“It’s not easy being different”: Harnaam Kaur on overcoming bullying and embracing her natural beauty

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British-born Harnaam Kaur, suffered bullying throughout her childhood because she had what many other women didn't: a beard. At age 11, Kaur began to grow a lot of body hair as a result of her Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. After suffering through a range of hair removal methods, Kaur decided to embrace her natural look. Now, aged 25, she is a model and body image activist, teaching other women to love themselves. Here, Kaur tells her story.

I’ve always been bullied, even as far back as nursery.

Over the years I was taunted for my weight and the colour of my skin. Then when I turned 11, the bullies found something new to pick on.

As I hit puberty I started developing facial hair. I wasn’t aware of it until the bullies pointed it out and it became the focus of their abuse - something that, more than a decade later, I am still subjected to every day. The doctor gave me an ultrasound which revealed that I have polycystic ovary syndrome, one of the symptoms of which is excess hair.

I spent a lot of time and effort trying to get rid of it. By the age of 12 I had tried every form of hair removal going: shaving, bleaching, creams, threading and painful waxing. My sensitive skin was left ripped and bleeding, with burns and scabs caused by the hot wax. Despite all of my efforts the bullying didn’t stop; no matter what I did, I couldn’t win. School was absolute hell and the only safe haven was my bedroom.  My friends told me to ignore it, but it’s impossible to ignore being abused every day of your life.

The more I attempted to remove the hair, the more it grew, and the relentless bullying got even worse.  It was incredibly hard, I felt beaten down emotionally and ended up self harming. One day I remember thinking: 'Today is the day that I want to take my life'.

That was when the turning point came.

The more I attempted to remove the hair, the more it grew, and the relentless bullying got even worse. 

It takes a lot of negative energy to get to a stage where you are considering suicide. But I decided to take that energy and turn it into something positive. We all have inner strength and I had to draw on mine to move forward and focus on living for myself. Around the age of 16, I stopped trying to get rid of the hair and started to grow it out. This led to an increase in bullying by the public. I get comments and sniggers everyday when I’m out and about, but I choose to look at is as fleeting occurrences that are only a couple of seconds of my life. I also know that a lot of comments are made because people are ignorant, they don’t know about polycystic ovary syndrome and its effects.

As I was growing up I loved watching America’s Next Top Model, but I remember thinking that I looked nothing like the women on the programme. In 2014 an article about me was published which went viral and resulted in photographers getting in touch and asking to shoot me. At first I wasn’t confident or comfortable in front of the camera, but steadily I began to enjoy myself. Things really took off and earlier this year I did my first catwalk at the Marianna Harutunian Royal Fashion Day show. I’ve been laughed at many times about my modelling prospects, so it was amazing being a bearded lady and opening the show for such an incredible designer.

I'm more keen than ever to discuss the topic of model diversity. This is a subject that I’m really passionate about. I have been campaigning for industry change, working with people like Tess Holliday to call for an end to the notion of the one beauty ideal that we see across the board, and to encourage people to post images and celebrate the way they look. I feel the industry is starting to change, but there’s a lot more it can do. Fashion houses don’t need to make size zero clothing, anyone who wears clothes is into fashion, so it shouldn’t be for one certain type of person.

I get nasty messages online all the time, and even death threats, but I also get people around the world contacting me to share their stories and to seek advice. There are many layers to my story and a lot that people can connect to; whether it’s a woman with facial hair and/or polycystic ovary syndrome, someone who has suffered racist abuse or anyone who has been bullied, self harmed or felt suicidal. Fighting to end all bullying is incredibly important to me.

If a girl asks me whether she should get rid of her facial hair or embrace it, like I did, I tell her it is a personal choice. She will need to be strong to stand up in the face of bullies, she also needs to consider ultimately what will make her happiest..It’s not easy being different, but it is possible and you can still achieve your dreams, I’m proof of that.

Harnaam is taking part in a debate about Model Diversity, chaired by fashion commentator Caryn Franklin MBE, at Southbank Centre's new festival, Fashion Undressed with MasterCard. The festival, which celebrates real fashion for real people, takes place at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 July.