The Bearded Ladies Foundation

I have a confession.

I have been seeing someone since July of last year, and no one, except for a few very close friends, even know about her. CJ is the kindest, most selfless person I have ever met and she has been there for me without ever asking anything in return. She knows me better than almost anyone and puts up with me even when I am completely horrible to her in return. CJ deserves so much better than to be my dirty little secret. She’s never mentioned meeting my friends or family, likely to avoid embarrassing me if they knew I was seeing her. I have gotten the opportunity to speak to her husband, Howard, on occasion, and he’s as remarkable and caring as CJ is, in addition to being a great supporter of our relationship.

At this point, I should probably mention that CJ is my electrologist.

For those of you who don’t know what electrolysis is (and I’d be surprised if you do!), electrolysis is the only FDA approved method of permanent hair removal through a very time-intensive process that involves inserting a tiny probe into hair follicles one at time, which is then destroyed by the application of heat using an electric current.

Essentially, CJ stabs my face with a needle and then proceeds to zap me with electricity before yanking out my hairs one by one with tweezers up to 500 times in a one hour session, twice a week, and I happily pay her to do this.

Why would anyone want to go through this torture voluntarily? Well, let me tell you a little about myself.

My name is Brianne, and I am a 30-year-old biological female. I suffer from PCOS, which causes male-patterned hair growth (and loss), amongst a multitude of many other unpleasant side-effects that can include infertility, painful and/or irregular periods, weight gain, depression, and insulin imbalance – just to name a few. According to the PCOS Awareness Association, PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is a health condition which affects over 7 million women in the world. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but genetics and environmental factors are believed to play a part in this relatively obscure condition that affects hormones and can have a devastating effect on women both physically and psychologically.

The side-effect I’m going to focus on in this blog, since it’s had the most impact on my life and relationships, is hirsutism, or unwanted male-pattern hair growth on a woman’s face, chest, and/or back, and is the reason why I see CJ in the first place, though we both wish we’d met under different circumstances. Hirsutism not only affects women with PCOS, but can also appear with use of certain medications such as anabolic steroids, testosterone, and contraceptives. Genetics, environmental factors, and hormone changes can also be a contributing factor towards sudden or abnormal hair growth.

Discussing the subject of my own abnormal hair growth is extremely painful and embarrassing for me, especially on the Internet where anonymous commenters are notorious for being kind and understanding (…not!). I am willing to endure mockery and even revulsion if I can touch a chord with even one person and let them know they are not alone and there are treatments and support systems that can help. Or if there aren’t any available in your area, my goal is to see that there will be sooner rather than later.

When I was in the fifth grade, I was teased for having a mustache and ‘gorilla arms’. That week, I went home and learned how to shave from watching my older brother, and I have needed to shave every day since. There is an old wives’ tale that says if you shave your hair it only grows back faster, thicker, and darker each time.

As far as I’m concerned, that theory is 110% true.

I’m not even going to fact-check scientific studies that have been done to prove otherwise, because whoever dares contradict me can come over here so I can give them beard burn until they cry ‘Uncle’!

Like the best of bad habits, after shaving once I was never able to stop. I could go a few days without shaving in junior high and high school, maybe, but eventually the paranoia and absolute certainty that my light stubble would sprout into an enviable 70’s pornstache any second took over and I was soon shaving daily. I hoarded razors like a diabetic covets Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and was probably at risk of giving myself a staph infection or tetanus with an old, rusty razor more times than I care to think about.

When I graduated high school and went on to college, I used that opportunity while living on my own to experiment.

Hot waxes, cold waxes, tweezers, epilators, electric razors, bleaching, threading, Nair, at home laser systems, little brushes you attach to your fingers and rub in circles against your skin – name any miracle hair remover, and I can guarantee I’ve tried it at least twice.

I am honestly surprised my skin doesn’t look like Deadpool without the mask, considering all the torture it’s been through.

