While I was waiting in Denver Airport for a connecting flight to Santa Barbara, I popped into the restroom and there before me was a woman with a beard. Not just facial fuzz, but a full jaw's breadth of manicured hair. My natural assumption was that this person was a man who'd gone through the wrong door, until we got to talking.
Instantly, my mind raced to put her into context: you see bearded ladies at circuses, not airport loos. But it turned out Jennifer did, in fact, work in a circus -- her own: 12 people, one ring.
But that is the only predictable element in her story, a story she told me right there among the rushing travelers and flushing toilets.
Jennifer was raised by her mother and grandmother, both dynamic, non-conformist educators, to believe that it was important and beautiful to be who you are. So when she first grew a little facial hair in her late teens, she left it and withstood the stares and whispers. At 20, a brush with electrolysis felt like self-mutilation and strengthened Jennifer's conviction that her beard was a learning curve, rather than a curse.
Now Jennifer is in her mid-30s. Unsurprisingly, life has not been easy. She withdrew from the mainstream world in her 20s, turning her back on college and career paths. So she is ill-equipped to follow in her mother's footsteps and teach, much as she'd like to.
Besides, the beard would make it hard, just as it turns public places into an ordeal. Jennifer has taken to using the men's bathroom -- fewer questions asked. Or she'll take a female friend into the ladies' room so people will hear her talking and know from her voice that she's a woman.
I can sense you thinking, why bother? Just shave the damn thing off and life would be so much easier. I thought of the women I met in Japan who shave their faces every day with tiny little pink razors, to ensure smoothness and grip for their foundation. If they can shave every day for so little a perceived social benefit, why wouldn't Jennifer do the same to ease the social strain?
Well, she has ... once or twice. She says the experience left her feeling even more self-conscious, as though she would be perceived as vain, trying to hide her imperfections and not really doing a very good job of it.
As she is, Jennifer is absolutely herself, just the way God planned her, and profoundly independent and dignified with it, though you'll also be pleased to know she has a sense of humor about her lot in life and isn't boringly earnest about it.
I loved her take on her life, and I felt lucky as we parted that, in my 50s, I could learn something from the way this seemingly radically different woman has chosen to express herself as a feminist. There is no male counterpart for such insights.