, laughing, pointing, and even "discrete" photo taking is still new and admittedly hard.
How do you react to all that?
I'm habitually of the "kill 'em with kindness" mindset and [used to believe] that patience and education could remedy resistance and ignorance. But I have since learned that willful ignorance keeps people from wanting to break from their comfort zones, and it's much easier—and comfier—to laugh and deem them unworthy of that which they don't understand.
The fact is, I am a person who is othered by my appearance. And the fact that I can't be easily defined for some, that I am open and unabashed, that I make no effort to hide or "fix" what I am, that I will not be complacent or grateful for whatever I can get—and on top of that, that I demand equal respect? That infuriates people. But the shamelessness that befuddles others is what I love about myself the most. It's an old cliché at this point, but I am finding "don't feed the trolls" to be more and more true. They are sad, lonely people who thrive on reaction. Better to let them starve.
Were you always a performer, or did you get into singing, spoken word, and burlesque as part of the whole "bearded lady" act?
I've only been performing since June 14, 2014, which was my first gig with Wreckless Freeks. From there, I started singing opera live, doing spoken word, and finally burlesque. I was a choir geek in high school, so I was prepped for performance—I just didn't use it until later.
Does your beard inspire your performances?
The "bearded lady" thing definitely propelled me. I was a very inward and painfully insecure 20-something who didn't really feel good enough at anything I did to make a career out of it. The confidence, beard, and performance all kind of happened in tandem. Once I knew I could brave the public unshaven, nothing else seemed that scary anymore.
My beard kind of provides a backbone to my persona, which isn't really that different from my offstage persona. Before you know that I can sing [or] strip, what you see is a woman who isn't afraid to reject gender norms. It sends out a pretty powerful statement.
It's not bending gender as much as it is expanding what it means to be a woman.
Do you ever feel fetishized when you perform as a bearded lady, especially as part of a circus sideshow group?
"Sideshow" is the word we tend to use. "Circus" tends to convey tents, trained animals, kids with noisemakers, etc. "Freak show," while I like the word, still feels pejorative to many people—the whole person-sitting-in-a-cage-while-onlookers-toss-coins-at-them thing. "Freak" to me is a very powerfully reclaimed word and one I love. But I accept that not everyone feels that way, and I respect that, the same way many body activists reclaim "fat" but that word is still intensely hurtful to me.
Yeah, fetishization is a thing that definitely exists. It's funny how people see that as the opposite of trolling—obsessively liking vs. obsessively hating—but I see them as two sides of the same coin: honing in on one sole aspect of me and ignoring my being a dimensional, complex person like anyone else. I certainly get some pretty entitled, creepy, and fetishizing messages.
As far as that being an issue for being booked in shows, I used to fear that I was only booked as a "novelty act," both in my early days with Wreckless Freeks and as a solo act. But the thing is, people get over stuff quickly, even beards. Were I just up on stage running my hands through it, it'd get old pretty quick. You've got to back it up. My talents in performing are what keep it from getting old. So I'd like to think that's why I continue to get booked: as the whole package, versus, say, Wow, look at this thing.
Did your facial hair affect your romantic relationships like you feared?
The funny thing is, a romantic relationship was a catalyst in my growing my beard out. When I came to Seattle to live with my boyfriend, I was suddenly in a combination of scenarios I'd never been in: living in a progressive city, working a day job from home, and living with and dating a man who knew and was fine with my hairiness. He made it clear to me that I had no obligation to shave for him, so I just stopped. I've had a few other lovers since then. We're still together, but it's a polyamorous relationship.
The only issue I find is that people seem to be more inspired by me than attracted to me. Something about being an othered person who regularly educates people has made me register as somewhat sexless to people, even though the opposite is true. But I don't want to be that "friend zone" guy who complains about it, so I accept it as part of being who I am. Either way, the boyfriend who has been with me these past two years is so wonderful. How could I complain?
Was growing out your beard a form of gender expression?
The "gender expression" thing is tricky. Because my appearance is otherwise very "girly," a lot of people think my beard is a form of "gender bending" or "getting in touch with my masculine side." While this is understandable, it's frustrating because that still expresses the notion that beards are inherently masculine. They're not.
Hair—any of it—has no gender. We can attach sentiment to it, and many people will feel more masculine or feminine or neutral with more or less or no hair, but that's personal expression, not objective. My beard is intensely feminine because I am intensely feminine. It's an expression of my womanhood. It's not bending gender as much as it is expanding what it means to be a woman.