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Desperate and at the end of my rope, I finally turned to laser hair removal after hearing an advertisement on the radio for Ideal Image that was promoting a permanent reduction in facial hair growth for women. The staff at Ideal Image were incredibly kind and professional, and not once did I feel judged for coming to them to treat my facial hair. They explained every part of the process to me and made certain that I understood that laser hair removal was not guaranteed to work on certain skin or hair types, or if a person has a certain condition like PCOS, which I was not aware of having at the time. Still, I didn’t care about the risks, which could have included burns or even scarring from the laser setting they used, or the possibility that the treatment wouldn’t work for me at all. I couldn’t throw my money at them fast enough.

One treatment, and I was warned that I would not see a noticeable change overnight, and the procedure worked best with repeated treatments, after allowing a few weeks in between each session.

Three treatments, and they upped the settings of the laser when the technician wasn’t able to detect any noticeable differences with my hair growth. I was convinced the laser treatments were working though and insisted that they keep trying.

Five treatments, and they increased the intensity of the laser yet again, which I endured with numbing creams, ice packs, and an entire encyclopedia of creative swearing. The consultant at Ideal Image sat me down and discussed the possibility that I was one of the few people their treatments would not work on. I had olive skin, my hair was too curly, I had red tones in my hair… The reasons were endless, but I wouldn’t hear any of it, and scheduled my appointment for the following month, which they reluctantly complied.

Seven treatments, and I finally had to face reality.

I was $2,000 poorer and still having to shave every day. I went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with PCOS. My doctor recommended birth control as a way to manage my hormonal imbalance and subsequently my hair growth. My facial hair was a little improved after several months, but in that time I gained weight, had absolutely no sex drive, and became very depressed. I was living in Florida at the time and working at a place where there were almost monthly suicides ranging anywhere from people jumping fifteen stories off the building into the traffic below (I even had to drive around a body on my way to work once) to guests killing themselves in their hotel room for the housekeeping to find, to a group of employees who decided to play Russian Roulette in the back parking lot…and someone obviously lost that game.

I even talked a friend down from the roof of our building once, though I could see the appeal myself.

I was reaching my breaking point when my best friend called seemingly out of the blue and told me that she had a job and a house and a car for me, if only I’d move back to Colorado. I didn’t even have to think twice before I was on a plane back home.

I came off the birth control and got settled in at my new job, which I loved, and I didn’t even care I was still shaving at that point. The depression, however, was harder to shake off. I’ve been dealing – or not dealing, as it were – with depression on and off since I was 11 and struggling with bullying, my weight, and an eating disorder. I never could bring myself to ask for help, even as an adult. I hated the idea of going on ‘crazy meds’, though I looked up the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) a few times when things became really bad. I never did call, but I’m sure they would have done everything they could to provide support and talk me down from my own ledge.

I have never told anyone this next part, and even now I am tempted to skip right over to the happy ending just to avoid the shame or discussions I’m bound to have with those closest to me.

Sonia, my best friend, and I had just gone to get ice cream one night at Baskin Robbins before we took separate cars on our way back home. I was simply driving and I don’t know what happened to set me off – if anything – but suddenly I just…broke. I don’t know if Baskin Robbins didn’t have the flavor I wanted or if I’d dropped my ice cream cone or what, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I started hysterically crying and could hardly see the road in front of me, and then I was yelling and screaming and praying with everything in me for God to just let me die, please please let me die, I can’t stand it, please let it all be over, I can’t do this anymore…

The next thing I know a car hits me from the side, knocking my car across the median and sideways into three lanes of oncoming traffic.

I should have died that night.

By chance, there was a break in traffic which allowed me just enough time to swerve back over the median and into my lane before traffic slammed into the tiny, fiberglass car I’d been driving at the time. I was completely in shock, but after the paramedics looked me over the worse I suffered was a bruise on my arm and a mild concussion. That moment was as if God had reached down from the sky, flicked my forehead with a finger, and asked me if I was reaaaally sure about that wish just now?

No. No, I was not.

Needless to say I got my life right after that. Jesus took the wheel and gave me the jolt I needed to get on a different path after shaking me up with a near-death experience that did much to change my perspective when I thought I had nothing left. I don’t think I ever did finish that ice cream, but Sonia got a delirious voicemail from me that night telling her “…so, I was in a car accident and hit my head and shit, but I’m okay. Be home soon.”

