The First thing people notice
Harnaam Kaur is her beard—dark, glossy, and framed by a vivid turban and perfectly-exaggerated winged liner. But that’s not the most striking thing about this 29-year-old model, anti-bullying activist, and motivational speaker. No, what makes Harnaam truly extraordinary is her most compelling asset—a lion-heart, eating
inside the body of a compassionate, sensitive woman. Harnaam, a British woman of Indian descent, hit puberty at the age of 10, and was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) at 12, which caused her to develop thick facial hair. PCOS is a fairly common condition, a hormonal imbalance that causes weight gain, excessive hair growth, and irregular periods.
Harnaam waxed and shaved and bleached her hair several times a week, to a point where her skin would turn painfully raw, but the hair continued to spread. The schoolyard bullies taunted her, calling her “shemale” and “beast” and “sheman”; “they kicked me with footballs and stabbed me with pens”. Harnaam began skipping school and refused to go out, for fear of herself. Until Harnaam decided she was done. She would not allow her haters to win…and she would accept her body—and beard—just the way it was.
As Harnaam shares her story with me, over a Skype call, I want to reach out and hug her. Not just because of the bullying and shaming and violence and death
threats she has had to endure (the death threats continue, by the way)…but because she chose to rise above the ridicule and scorn, and has emerged as a passionate disrupter of mainstream beauty standards.
With every photograph Harnaam posts on social media, of herself living her best life—and looking amazing—she inches us a little forward, towards true diversity and body positivity. In a superficial world that venerates ‘perfection’, Harnaam challenges our perceptions and reminds us that uniqueness is to be celebrated.
Harnaam tells me she wants more women to learn about her arduous—but inspiring—journey towards self-love, so they can pluck out some courage for themselves from the supply that she has. This is her mission. And this is her story…
People will Always have opinions
Nandini Bhalla: Growing up, what was your idea of beauty?
Harnaam Kaur: “I don’t think I knew what it meant to be beautiful, but I knew that I was…not beautiful. When you grow up hearing things like, ‘Oh, she’s such a fat kid’, or ‘moti’ (fat), or ‘kaddu’ (pumpkin)… it can leave a deep impact on a young mind. I don’t think people understand how their words affect a person. Even if those things are said in a loving way, you know? So for me, being fat was always an issue. And then some parts of my body were darker than others, so I was also told to use fairness creams…like, you have to be white to be ‘right’. Now I embrace my body. But back then, my friends were all blonde and thin, with blue eyes and beautiful skin. And to see them being more popular than I was, it sent my brain a message that the way I looked was not acceptable. It’s hard because kids learn at a very young age that their body should look a certain way. And it’s heartbreaking. One of the things I love about my job is
that I am able to go to schools and portray a diverse image of what a body should or could or possibly might look like. That we are all different.”
NB: What happened when you decided to keep the beard…how did people around you react?
HK: “My family was worried about how the world would react towards me. They were worried that I may not be able to live my life happily and would have to face difficulties. And I did face many difficulties. I understand when children are unintentionally mean, it’s because they’re inquisitive and come from a place of innocence. But adults—they are the worst! The abuse that I get from adults, even am having to pay for being in the public eye. Someone who is South Asian, a Punjabi, a woman who’s gay and has a beard, wears a turban, and has tattoos and piercings… You know, I am everything people don’t want me to be. It’s the price I have to pay.”
NB: So many women struggle to find the courage to fight back and accept themselves in the face of bullying and trauma. How did you find your strength?
HK: “You have no idea what it took to get “I have to get used today, has taken me a very long time to get used to. It’s funny that I’m having to say this to
you…but the truth is that I have to get used to the abuse. Because this is my life, you know, and this is what I have to endure day in and day out. And it’s horrid, but that’s the price I here, and it still does! It’s not like you wake up one morning and say, ‘Right, I feel brave now!’. I keep telling people that I am suicidal like 80% of the year. The other 20% of the time, I’m barely surviving. It is a daily battle. And I don’t think bullies understand the impact their actions can have on someone’s abuse.” mental health. It’s horrible that they don’t care for another person’s well-being.
For me, my courage came from just me wanting to be me…like, I can’t be anyone else. I can’t be you, you can’t be me. And once I realised that it’s all about finding yourself, that gave me the freedom to be like, ‘Well, this is me now’. People can either understand that and join me on this journey, and we can all lift each other up, or they can hate from the sidelines. And if that’s the way that they want to be, I can’t help them.
