When she was 14 years old, Claire noticed three thick black hairs growing from her face. She was in the car with her family on the way to the beach; eyeing the hairs curiously in the mirror, she pulled them out one by one. The procedure was brief, and Claire thought nothing more of it. She did not expect to see those hairs again, let alone to develop a beard in two years.
Now, "I can grow a full beard within a few days," Claire, who wouldn't give her real name for this story, told me. She's now a senior in college and lives in the Deep South. No one—not even her family—knows about her condition. "I feel like I have a secret all the time," Claire said. "It sucks."
Claire's beard isn't an easy thing to keep secret; it grows thicker than than many men's. If she did not make any effort to remove it, Claire told me, she would quickly grow sideburns, and hair would cover her neck, chin, upper lip, and jaw.
Male-pattern hair growth on women, called hirsutism, is not uncommon; in 2003, researchers at the University of South Carolina estimated that the condition affects up to 8 percent of women. The degrees of hair growth and location vary, though—not all women with facial hair grow a full beard as Claire does. A symptom of other hormonal conditions, hirsutism is often caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and adrenal disorders, and it can result in chest hair, thicker hair on the arms, legs, and genitals, and other symptoms like a deeper voice and abnormal periods.
Though Claire identifies along traditional gender lines, growing up she was lodged in an uncomfortable in-between area. Her classmates targeted her because she was a tomboy with a masculine frame; they couldn't seem to wrap their minds around her. "I looked like a boy, and 'girl' things didn't really interest me," Claire said. "I was bullied a lot and a bit isolated socially by other children."
As a teenager, Claire became disturbed by her body. "I don't know if you've ever seen Game of Thrones, but I relate to Brienne of Tarth on a physical level," she said, referring to the six-foot-three actress Gwendoline Christie. "My features are just masculine," Claire said. "For the longest time nothing fit right. My body is like a tall rectangle." When her facial hair appeared at 14, Claire had just started to come to terms with her other masculine features. She was feeling more confident for the first time in a long time, but that confidence disappeared when she grew a beard. "It was like God was playing a really unfunny joke," she said.
The social abuse she experienced as a kid lasted throughout high school, but Claire said no one ever discovered her beard. If they had, she can only imagine how terrible they would have been to her. "You never know how people will react," Claire said. But keeping that secret has come at great cost. "It's like a never ending carousel of discomfort."
Claire's day begins when she wakes up before anyone else in her home to ensure alone time in the bathroom. "I lather on some shaving cream for sensitive skin and use a men's facial razor to shave very carefully," Claire said. She drags the blade across her skin from various angles to achieve the closest cut possible. Then, she goes to her bedroom, grabs a magnifying mirror, and checks to make sure no hairs are still visible. The leftover long hairs get plucked, and Claire airbrushes on makeup to cover any shadow or stubble that remains. "Usually by midday, I'm having to pluck a few more and retouch makeup," she said.
Claire's facial hair is at odds with her personality. "I love dresses and anything that screams, 'I'm a girl—ask me how!' as loud as possible," she told me. She'd like to share her proudly feminine personality with others, but it's not easy to be intimate with other people. Her dating life has suffered. "Touch has been hard for me," she said. "I have a fear of people hugging me or touching me and feeling stubble or displacing my very carefully applied stubble-proof makeup."
I don't want people to see me as freakish and scary, but I don't blame them.
Claire doubts she'll ever be able to share this part of herself with them; her sisters are "basically models," in her words, and her mother is exceptionally beautiful, too. "My family thinks I have bad acne because of the marks from plucking and threading the hair out," she said. "I don't know if they would be able to comprehend me being more physically disappointing than I already am, considering that we share DNA."
When I ask if Claire has reached out to other people like her, she says she doesn't know any cisgender women who grow facial hair and that she's never met someone like herself before—at least not that she was aware of. But women in the transgender community have helped her. Without the administration of puberty-blocking medication, trans girls undergo male puberty, leaving them to develop masculine characteristics like facial hair. As a demographic, they're likely among the most experienced at the permanent removal or camouflage of facial hair. "The trans community has really been my go-to for support because they know exactly what I'm going through," Claire said.
But there's a space those relationships will never fill. "I would love to know more women like me," Claire said. "I think it'd be interesting to be able to share our experiences and maybe find out what causes this, because I haven't been able to get any answers."
It's easy to understand why a physical characteristic like facial hair could be burdensome and emotionally scarring. But why does Claire need to live in secret with her condition? Why must she go to such great lengths to ensure no one knows, to sacrifice an open and honest relationship with her family? "Beards are a men's thing," Claire said. "It's one of those gender-specific things that defines the sex. A woman having a beard blurs the line between male and female in a way, and that's scary for a lot of people."
This stereotype has recently been challenged by bearded women around the world who have embraced their facial hair, they've grown it out proudly. The 24-year-old Instagram celebrity, model, and anti-bullying activist Harnaam Kaur was on the verge of suicide because of the anguish her facial hair caused her, until she "decided to turn all that negative energy into positive energy" and grow out her beard. After shaving her hair for 16 years, the performer Little Bear Schwarz now wears a beard proudly. (Both of these women have PCOS.)
Claire said she tends to let her beard grow out a bit on the weekends, when no one is likely to see her, and she would like to see less stigma around bearded women. "I don't want people to see me as freakish and scary," Claire said, "but I don't blame them. It isn't like people grow up seeing bearded women walking down the streets of suburbia." She just wants people to see her for who she is, to understand that having facial hair doesn't make her less of a woman.