I started exercising and eating better, lost over 100 pounds, and found an unexpected passion in dance. It was unexpected because I’ve always been notoriously clumsy and cripplingly shy, not to mention I fear public speaking almost more than being dropped into a pit full of spiders. I even have an old VHS taped performance from a school play where an older student literally had to push me out onto stage because I was just not having any part in those shenanigans. I joined up at S.W.E.A.T. Ltd. with the amazing and inspirational Brandi Hancock in 2012 and became obsessed with Zumba, which prompted me to seek out other styles of dance. I fell in love with American Tribal Style® Belly Dance with Barb Van Hoy over at Springs Oasis soon after, and before I knew it I was performing on stage for all the world to see, and gave not one single f**k what anyone thought of me.

I was having so much fun and finally found my soul tribe on top of everything else.

I still perform to this day with local Colorado Springs dance troupes Bravo Belly Dance and Vagabond Misfits.

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My body image has improved by leaps and bounds thanks to belly dance, and even most of my PCOS symptoms have lessened as a result of having a healthier lifestyle. I was finally at a place in my life where I could accept myself as I was, with only one exception. I was still shaving every day, and now even had to shave my chest and lower back and belly so I didn’t look like Sasquatch in a skirt for performance pictures. Needing to shave my face as well as my entire body doesn’t depress me as much as it used to, but it still takes a ridiculous amount of time. There’s not enough hot water in the world to get everything done in one 45 minute shower before the water heater throws up its middle fingers and douses me in ice.

So we come to how I met CJ and began our torrid affair.

I happened to find a local deal for an electrolysis session for permanent hair removal while browsing Groupon one day, and, intrigued, I bought the deal and gave CJ Keefe at Algentle LLC a call.

She made me research what electrolysis was (see: here) before even agreeing to let me in the office, and once I was there she laid down the law. Electrolysis was only for committed clients who had at least six months to a year to dedicate to regular treatments, otherwise I need not waste her time. She said this much more nicely, of course, but every good story needs a villain. I pay her to hurt me on a regular basis so I feel entitled to a little character defamation, even though she’s amazing IRL.

The first session was…enlightening.

I showed up with a full mountain man bush beard and about fifty layers of makeup caked on, which CJ had to scrub off so she could see what she was getting herself into. She probably wishes she never opened the door. CJ walked me through the process and answered any questions I had to the best of her ability before setting me down on the exam table and getting to work. Her office is kept meticulously neat and sterile, and she disinfects my skin and her equipment before and after every session. CJ methodically inserts a teeny tiny probe into each hair on my face one by one. There’s a brief pinch like a bee sting and a beep of her machine before she plucks out the hair before repeating the process over and over.

I used to have a fear of bees, but now I just laugh as they flutter on by.

After a full hour of nonstop work, CJ only managed to clear perhaps a stamp-sized area of skin that first session. My face was going to need a heck of a lot more postage, and the process would take multiple passes before I saw a reduction in hair growth. I was going to be seeing CJ for a minimum of one, maybe two years as long as I came in at least twice a week, every week.

I’m about a year and a half in, and I am down to shaving to only two or three times a week, rather than every single day. I count myself fortunate that CJ and I get along like two peas in a pod considering all the time we spend together, and if nothing else at least having PCOS led me to one of my greatest friends (who I am NOT having an affair with by the way, haha!) CJ has put up with my vengeful streak that has included me walking through the door with fake (and real) facial hair, drawing obscene images through the dust on her car, biting her hand, calling out to people in the hallway for help, and sending text messages to her husband tattling on her when I swear she stabs me through the jugular while turned to the highest setting possible.

Each person’s pain tolerance for electrolysis varies depending on the person, the placing of their nerve endings, and how much of a dramatic crybaby they are (CJ assures me I win the prize in that last category.) Electrolysis isn’t the most comfortable procedure in the world, but the pain is minimal for the most part. I would put up with far more just to have smooth skin once and for all. The sensation is akin to a slight tingle or sting depending on the area being treated, and there have been times that I’ve fallen asleep on her table without feeling a thing.

