Bastian's battle against the stigma of female facial hair

Bastian Fox Phelan, 30, comes from a close-knit family, with relatives dotted along the east coast of NSW, including Wollongong, Sydney and Swansea. Bastian, who lives in Newcastle, works for a University of Sydney academic and has a side project, Moonsign, a band with partner Carlin McLellan.

Importantly, Bastian has buckled down to finish a research masters, with a focus on creative writing, with the end firmly in sight.

Bastian, who identifies as non-binary, will submit one chapter from the book, hopefully in the next few months, as the final submission for the masters. The next step will be to complete the book and find a publisher.

Even as artificial social boundaries are being knocked down in the modern world, Bastian’s story stands out as a unique perspective. Writing about a life lived as a woman with no apology for facial hair is nearly unexplored territory.

“I don’t think I have to be a warrior for it all the time,” Bastian says during an interview at the tiny Renew Newcastle space they (Bastian’s preferred pronoun) use, in the first story of a building in the Newcastle Mall. “But I definitely want to communicate through my image and my writing that it’s cool for women to have facial hair.”

Bastian was born with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS),  a common hormonal condition that affects around 12-20 per cent of girls and women in their reproductive years, according to the federal government’s healthdirect website. It may cause disruptions to the menstrual cycle, skin and hair changes, as well as cysts on the ovaries.

Bastian describes the unfinished book, with the working title Beard the Bully, as a “literary memoir”.  “It’s about a few things, I guess primarily about female facial hair and gender identity,” Bastian says.

Of course, the notion of acceptable female facial hair goes against cultural norms of today’s world. And doesn’t Bastian know it – having written about it in various publications over several years.

Four years ago Bastian took on the Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge to write a 50,000-word book in one month. “I wrote something that just was the biggest sort of brain dump about my life that’s ever been written,” Bastian says. “I basically put that draft in a drawer and never looked at it again, and then started writing some properly crafted stories.”

So, with the discipline of graduate program in creative writing, Bastian has been able to focus on the direction of the project.

“It is pretty much all drawn from my life,” Bastian says. “But because it’s not like, kind of a straight-up memoir in the way a lot of people write, it reads like fiction. The narrator is a character … less concerned with telling the whole truth and more constructing a story that is readable and reaches the truth in a deeper way. That’s why I call it a literary memoir. It’s more literature than an accurate, historical account.”

Two themes are unmistakable: self-acceptance and handling the stigma.

“I think self acceptance is definitely one of the main things,” Bastian says. “And you know, dealing with stigma … Stigma against females with facial hair is really high. People do harass you and they do make strange little comments or look at you in strange little ways. And it is something I definitely have to deal with. And it’s definitely not always easy.

“It’s interesting writing on it, which is focused on events on my life from a few years ago. And continuing to experience things I am writing about.

“The memoir is not confined to the past. The events continue to re-occur all the time.”

Bastian has been writing stories about Bastian’s facial hair and the social interactions and personal reactions and observations for a long time. In a story (Ladybeard: a ‘transhairstorical’ story) published in October 2010 Bastian writes about making the decision to start growing a beard when first moving away from home, and then creating a zine called Ladybeard about the experience. 

Bastian has published several zines, including a series, How To Be Alone, which began in 2012 Bastian decided to quit Facebook. “It’s about trying to figure out who you are in your own right rather than in relation to other people,” Bastian says. 

Bastian rejoined the Facebook world in 2015, but has gone off it while finishing the masters. “I can’t say I miss it. It’s just a distraction, it doesn’t really enrich your life in any way,” Bastian says. 

There is an active media campaign in Australia at the moment, Get Hairy February, encouraging women to let their body hair grow this month, with all funds raised from the project going towards fighting domestic violence against women.

But hair has been at the forefront of Bastian’s mind for many years, and will still be top of mind next month.

“There is not much academic writing about female facial hair, not even in feminine discourse,” Bastian says. “I think a lot more work could be done. There’s a lot of research about hirsutism, and PCOS, but it’s all about how to get rid of it. No one is saying it’s OK to keep it and that’s what I’m saying in my writing.”

Bastian cites two facial hair activists: UK model Harnaam Kaur, a body positive advocate, and Jennifer Miller, an American circus performer and university professor.

Both Kaur and Miller have full beards.

Bastian maintained a beard, but doesn’t have one when we meet.  “I sort of decided recently, the way I style my facial hair should be no different to the way a man styles his facial hair,” Bastian says. “Just because he has a beard doesn’t mean he has to have one all the time. That’s my approach.”