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Think about puberty. Think back to those weird, scary years.
You, on the edge of young adulthood, examining the virginal hairs sprouting from your underarms and your groin. Remember the fascination, the fear. The confused excitement combined with self-disgust.
Now imagine being that age, and everyone in your classroom is able to see those new foreign parts of you—except it's something no one else your age or gender is dealing with.
You're a 12-year-old girl, and you have a beard.
As you grow older, you try waxing, shaving, tweezing, and endless attempts at other hair removal methods, but, like some cruel joke embedded in your biological design, the punch line persists.
Meet Harnaam Kaur.
The 26-year-old London, UK-native is now a body activist, model, and life coach. She's a fiercely passionate force, and she's reclaiming her self-worth while paving a revolutionary road for a western world engrossed in physical insecurities and brainwashed beauty standards.
I've been following Kaur on Instagram for more than a year now and wanted to speak to the inspiring person behind the Insta-handle. But despite her open-book social media presence, her seemingly-confident exterior (she has a tattoo of her own face on her leg), and her near-80,000 Instagram followers, Kaur still gets bullied, fields death threats on a daily basis, and is learning to love herself completely.
VICE: So for those who don't know, could you describe what polycystic ovary syndrome is?
Harnaam Kaur: Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition where the woman's level of sex hormones—estrogen and progesterone—are off balance. Which leads to cysts and growths on the ovaries, which are benign masses. And that can cause problems with women's menstrual cycles, fertility, and cardiac function. Some of the side effects are things like diabetes, weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, alopecia, and facial hair.
When were you diagnosed with this?
I was very young. I would have been around 12 years old, so just a little bit before I hit my teenage years.
What age did you start to notice you had facial hair?
I was in grade six—I would have been about ten or 11 years old.
How did you deal with that? Sort of realizing that there was something that set you apart from other girls your age?
I had trouble dealing with all the bullying. There was not really a way in which I could block them out. I thought, Well, OK, you're getting bullied for your facial hair so why don't you try removing it? [But] then I was hitting a brick wall—I was being bullied for having facial hair, and now I was being bullied for removing it. I used to tweeze, wax, thread, shave, [tried] different hair creams, but it just didn't work because you know, I have this condition and if I try to remove my hair, it just grows back.
So when did you really learn to embrace your body for what it is?
I'm still on that journey right now. I'm always evolving. I can't exactly say, "Yes, right now, I accept myself for me." This condition changes my body in different ways, [and] it takes me time to get used to it, and I'm still on that journey of accepting and embracing my body. But I'm a lot more loving towards my body than I was a good ten years ago.
How did the ultra-perpetuated western beauty norms affect your self-worth growing up?
The media portray women to be a certain way, and it's heartbreaking. When you look at women and think, Wow, women are different shapes and sizes, and the color of their skin is different and those are just our physical traits were talking about. It's just a shame that I'd have to look in magazines and not find women that represented me. It's a shame that women and teenagers and people of all generations still have to face body-shaming and bullying just because of the way they look.
And have you found any difficulty or tension forming friendships or romantic relationships?
Oh yeah. Having a beard, you know—I actually love her [my beard] by the way, so I'm not blaming her at all—but having a beard, it stopped me from a lot of things. I should've been going to parties when I was younger, experiencing all those things that teenagers normally do, but I was really introverted and she stopped me from experiencing different things. She stopped me from doing a lot of things [and] I still find certain relationships difficult to handle. But it's great, because she has connected me to people in my life that I see as loving and compassionate, that's what I'm drawn to.
When you speak about your beard, you personify her as a she. When did you start doing that? Is that something you came up with to personify it and cope with it?
I think it's just quite disrespectful to call someone "it." I thought, well, how do you talk to a person in a loving way? I thought, stop calling your beard an "it"—she's not an "it." She's something on your body that you embrace and love. So, I've given her a name and a persona, just for self-respect reasons.
Today, you're a life coach, a body positive activist, and an anti-bullying activist—what sort of bullying did you endure growing up and still endure today?
Today, it's more cyber-bullying. [People] sitting behind their computers and saying whatever they want to say. So, these days, it's mostly threats online. I get death threats as well. But in school, I had horrendous people calling [me] horrendous names, which I can look back on and laugh at now, because it's pathetic, but back then [it hurt].
Have you ever battled with suicidal thoughts?
Yeah. When I was being bullied in school, I was self-harming just because I hated my body for the way she was formed. I had huge hatred for my body, which lead to being very suicidal and having suicidal thoughts.