The hardest part about living with hirsutism isn’t the hair removal process, though that’s definitely up there for me, but it’s the emotional impact trying to hide my hair growth from everyone close to me. My relationships suffer even today because I can’t stand having my skin touched or looked at too closely, and I have a constant fear that someone will brush against my arms or my face and develop rug burn from the friction. I have only had two romantic relationships in my life, and neither of those ever went further than second or third base because I couldn’t enjoy our time together when I was more concerned about whether or not I missed a spot shaving. I would carry a razor in my purse and sneak off to the bathroom in the middle of the night just to be sure that I hadn’t.

As a child, I remember sitting on my grandma’s lap with a pair of tweezers waiting in hand to pluck out the tiny hairs left behind after she burned her whiskers off with a match.

As a teenager, I overheard my mom crying as she swore to my stepfather that she did shave that day.

As an adult, I submit myself to having needles routinely stuck into my face and then zapped with electricity because I don’t want either of those previous two scenarios to be me. I have made several of my friends promise that if I were ever to fall into a coma, they will sneak into my hospital room and shave my face for me. My worst fear is being stranded on a deserted island or lost in the mountains, not because of the risk of exposure or starvation or being eaten by wild animals, but because I would rather die than let a rescue team mistake me for Tom Hanks in Cast Away when I’ve gone weeks or months without a razor.

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Every day, I learn of more and more women in my life that deal with some sort of male-patterned hair growth, and there are probably twice as many that I don’t know about.

Hirsutism can strike any female of any race at any stage of her life. Women who have only ever had smooth skin or peach fuzz their whole lives can suddenly develop dark, coarse hair on their bodies and faces without any warning, and most of these women aren’t equipped to handle the embarrassment and blow to their self-esteem, or even the mental or physical abuse in some cases. CJ sees clients from all walks of life. Many of her clients have also had laser hair treatments that didn’t work for them, and she even has one who is an actual laser hair removal technician. Women going through puberty, pregnancy, or menopause deal with subsequent hormone changes that can affect their hair growth, as can taking certain medications or developing PCOS.

Transgender women also turn to electrolysis as a part of their transition process.

The point of this blog was not to expose my worst insecurities for the entire world to see because I have a voyeuristic need to seek attention or I thought it would be fun (it was not). I like to believe I suffered through the low self-esteem and depression and loneliness for all these years so that I would be able to help someone going through the same thing today. I decided to conform to society’s hairless standards today and seek a solution to my own hair growth, but whatever your personal choice is, you are beautiful and more than what society and today’s beauty magazines say you are.

I now direct your attention to an absolutely stunning woman, Harnaam Kaur, who went the opposite route I did, though with similar resounding themes along the way, and embraced her beard.

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Harnaam endured a childhood of cruel taunts and even online death threats. According to an article from The Huffington Post, bullying became so bad Harnaam even considered taking her own life when schoolmates began calling her “beardo” , “shemale” and “sheman.” Rather than giving into despair, Harnaam embraced the teachings of the Sikh which included a practice that forbade the shaving of body hair.

Today, Harnaam is a model and a motivational figure for women and girls suffering from PCOS.

I wish I had that level of confidence in the face of ridicule, but I’m just not that brave. I wear fur pants in the winter like any respectable Coloradan, but as soon as the shorts come out, so does my razor. I intend to stick with electrolysis for however long it takes, although CJ is already planning to retire after the completion of my electrolysis treatments, which may still take another year or two – if I don’t drive her to excessive drinking first.

I am EASILY her favorite client, ever, despite what she may tell anyone else.

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This blog is only the beginning of a movement.

I have big dreams, but I need help. If you made it this far, congratulations! You reached the sales pitch of the program! I’ll try and have stickers ready to hand out, but I make no promises.

