A woman has told how, after two decades of shaving to hide her beard, she is finally proud of it – and even styles it with ribbons.
Since she was just 14, Little Bear Schwarz – who legally changed her name from Renee – has been shaving, waxing and undergoing laser treatment to get rid of her unwanted fuzz.
For years she would get up early to shave, ensuring boyfriends wouldn’t see her stubble.
Then two years ago, the 33-year-old finally learnt to embrace her facial hair, after winning a beard competition.
Since then, Miss Schwarz has had people stare at her and even question whether she’s a woman.
But despite the cruel comments, she refuses to go back to her old life of daily shaving.
‘I’ve had a taste of being myself and I can’t go back to how I was,’ she says. ‘I’m proud of my beard and work hard to keep it soft. I put ribbons in it and make it in to spikes or shape it to look like tentacles.’
Miss Schwarz, from Seattle, USA, was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) when she was 31 years old.
She’d suffered with excessive hair growth – a major symptom of the condition – for 17 years by then.
However, as doctors couldn’t find any cysts when they ran ultrasound scans, the diagnosis wasn’t immediately obvious.
When she first started growing hair on her upper lip, chin and chest at 14, Miss Schwarz had begun shaving regularly.
‘Keeping it wasn’t an option,’ she says. ‘I would shave in the shower as I didn’t want to see myself doing it.
‘I was very secretive about it – women shouldn’t have facial hair.’
She considered the option of laser treatment or waxing – but lasers were too expensive, and she didn’t want to leave her hair to grow out until it was long enough to wax.
Therefore, she always went back to shaving, even waking up early if she was staying at a boyfriend’s house to rid herself of stubble before he saw it.
‘I did a lot of dating,’ she says. ‘I played a game of, “Let’s make sure they never see my stubble.”’
In September 2013, Miss Schwarz met a new boyfriend – now ex – and he seemed to accept her for who she was, facial hair and all.
After six months, she moved 3,000 miles from Florida to Seattle to live with him, and felt like she was in a place – mentally and physically – where she could start growing her beard.
‘In Seattle, I was working from home, so didn’t need to shave for work. I felt like I was safe to try growing my hair.
‘Seattle seemed more progressive and welcoming than Florida too.
‘My ex accepted me. I even joked with him that he couldn’t grow a good beard.’
She’d seen a TV show called Whisker Wars a couple of years earlier, about people competing to grow the longest beard.
And after researching it further, she learned of a local competition for bearded ladies called Whiskerinas.
‘I didn’t realise the competition was actually for crafty beards,’ she says. ‘Everyone else had made papier mache and knitted beards.
‘I turned up and thought I’d have the worst beard there, but I was an instant hit.
‘When I won, I felt like it was a sign I should carry on.’
Miss Schwarz quickly realised she could make a career out of having a beard.
‘At the competition I met the Wreckless Freeks, who are a circus sideshow troupe. They realised I had a real beard and asked, ‘Do you want to join our sideshow?’
With no circus experience, she spent six months learning the show. Having enjoyed singing at school, she decided to incorporate opera and burlesque into her act.
Now, she has been performing with the Wreckless Freeks for two years.
‘At the start, friends and family feared my involvement would be degrading, or I’d be a spectacle, but I’m happy to show myself off,’ she explains. ‘People are accepting and like what we do.
‘I’m proud of who I am.’