You posted a caption on Instagram recently saying you can't believe you haven't been shot or stabbed—have you actually received death threats like that because of the way you look?
Yeah, of course. My social media is open—available for anyone [to comment on or message me], so yeah, there are people online who think it's OK to send death threats.
When you get those messages, what is your reaction? How do you deal with that?
I laugh. I genuinely just laugh. I'm not afraid—that's one thing about me, I'm not scared, I'm not afraid. So when I do get these death threats or messages, I just laugh at them. They're empty threats and just people that are cowardice and have nothing better to do with their life. And I know that my work is way more superior than people's mental options and the comments they make at me, and that's what keeps me going—just knowing that my work is superior.
You have a tattoo of your face on your leg—is that correct?
When did you get that and why?
I got that [in the] summer of 2016. She represents the Dame. She's like my alter ego—the most high self-esteemed, confident, and strongest version of me. Then you have Harnaam Kaur, who is the most sociable, fun-loving person, and they come together to make me whole, if that makes sense. So she's kind of like an alter ego—my internal voice. Even the way she looks and the way her face is, the way she's posed. She is very confident, so that represents the Dame—my inner voice.
If we could all learn to love ourselves as much as you've learned to love yourself, the world would be much a better place.
Do you have any idols or people you look up to?
No. I actually like to take inspiration from different people's lives. I wouldn't say there's just one person I look up to. I like to experience different people, different cultures, backgrounds, and sexualities—so I take inspiration from everyone. I don't think there's one particular person.
If you could describe your relationship with your facial hair, how would you describe that now?
It's just love, that's all I can say really. I've just learned to love her and embrace and accept her. It's really weird because she's just hair—like hair on your head, or your arms, or your legs—but she stands out differently because she's on my face. I feel a lot stronger and liberated to be who I am and accept who I am freely. Having her on my face is almost like saying to society, "you portray, or paint men or women to look a certain way, well I'm here as a woman who's wearing something that's supposed to be—in quotations 'supposed to be'—a man's feature. But I'm here rocking it—rocking her—as a woman."
Would you say it's now more of a blessing than a curse?
One hundred percent. Absolutely. Like I said, I embrace her a lot more and love her a lot more than [I did] ten years ago, when I absolutely hated the fact that she was on my face. But now I've learned to embrace her and she's just part of my life now.
I'm sure, like anyone, you probably still have really bad days where you're not feeling so strong about yourself. Do you have a mantra or an anthem you turn towards to bring you back to superhero status?
See now, there's nothing wrong with having bad days. Within a month, I probably have a handful of bad days. And I allow myself to have them, because those are just negative emotions leaving your body. So I allow myself to cry, to stay in bed, eat chocolate, eat ice cream, and watch Netflix. There are days where I just don't even want to work, and I won't reply to emails until I feel better, because I only allow myself to work when I'm [feeling] 100 percent. I allow myself to have those down days, because once you reach rock-bottom, you can't really go any further—you can only shoot back up. So that's one thing I always have embedded in my heart—that you will always get back up. So if you feel down, just cry, it's OK to cry.
What would you say is the hardest part about being yourself?
Having to sacrifice a lot. I've had to build myself as an activist from the ground up, so the hardest part is balancing what I want in my life in regards to activism, but then there are things like, I would love to be in a relationship and have children, and be stable, and have a home, etcetera. But I concentrate a lot more on my work and changing people's lives and helping people embrace their life—so that part of my life [aspiring to have a home and kids], I've had to put on hold.
What is the best thing about being you?
Changing people's lives. Especially when people tell me things like they're not suicidal anymore or they're not self-harming anymore because of my message. The positive comments I get from parents about their children and what they learned from me—that's the main thing. That's what I live for.
I just want to thank you for the work you do. And I hope that you are part of this much-needed revolution that we need in this society.
I appreciate that so much. I live to break down stereotypes. I live to break down barriers. I was researching [recently] and [found out] I'm the only bearded lady that's been featured in Teen Vogue, and I want to work to pave the path for the next generation. There are so many other women who are going to have polycystic ovary syndrome and I want to be able to show them—regardless of what you look like [or] your disability or anything you have that's different on your body—[that] shouldn't stop you from achieving what you want to achieve.
Follow Hillary Windsor on Twitter.