One of CJ’s clients completely shocked me when she heard that the company I’ve been working for the past 7 years is closing its doors on March 3rd and laying off over 60 employees, myself included. This unknown person heard about my situation and offered to pay for my continued electrolysis treatments, should I be unable to afford them. I’m a big supporter of ‘pay it forward’ programs, and her offer sparked a chain reaction in me. I am now focusing on a way to pay her offer forward and start a fund to help women and girls who might not be able to afford electrology to get the help they need.

It is my goal to increase awareness of male-patterned hair growth in women and start a support network to get people to talk about this condition rather than live in fear and shame. The proceeds will go towards funding existing electrologist in multiple states and countries, provide training grants for those who wish to learn and obtain their license, and allow women the opportunity to consult with an electrologist near them and receive treatment free of charge for those unable to afford care.

There is no cure (and if there is, damnit, why did no one tell me this sooner?!) for PCOS or hirsutism, but electrolysis is the only guaranteed permanent hair removal method, and we can at least manage the symptoms until a cure is found.

So if you can, please donate. And if you can’t donate, share my story or the links below with your friends, your family, with the stranger in line behind you in Starbucks with their nose buried in their phone playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Instagram, or whatever things you crazy kids get up to nowadays.

And to all you Beautiful Bearded Ladies out there: You are strong, you are sexy, and you do matter. Help is coming, sweethearts.

Have faith.

-Brianne

[DONATE HERE]

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LaserLife Clinic

I recently had someone at LaserLife Clinic in London contact me regarding my previous blog post about The Bearded Ladies Foundation. Cassie reached out as a spokesperson for LaserLife after a client of theirs pointed the company my way in order to reach out to women who suffer from excessive, male-patterned hair growth on their faces and bodies. LaserLife Clinic is clinic in London that provides services such as laser hair removal and anti-aging treatments.

Cassie mentioned they’ve spoken with a couple clients who have stated that they don’t get many offers or treatments targeted to them, or sometimes they feel stigma when going for a particular treatment.

After my initial spazzing out about the fact that I was now internationally famous (give or take a few appearances on Ellen or Oprah) I looked into LaserLife’s company website for more information. I was immediately blown away by the fact that not only do they acknowledge hirsutism, or male-patterned hair growth in women, they also provide a 50% discount for women who suffer with the condition, as well as transgendered women seeking treatment.

For those of you who have read my first blog, you know that I have also gone through laser hair removal treatments as a way to control my own hair-growth. Unfortunately, the treatments did not work on me, but laser hair removal is a booming industry that wouldn’t keep growing at the rate it is if the treatments didn’t work for a majority of the clients.

Get ready, you math-whizzes. I’m about to throw some numbers at you.

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In a survey done by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Americans spent more than $13.5 BILLION on combined surgical and nonsurgical procedures in 2015, with women making up 90.5% of those big spenders. Nonsurgical procedures, including botox and hair removal, accounted for $5.6 billion. Laser or pulsed light hair removal was listed  in the top 3 nonsurgical procedures performed in 2015 at 1,136,834 procedures, up 37.2% from the previous year.

Men made up 11.4% of hair removal procedures in 2015.

The average age of those undergoing nonsurgical procedures was between 35-50, making up 40.6%, followed closely by 51-64 year olds at 31.2%, and 19-34 year olds at 15.9%.

The national average fee for laser hair removal clocked in at $264 per procedure. Considering multiple treatments are necessary whether you chose either laser hair removal or electrolysis, the price can get costly. I have to give kudos to LaserLife Clinic for recognizing that hair removal isn’t simply a cosmetic procedure, but a treatment that helps foster women’s confidence in order for some of them to even function in society, rather than being crippled by self-consciousness as I once was.

In all honesty, these statistics are heartbreaking to me. It means that, as a society, we have stigmatized hair anywhere on our bodies so much that we have resorted to extreme measures in order to pluck ourselves balder than a chicken wing on Super Bowl Sunday.

For those of you who need the reminder, these are our ancestors:

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Or your Uncle George last Christmas. Same difference.

So why do we even have body hair in the first place, if not to embarrass us during the swim season when fellow beach-goers mistakenly believe we’re hiding a squirrel down our shorts?

