Some years ago, in the spirit of Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair, Dick & I dressed up as Prima Ballerinas.
Some years ago, in the spirit of Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair, Dick & I dressed up as Prima Ballerinas, all pink netting tutus, green tights & flowers in our hair – Strawberry Fools was one name we gave ourselves.
I should explain that, from the back, Dick looked the very Super-Model, a bit down on her luck & doing a panto season – long chestnut mane down his back, snake-hipped, willowy, leggy, in a silly outfit. Dick also has a huge unkempt auburn beard, from the front he looked more like a Biblical Patriarch on acid (as usual). I am female, short, dark & raddled, I have bum-fluff on my chin that a 15 year old boy would be proud of & an enormous hairy mole on my upper lip that forms a half-moustache. The Bearded Ladies was another name we toyed with that day.
Obviously, on one level, we were consciously following a long & widespread folkloric tradition: guising & cross-dressing are common components of fairs & feast days across the world. In Europe, the figure of “The Lord of Misrule” advocates the temporary lifting of social restrictions & breaching taboos: he represents conversity, obversity & perversity, just for one day. Think of the rites in the film The Wicker Man to get the idea. “Cut some capers, use your bladder, Man” snarls a dragged-up Christopher Lee to Edward Woodward’s Punch-figure – a Lord of Misrule outfit if ever there was.
On another level, we were just trying to make a spectacle of ourselves, to make our friends laugh. Like I said “in the spirit of Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair”. We certainly did get some attention in our chaotic costumes. Dick spent almost the whole day posing for photographers, huddles of Japanese men, boys flashing the features of their mobile photo phones, hordes of young scantily-clad women with bras full of ideas. We even got our photo in the local paper, from the waist up only, with the caption “Flower Children” underneath, covering our skirts.
As the fair progressed it began to become clear that we were playing with gender differentiation, as expressed through superficial appearance, in a way that was still taboo, even in the 21st century.
In the late afternoon, as we relaxed in deckchairs, a bunch of beer boys passed by us “Oooh, she’s gorgeous” grunts one. “It’s a fucking bloke” squawks another “It is, he’s got a beard”, “He’s got hairy legs”, “You’re fucking sick, mate” one is shouting. It’s looking a bit confrontational, so I get fish-wifey “yeah, he’s got a beard & hairy legs & hairy armpits, & so have I”. “Fucking disgusting” now they’re screaming. I fold my arms over my head exposing my hairy armpits & I run at them. They scatter, chased off by a hairy girl. I am elated. I feel like an ancient Celt frightening the Romans with my woaded nudity. The power of feminine body hair to elicit horror & overcome enemies fills me with delight. I am always joyous when I stumble on something that really causes a recoil, & it seems to me that female armpit hair freaks them even more than a bloke in a frock.
That female hairiness is & was largely taboo is evident in the scarcity of depictions of unshaven women. Mostly we are given only negative stereotypes, separatist feminists in dirty dungarees, for example.
In Socialist playwright Edward Bond’s 1968 masterpiece “Early Morning” nineteenth century hypocrisy was satirised by playing Queen Victoria as a murderous predatory lesbian, whose lover – Florence Nightingale – titillates herself with the image of the Queen’s legs “covered in shiney black hairs”. The Victoria character is hardly a role model for us hairy marys, particularly as at the denouement of the play all the cast have died & ascended to a “heaven” where Queen Victoria maintains “Peace & Happiness, Law & Order, Consent & Co-operation” through acts of compulsory cannibalism. Primarily, the play is a comment on concepts of “Empire”, what we nowadays would call “globalisation”, but the depiction of a socially-powerful mature woman with hairy legs finds resonances in ancient myths.
