Five years ago, someone said I had a beard.
By “beard,” I mean the thin and thick blonde and brown hair that’s been sprouting all over my cheeks, chin, and neck since childhood. And by “someone,” I mean an anonymous online commenter. (Yeah. That’s how all this began.)
I was living in Portland, Maine, at the time with my college boyfriend, and he started a food blog that became relatively well-known. One day, a reader — angered over something my boyfriend had cooked or baked or written or done — posted a spew of insults on his site. It ended with “ . . . and his bearded girlfriend.”
I think we’ve all experienced moments like these, when an outsider ridicules us and we take it as truth. It’s like signing on the dotted line; it’s a crossing over.
"Who posted this?" I asked. My boyfriend seemed to know but was reluctant to say.
“It has to be W,” he responded after many minutes. W was a friend of his from high school. “He used to make fun of me when you and I started dating. You know. About the hair on your face.”
Wait . . . what?
Here are hair removal tactics I’ve tried in the years since: Tweezing. Shaving. Waxing. Trimming. Bleaching. And sometimes just sitting around feeling bummed, which turns out not to be any kind of tactic at all.
My boyfriend and I eventually split up and I moved home to North Carolina, but that one silly comment had already formed roots in my fragile early-20s ego. The hair on my face, which is mostly blonde and fairly inconspicuous compared to darker-haired women, had never before factored into my existence. I noticed it, but it wasn’t that bad. Right?
Now with each new man I met or dated, I worried: Is he looking at it — my beard? I felt weak when I caught someone scanning my face as we chatted, and just straight-up sad when I was in the proximity of a woman with clear, smooth skin.
My ongoing battle with acne didn’t help. A close friend suggested I talk with her stepmother, a dermatologist, but I had been talking with dermatologists for years. When I finally caved, I discovered a knowledgeable, caring, and thorough doctor. My friend’s stepmother took one good, gentle look at my face during our first appointment and asked if I had ever heard of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. A few weeks later I was on my back at a women’s clinic, a technician nodding, pointing to my spotted ovaries on the screen above.
Here are a few of the comments I’ve allowed men to make about my body since leaving Maine:
You need a boob job.
You have no ass.
You’re just skin and bones.
It seems innocent enough to let one nasty remark — one anonymous nasty remark — hurt, but accept it as truth and nurse it, and you leave an empty spot for more.
At least I have an explanation, I thought. PCOS! Hormones! But it didn’t really make me feel any better, and it didn’t make anything any easier.
My face had become an obsession. Every pimple that formed distanced me from my clear-skinned adult counterparts, and every hair plucked shoved me further from the door marked WOMANHOOD. When a porcelain-skinned dermatologist’s assistant told me one afternoon that I needed simply to be kind to myself, years of grief rose and I erupted in tears.
I began dating someone new in North Carolina and in time we moved in together. Often I would think about a roommate from college who sat each morning in front of a magnified mirror casually plucking hairs from her chin. Even when her boyfriend came to visit, her routine remained the same: She’d sit on the bed and tweeze, and her boyfriend would sit next to her — next to her — and read.
That’s love, I’d think wistfully, slinking out of bed with my boyfriend each morning, tiptoeing to the bathroom, closing the door, sometimes even locking it.
My acne was worse than ever in the year we were together (a fact that had nothing to do with my boyfriend), but in bed sometimes I could feel him considering me: My splotchy, hairy skin; my childish, unwomanly face.
On occasion I would open up about these insecurities — these paranoias — wanting so desperately to just share them and let them go, but he never seemed sure of what to say, not wanting to say the wrong thing. Often he remained silent.
One evening I showed up for an appointment with my esthetician, a small, forthright woman who was fast and efficient but always prodded me about my facial hair. “When are you going to let me wax this?” she’d say, waving toward my face. “You’d look so much better without it. More feminine.”
I always said no, increasingly unbothered by her statements, but that night I said yes, okay. Sure. Maybe I would look better?
Within minutes my hair was gone, but for weeks afterward I watched as my skin turned red and raw, broke out, peeled, crusted over, fell off, and crusted over again. It was physically apparent to everyone now just how hard on myself I had been. I avoided mirrors at all costs.
Back at home, my boyfriend encouraged me to venture into the light, go downtown, go for a bike ride. Forget about my ravaged face! This was his way of showing love, of telling me that none of it mattered. And so out we went, but I couldn’t let it go.
Sometime after that, I was holed up in my apartment watching Hanna for the hundredth time (stay with me . . . ). Everything from my neck up was still splotchy and crusty and in repair. And I was tired.
There is a scene in the movie when Hanna is sitting around a fire with a young family she met on the road. The daughter, Hanna’s age, is yakking about boob jobs, when she pauses to turn to her (naturally beautiful, of course) mother.
“Mum is against plastic surgery,” she explains to Hanna with teenage disdain. “Mum doesn’t even wear makeup.”
“I don’t,” her mother says. “I think it’s dishonest. This is my face. Take it or leave it.”
Hearing this felt so much like reading that anonymous comment five years ago: Someone said something, and I believed it. This is my face, I’d think walking out the door on mornings when I felt less than perfect. Take it or leave it.
I never made an appointment with my esthetician again, and when my dermatologist suggested electrolysis, I gave a kind but firm no. In time, I moved to Minneapolis without my boyfriend, but when he came to visit something felt different, at least for me.
The anxiety and needless self-loathing that had prevented me from relaxing next to him in bed, on a walk, or in the bright glare of morning light wasn’t there. This is my face, I’d think, anchoring myself to reality, and to the beginnings of self-acceptance. Take it or leave it.
It took years for my obsession to cool and to realize that no one had ever left me on account of my hairy face or would. All this time, picking myself apart in the mirror each morning, I had done the leaving. What a joy now to look and to want to keep what I see.