A story about a woman and a beard

WurstLately I heard some people calling the Eurovision a freak show, a circus –“What has become of it?”- They utter with a sneer. While it is true that each one of us is entitled to an opinion, only in a perfect world the opinion will be based on real facts, some common logic and lack of hypocrisy. The even more worrying reality is that so call critic was made towards a flesh and blood female, having an anomaly in the form of a beard. Hence, dear Miss Conchita Wurst (with its amusing literal translation Vagina Sausage) was thought of being a bearded woman (if there are some who do not know still, she’s a drag queen). However, all jokes aside, this, in my opinion, is much worse than the reality, for to critic someone for being born one way or another is much more cruel than towards one who chose a certain lifestyle and line of work. Aparently, though there is much difference between the two kinds of bearded ladies, for some, their image can create the same effect.

My love of art revealed an interesting painting to me that can be used as an example for this post.

12. José de Ribera. La mujer barbuda

The Bearded Lady is a painting by the Spanish artist José de Ribera (made in 1631). Ribera spent a long time of his life in Naples, where he saw this woman on two different occasions. The woman is identified by the engraving on the rock (on the right hand side) as Mrs. Magdalena Ventura. However, it seems that Rivera tried to exacerbate and captive the viewer by the shape of the breast (more to the middle of her body) and the fact that she is represented nursing a baby. The engravings say that at the time of the portrait Mrs. Ventura was 52 years old, thus, making the representation a little more unreal. Therefore, by using the breast and the baby to emphasis the feminine nature of Magdalena, Rivera succeeded in making a greater impact on the viewer.

This was Rivera’s way to bring forth a social problem. Civil protection for the disabled or for those suffering some deformities did not exist in the society of the Spanish Golden Age. In fact, Freak shows were for many of years the center of attention and derision for those considered ordinary.

Without going into the philosophical studies on the perspective of the “Other” (work such as Levinas, Foucault etc.), it is interesting to reflect on the way we acknowledge those people. Somewhere in between rejection and fascination we try to capture the malformation mixed with our imagination. This phenomenon was more popular in circuses, but later the same idea was marketed into what was perceived as the human zoos, town fairies and vaudevilles. The common people paid good money to be fascinated by people with rarities and amorphous (bearded lady, bowlegged…), feeling attraction and rejection simultaneously.

The fact of the matter is that “bearded women” are suffering from a complicated medical condition called virilization (or masculinization) that can be developed because of excess of testosterone production or use of anabolic steroids. In girls who are going through puberty or adult women there are more than few causes for such a difficult hormonal imbalance, for example polycystic ovarian syndrome, certain medications or anabolic steroids, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, tumors of the ovaries or adrenal glands that release male hormones. The tumor (one of different gonadal sex cord-stromal tumors) is known as “androblastoma” or “arrhenoblastoma”. One of the most frequent signs that appears as a result of this imbalance is hirsutism which implies hair in women in the so-called androgen – sensitive areas (upper lip, cheeks, chin, around the areola of the breasts, breast, central line of the abdomen, gluteal area and the upper third of the thigh from the inside), places where the hair in women normally do not occur, and represents secondary sexual characteristics of males. Beside hirsutism, women who are suffering from this kind of hormonal imbalance have irregular menstrual periods, their skin changes its’ structure frequently becoming more oily and with acnes. However, signs of virilization in a female depend on the level of testosterone in the body, so in a more difficult condition they can develop deepening of the voice, loss of female fat distribution, male muscle pattern and occasionally enlargement of the clitoris also can occur. For the women that truly suffer this imbalance, this can be a nuisance and uncomfortable from an early age.

Being a drag queen homosexual or a person with any kind of abnormality, there is no sufficient reason for any kind of remark or fear. Both are people with dreams, desires and most certainly a story (and quite a difficult one, I presume). While the more conservative are also the more religious and as a recent study by David Pizarro shows, also the more disgust, they seems to be the last to follow their own rule of love thy neighbor and do not judge other etc. It would probably be better if we look at what’s inside and less on physical decoration (by choice or by birth) and accept some of the diversity that make our world so worthwhile with honesty and love.

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