The Queen of Sheba, a powerful woman “possessed of every virtue & of splendid throne”, is thought to have been the mother of Menelek – the founder of Ethiopia, from whom Haile Selassie is said to have been a direct descendant. She was contemporaneous with King Solomon, who on hearing of her wealth & power assumed she was a djinn or evil spirit, which means, get this, that she has hairy legs “like a wild ass or a wild goat”. So, Solomon contrives to see her naked legs. Ean Begg in The Cult of The Black Virgin relates two variants on this story. In one Solomon arranges mirrors on the floor in order to see up her skirts. In another he builds a bridge from the wood of the holy cross over a stream, the djinn finds the bridge abhorrent & so lifts her skirts to wade across the stream, thus displaying her unshorn legs. Up to this point the story is offensive both in its assumption that a self-possesed woman must be evil, & in its use of female hair as an indicator of that evil.
The story has Solomon then restoring her “limbs to the pristine comliness by means of a special depilatory he has prepared”, symbolic of the conquest of her untamed natural state. To add insult to injury, Solomon seduces Sheba at this point & they conceive Menelek, as mentioned previously.
The Upside of female hairiness really lies in its ability to frighten & repel, particularly men. While discussing this, Dick described to me an erotic medieval woodcut he’d once seen. Entitled “The Devil in a Fright” it apparently showed a woman terrorising a horned demon by lifting her skirts to him, the message presumably being that the hidden parts of women are even scarier than the devil, the very Prince of Darkness himself quakes at the sight of hairy legs. Another, literally miraculous, example occurs in the story of St. Wilgeforce of Beauvais. The piece below is drawn from extracts of my own 1999 diary:
A hangover-Sunday in Beauvais, Northern France. The hot summer sun is too bright. We’re looking for shadows, coffee, an astronomical clock in the Gothic cathedral, a canonised bearded-lady & the road to Amiens. In that order.
The bars are full, god knows what time it is. Afternoon? Everybody is ebullient, drinking, betting on a televised horse race that is belting across the bar, everybody is shouting, everything is in French.
And the guided tour of the astronomical clock, the one that is locked behind railings in the truncated nave of the stubby Gothic cathedral? They want a coupla quid to unlock the gate, but it’s not worth it. It’s in French, & the translator’s headphones aren’t working. That’s what they say. So we sit down in the cathedral-cold shadows & try to remember life-before-this-hangover. We need to be in Amiens by nightfall, in order to make Laon for the eclipse. God knows what time it is, what day it is. The astronomical clock knows, but its not doing English today. I’m bored, I’m hungover, I’m hungry. We need food, bread, a picnic, now. The bearded-lady-saint is lost in a flurry of food foraging, culminating in a half-closed bakery selling us dry rolls. There’s half a bag of salted peanuts in the bottom of my rucksack, so we’re off looking for shade again, where to sit & scoff our fine feast.
It is then that we stumble across Eglise St-Etienne & Wilgeforce the Bearded returns with full force.
The story of St. Wilgeforce
Before she was a saint, Wilgeforce was a poor peasant girl living in 16th century Beauvais, in some distant barbaric past, when women – wives & daughters – were universally perceived as the property of men – husbands & fathers. Some extremely wealthy & powerful, but also violent & ugly local petty-baron takes a shine to Wilgeforce & her father agrees the marriage. Wilgeforce is powerless to reject the petty-baron: his money & power are very attractive to her father.
In desperation to escape clammy marital bondage to a slimy & unpleasant man, Wilgeforce prays to the Virgin Mary to save her.
In the morning when Wilgeforce wakes up, she has grown a full-frontal beard. Oh, miracle, miracle of miracles!
The petty-baron decides he no longer fancies Wilgeforce, so her family crucify her then burn her as a witch.
That is how I remember it from the half-digested snippets from a number of misinformed proprietary guidebooks I’d read.
Here we were in Eglise St-Etienne, eating peanuts beneath the icon of St. Wilgeforce. Over by the altar there is some kinda sinister Christian Sabbath ritual going on. I don’t want to see it, it gives me the creeps.