Over the past few months, you may have seen commercials for a Phantom of the Opera-esque beauty treatment, a plastic mask full of glowing lights that promises clearer skin. Like glycolic acid peels or at-home laser hair removal, it is the latest product to act as a holy grail: something that was once relegated to the…
Bigger female bodies are being praised by the mainstream media and fashion industry now more than ever. Last year, Sports Illustrated put plus-size model Ashley Graham on its cover, a highly celebrated editorial move. It also recently featured another popular and curvaceous model, Hunter McGrady. Dove has long been a presence in the movement to show "real" bodies in its ad campaigns; brands like Lane Bryant and Aerie have followed.
It's impossible for me to peruse Instagram these days without feeling bombarded by accounts that sexualize women's curves, thickness, fatness—whatever you want to call it. In the comments on these alternative thirst traps lie a parade of heart-eye emojis and watery squirts meant to symbolize ejaculation. In a fucked-up way, that's what we fought for, isn't it? Yet something still feels off about it all. This brand of body positivity makes me feel left out, because there's something missing from most of these models' bodies: bellies.
The bodies I'm seeing touted by "woke" advertisements and body-positive campaigns tend to show women with larger thighs, fuller figures, bigger butts, and wider hips. That's all fine. But until we let the stomach join in on the fun, we have a long way to go when it comes to breaking free from problematic female beauty standards.
Of course, there are plus-size models with bellies, like Tess Holiday (who was proclaimed the "world's first size 22 supermodel" on a 2015 cover of People and has only seen more well-deserved success since). They're just vastly outnumbered by models with shapely hips and visible abs. Which makes me feel like shit, because I've always been a big-bellied lady.
I refer to my body type as "perpetually six months pregnant." Back when I gave a shit, every weight loss tactic I tried proved unsuccessful at getting rid of my gut. My family has tried desperately to help, too—for my 18th birthday, my mom bought me a Curves membership, thinking that was something I'd actually want. Ironic, seeing as my body type is largely determined by genetics, as most are.
Most women in my family are fellow members of the gaping gut committee. But that's never stopped me from blaming myself for my stomach—I'll admit that even when I began to embrace body positivity and my own curves, the one thing I still secretly wished I could get rid of was my gut. It was the albatross hanging around my waist. I ate nothing but quinoa and cabbage and wondered why it wouldn't just leave me alone.
My stomach was something I still tried to hide in photos. I designed entire outfits around it. I figured that was OK behavior as long as I took pride in the rest of my body—we all have something about ourselves we wish we could change, no matter how confident we feel otherwise, right? But after further self-reflection, I realized exactly why I hate my guts (literally): It was the one thing preventing me from looking like those inescapable plus-size bodies that have cropped up at every turn since the dawn of this decade. I was supposed to love my body, but I still wasn't the "right" kind of fat.
Sarah Murnen, a social psychologist and gender studies professor at Kenyon College in Ohio who has studied the sexualization of women over the past 25 years, said she believes that "body positivity" doesn't actually give rise to fatter bodies. Instead, it's given rise to what she calls the "curvaceous ideal," a bigger-sized body that's bigger in all the right places. "The curvaceous ideal is about being sexy," she explained.
The issue lies in the fact that these curvaceous bodies are often marketed as a progressive step forward for women while still managing to exclude body types like mine. That doesn't mean we should stop promoting those bodies—until the last decade or so, the rail-thin fit ideal has been pretty much all we'd see on TV and in magazines.
It would be good to see even more inclusivity, and this inclusivity has to come from us, women who don't fit that plus-size model mold. It can't come from companies with a product to sell or publications trying to be woke. And while some might argue that sexualizing the gut (or whatever other "undesirable" aspect of the female body we're not seeing promoted today) is just as problematic, the fact remains that we have to think deeper about how we differentiate sexual objectification from empowerment.
We can't feel ashamed when we want to feel desired, and it's not wrong to want sexual attention—I yearn for it pretty much all the time. In the past, I tried to get it by forcing my body into that plus-size ideal. I'd hide my gut (as well as my stretch marks, cellulite, and body hair) because I continued to fear how men would see them. It wasn't empowering, because I was still giving power to what I felt others wanted to see from my body. If things were truly up to me, my gut would have been the star of the show.
Now I present myself with a freed FUPA. My belly is no longer locked in captivity. I've been exposing my body, belly, and all.
I feel fuckable. And I like feeling fuckable on my own terms. I couldn't really care less about whether people dislike what they see. If you don't like it, then I'm not trying to fuck you, so your opinion is irrelevant.
Of course, people will be mean. If I've learned anything from being an opinionated woman online, it's that they'll tell you to stop and work hard to shit on your parade. But if we work together to support one another while they try—if we build one another up as we display our "unconventional" bodies—the negativity will drown out until all our bodies are conventional.
Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.
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