Parasites thrive in thicker hair, so it is believed that we shed our hairy outer bits in order to prevent the spread of cooties after years of evolution. Another guess is that when humans were finally able to stand erect (ha-erect-ha!) on two legs rather than all fours, less of their body was exposed to direct sunlight, thereby eliminating the need to grow hair as protection against the sun, except for the hair on their faces and atop their heads.

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Compared to most mammals, humans are relatively bald. HowStuffWorks.com has a theory that somewhere along the line thick hair must have become more of a burden than an asset for humans. Hair also contributes to our appearance and how alluring we appear to other people.

In an excerpt from their article, HowStuffWorks states:

Body hair can also play a role in sexual attraction. On a superficial level, some people may prefer partners with long, short or curly locks. Biologically, the areas of thicker hair on humans’ underarms and genitals are probably related to sexual selection. Both of those areas are sites of scent-releasing organs called apocrine glands. The odorous chemicals that the glands emit are unique to every person and may help attract members of the opposite sex, like pheromones in other animals. The hair in those areas traps and amplifies those odors, like loudspeakers that amplify your body’s chemical siren song of attraction [source: The Economist].

Evolution has only taken us so far, so we must rely on waxes, razors, hair removal procedures and Photoshop in order to make ourselves flawless for Instagram selfies and dating app profiles.

I had the opportunity and privilege to interview LaserLife Clinic’s manager, Lizzie Elsey, and ask her a few questions about the clinic and the laser hair removal procedures they do there.

What is LaserLife’s history with hirsutism? What prompted LaserLife to want to assist women suffering from hirsutism and transwomen?

Lizzie: For over 10 years we have been carrying out hair removal on the face for many women whom get fantastic results, however this isn’t always the case when suffering with a condition such as PCOS. The impact it can have on a woman and her confidence can be devastating. We felt that even though their result will be amazing, they would always need constant treatment due to the hormonal imbalance within the body. So we accept we can’t cure hair growth, but we will try everything we can to control it for even up to 12 weeks, in some cases. For this reason, as treatment is ongoing for these clients, we like to make life as easy as possible. We understand the expense of having laser, but also not wanting to walk around with a beard.

What prompted you to work in the laser hair removal industry? Do you have any personal experience with hirsutism, or know someone else who does?

Lizzie: My Great Aunt suffered really bad. Her hairs are grey now, so unfortunately they can’t be treated, but she would have if she had been aware of what was available to her. She just didn’t know her options.

Does it take any sort of specialized training or certification to do laser hair removal?

Lizzie: Yes – NVQ level 3/4 and extensive training and written exam by machine company.

Who is the ideal candidate for laser hair removal?

Lizzie: Light skin and dark hair.

How many women do you generally consult with (weekly/monthly/annually) who are suffering with hirsutism?

Lizzie: On average about 3 a week.

Do you have any advice for women suffering from hirsutism?

Lizzie: Yes, everyone’s different and will be affected in different ways. Some women deal with acne, some with hair growth, some have both, and then you have scarring and pigment which can be on ongoing cycle. Here, we will look at you as a whole and have the ability to combat any issue in any skin type. We would design a package to target all concerns. Again, no, we can’t provide a cure, but we can have you at the best version of you!

For more information regarding laser hair removal, please visit LaserLife Clinic’s website here as well as their Facebook page.

I would like to thank LaserLife Clinic for reaching out to me. The fact that word of my story has spread to other countries shouldn’t be as surprising as it is, considering technology these days, but hearing from other women in my situation, or the people helping them, makes my goal to spread awareness and help women more important than ever.

I would especially like to thank every one who has read or shared my blog or even donated to The Bearded Ladies Foundation. I can’t tell you how heartening the support I’ve received has been. I feel like a weight’s been lifted off my chest after “coming out” about my own hirsutism, and it’s my hope that more and more women will begin to know the same love and acceptance.

If you have any questions, or would like to see a topic discussed here, please feel free to leave feedback in the comment section or email me directly at Brie2230@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you!

As always, stay fabulous!

-Brianne

[DONATE HERE]