Before we leave I stand & contemplate St. Wilgeforce’s statue, arms outstretched, crucified in an alcove of Eglise St-Etienne. I can’t decide if the statue is of a bearded woman or a Christ with tits in a frock. I bow my head in supplication to St. Wilgeforce, with her scrubby charcoally beard. She who was crucified for crimes against Immac™. Who revealed herself in her hirsute splendour. Hail unto thee. Blessed blessed be.
The uplifting message in this tale pivots on female hairiness as a symbolic throwing off of the shackles of patriarchal convention. Bored of your boyfriend? Grow a beard & watch him run.
Twentieth century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo positively celebrated her own excess facial hair – a so-called mono-brow, in numerous of her self-portraits she accentuates it almost into the brow of a third eye, a bindi, an organ of inner sight, pituitary gland. In European culture the ‘one-eyebrow’ insult is almost exclusively directed at men; like one-eyebrow, hairy backs and hairy shoulders are perceived as masculine uglinesses, an area I certainly don’t want to explore. Kahlo’s facial hairiness comes partly out of supposed ancient Aztec notions of female beauty that revered female facial hair. But as Kahlo was only Mexican on her mother’s side, the accentuation of facial hairiness may also grow out of Kahlo’s own experiments with gender differentiation, cross-dressing & bi-sexuality. Family photographs from the 1920’s show Kahlo posing, dressed in a man’s suit. Her 1940 painting “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” revisits that photograph, using the image as a typically flamboyant symbolic rejection of her own femininity & its perceived weaknesses. In the painting Kahlo’s head hair is cropped tight to the scalp, hanks of floppy discarded hair litter the floor. Kahlo herself is seated on a chair in an aggressive masculine pose. Don’t mess with me, hijo de puta.
Similarly, the radical lesbian photographer, Della Grace, championed this theatrical masculine posturing during the drag-king craze of the early 1990’s. If I remember aright, drag-kings were gangs of beautiful light-hearted lesbian women who invaded clubs dressed in men’s suits. They greased back their hair, stuffed paunches under their shirts, packed dildos in their pants & faked or grew facial hair. They were playing with notions of gender identity, & having a laugh. Della Grace immersed herself in this scene & photographed it from within. When asked how she came to grow a moustache herself, she replied that she just stopped plucking it.
In the late 1990’s Susan Schuur interviewed “gender-ambiguous” Jennifer Miller – a woman with a beard – for her article “Transgressive Hair: The Last Frontier”. Jennifer, an American-Jewish musician, has been consciously growing her beard for at least ten years. For a long time “it was sort of taboo” & not mentioned even by her closest friends. She once worked in a fairground as “Zenobia the bearded lady”, which she describes as “heavy”. Of how her appearance has affected her life she says “I did not bloom overnight into proud beard ownership…it was not clear at the beginning that this was going to be a beard.. (it).. grew very slowly, so I had a long time to think & change alongside it”. She says “It is appropriate, important, beautiful to be who you are”. And “Having a beard has given me cause to become radical…as I get older, I get more committed to the beard. Its fibers are deeply woven with who I am. The cost of giving it up now is a cost of selfhood. I am wearing this beard as a political act, because I have some hopes for a changed cultural future. I wear the beard because I intend to effect change with it…I couldn’t maintain this very difficult thing if I wasn’t coming at it from many angles: a subversive act, a teaching tool, a life-long conceptual artpiece, it’s who I am”.
My own claim to this august heritage is my “Crone Hair” or “Witch’s Wart” – the large hairy mole on my upper lip that looks like a half-moustache. I sometimes tug at it impatiently saying “must dash”. It makes me laugh now, this wasn’t always the case. In my mid-twenties I decisively stopped shaving my armpits & legs, I saw shaving as a pointless & thankless attempt to conform to unrealistic & objectionable ideals of feminine appearance. Still, like most women I have spent much of my life in a state of mild shame at my facial hair, vainly attempting to conceal it. Then I woke up.