I’ve got a large number of followers from India, and I feel things are harder there because there’s still a lot of progress to be made. Young girls in India are constantly tormented for the way they look, and there’s a lot of stigma surrounding dark skin. So many young women approach me about PCOS, you know, and they tell me how their family taunts them. It’s difficult! But I think the first thing you need to do is figure yourself out, and understand who you really are. Once you do that, other people will realise that as well. That first step towards being kinder and more understanding towards yourself is the hardest step that anyone can take. But it is liberating.”
NB: What can each one of us do to love ourselves a little more?
HK: “See, I don’t like saying ‘love yourself’ anymore. I feel the term has been commercialised, and a lot of people are using it as a marketing ploy to make money. But I keep telling people that the most important thing to do is be kind. Because
self-love is a journey, and it’s unfair for me to say to someone, ‘Just love yourself and your life will be fine!’. How can someone who has gone through over 10 years of abuse,
someone who has hated themselves every single day, suddenly wake up one day and say that they’re going to love
“The number of death threats I receive is disgusting”
themselves because Harnaam asked them to? There’s no such thing. It’s a journey. And I think that starts with kindness—you have to wake up and be kinder to yourself, whether you’re
going through depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Do simple things like waking up and taking a shower, you know… Spend time with yourself, do things that make you smile, meet your friends and surround
yourself with positive people. And once you take those steps, yeah, you might say to yourself one day: ‘You know what, I actually love who I am now!’. It’s because you’ve gone on that journey to
find who you are, and created a safe space for yourself with amazing people who are going to uplift you. You know who you are, you know what you are passionate about, and that’s how you will end up loving your life, and
ultimately loving yourself.
But it’s something that you have to do over and over again. And we need to be able to change our inner voice as well, because our minds are so powerful… I think sometimes, people forget that. If
you’re able to override the negative thoughts that other people have put in your head through their opinions, you’ll slowly be able to change your mindset and, eventually, who you are.
Like, someone called me fat, so I believed I was fat, right? Someone called me ugly, so I believed I was ugly. I saw a photograph of someone on Instagram and I thought, that’s who I
need to be like. The human mind is very powerful. It absorbs information, so we need to surround ourselves with things that will actually benefit us and add value to our lives. If that means
blocking someone or moving away from toxic people and family and friends, do it because your mental health and mental well-being is more important.”
NB: You mentioned that you still receive hurtful comments and death threats from online bullies…
HK: “I absolutely hate the toxicity we see on the Internet! If there’s one reason I want the Internet to shut down, it’s because of online bullying. The number
of death threats I receive, the amount of hate and bullying I have to face, especially from our own South Asian community, is disgusting. And, you know, the bigger the
Internet becomes, the more people think it’s okay to make fake profiles to troll people, especially those in the public eye. I’m able to deal with it because I’m 29
right now (I’ll be 30 soon), and I have dealt with this my entire life. And I am able to deal with it now because I am confident. But there are young girls who
are not so confident, and having to read horrible things about yourself online can have a detrimental effect on you. I just wish that social media platforms were
stricter when it comes to online bullying…”
NB: I know that you love experimenting with make-up. What is in your make-up bag, and what is your go-to look?
HK: “I have so much make-up and I truly enjoy experimenting with it. It’s not about changing who I am, it’s about accentuating my features…I think that’s a
very powerful thing. My go-to look is nude lids with a little bit of shimmer, and bold, black liner—sometimes, I’ll use a blue or purple liner, too, as I like a nice wing. I like to accentuate my eyes so people’s focus is on my eyes. Because it’s
a bit weird when I’m talking to someone and all they’re talking to is my beard! I’m just like, ‘My eyes are up here!’. And also, when you go out wearing a red lipstick, you feel empowered…you feel like a boss! But I prioritise skincare over make-up. Once you have a good base, your make-up will sit on your face a lot
better, a lot more nicely. So I like to look after my skin a lot more than wearing make-up.”
NB: Finally, how does it feel to be able to help women feel more empowered and fight back against archaic beauty standards?
HK: “Knowing that I am helping someone, even if it is just one person, is the biggest joy for me. The biggest happiness for me! And that’s why I’m able to travel wherever I want to and talk to young people. Because I want to help young people, regardless of who they are, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or colour. I just want to be able to help. And it brings me so much comfort when mothers approach me saying, ‘You know, my daughter was looking at your pictures and she thinks you’re beautiful’. And you know, ‘Are you the princess in The Greatest Showman?’ If you’ve seen that film, there’s a bearded lady in it. (Fun fact: the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman was based on me!) I will keep fighting. I will keep fighting for people who don’t have any fighting spirit left in
them, and I will keep speaking for people who don’t know how to use their voice. And I will keep helping people that need help. There’s so much pain in the world
right now, and we need people to bring about change. So that’s my driving force. That’s my biggest inspiration in life… actually going out there and helping
people and adding value to their lives. That’s what I want to do.”