Why It's Okay To Be Happy AND Hairy!
Leah Jorgensen is a 33 year old hirsute woman with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Sydrome) whose journey to find comfort in her own skin is inspiring AF. After years of being bullied for her body hair and hiding from her authentic self, Leah is now a champion for body hair positivity. In our interview, she details what it took for her to get to this level of self-acceptance, and why it’s okay to be happy AND hairy.
When did your journey with body hair begin?
When I was around 13, I started noticing changes with my body that I wasn’t anticipating. I was anticipating puberty, not what began happening.
It started out as facial hair. Then, that hair started to spread all over my body - to my shoulders, my stomach, everywhere. The hair brought on a lot of shame. So much so that I couldn’t talk to anyone, even my mom, about it. At that age, I was very aware of societies expectation to be as hairless as possible. As a female, I didn’t know that having this much body hair was possible! It felt like this masculine thing was happening to me, despite being a girl.
My way of dealing with the hair was to hide it. I pretended like it wasn’t there and I kept it a secret. But by age 15, the hair had spread so much that I knew I needed help. So I finally told my mom and she took me to a doctor to find out what was going on.
The doctor’s visit was traumatic. I distinctly remember the doctor’s eyes bulging out when she saw the extent of my body hair. I thought to myself, “This is a doctor that has seen everything, and THIS is how she’s reacting to by body? How abnormal am I?” Nonetheless, I was grateful that the doctor was able to diagnose me with PCOS very quickly (a lot of women who struggle with PCOS often get misdiagnosed).
What is PCOS?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and most of its symptoms come from a hormonal imbalance. It’s a very complicated diagnosis because it affects women so differently. And for the longest time, there weren’t a lot of studies being done about PCOS so there are still a lot of unknowns.
There used to be a strong emphasis on PCOS being a cosmetic problem. But, as its being taken more seriously, the medical community started to understand that there are more serious consequences of PCOs. There are a number of “cosmetic” issues associated with PCOS like weight gain, acne, and body hair. But unfortunately, PCOS has also been linked to a variety of more serious issues as well (like infertility, and being at a higher risk for diabetes and cancer). Personally. my biggest struggle was the body hair often associated with PCOS which is called hirsutism.
My diagnosis with hirsutism due to PCOS didn’t alleviate any of the shame that I felt around it. While there was some comfort in knowing what was going on with my body, I felt so traumatized by the doctor’s appointment and how rude my doctor was to me that I felt even worse about myself after I was diagnosed. I went to extreme lengths to hide my body hair. I covered my body with clothes. Keeping it a secret for so long took a huge toll on my body and I developed really bad anxiety. I remember having a really serious panic attack before a friend’s outdoor wedding, and feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I was going to have to meticulously shave my whole body.
When did your perspective on your body start to change?
At the end of 2015, I was hit by a car as I was crossing the street. When the paramedics came to assess the injury, they cut my clothes off. That was the first time anyone had seen my body in years.
That was a really profound moment because the paramedics treated me with SO much respect after seeing my body. That really got me through the hurdle of being seen. From then on, I started coming out of my shell. And now I have really learned to accept - and even love - myself! It’s been an intense couple of years trying to retrain my mind to accept my body and think more positively.
Can you talk a little more about your process of self-acceptance?
Over the past 2 years, I’ve gone through four distinct phases of self-acceptance.
Around fall of 2015, I reached a breaking point. I realized that I couldn’t hide who I was anymore. I knew I had to approach things differently. Before that point, I was shaving my body hair. I then made a decision to start to growing it out, but kept the hair hidden underneath my clothes. I spent some time getting comfortable with the hair, instead of just pretending like the hair didn’t exist.
Shortly afterwards, I got into the car accident I mentioned earlier. When the accident happened, I couldn’t avoid people. I had to see doctors and physical therapists. The exposure was forced onto me (in a great way!). I got over my fear of being seen in a clinical setting.
I then started to open up to my friends about my struggle with body hair and PCOS. Those conversations were instrumental in allowing me to open up and accept myself. After that, I started to get more comfortable being seen with body hair in places that were “normal” for women to have hair, like my legs and my arms. I started to wear dresses without leggings.
It took me several months before I could fully rip off the bandaid and be comfortable with the hair on all parts of my body, like my chest and back. I finally started wearing lower cut tops.
When did you start sharing your journey more publicly?
I started my social media accounts (my Instagram and Youtube channel) under “Happy and Hairy” in July of 2017. A couple months prior to that, I was posting on my personal Instagram account about my journey. I noticed that women from all over the world were finding me and opening up to me about their struggles with PCOS. I wanted to create a special place dedicated to talking about my journey and body hair positivity.
When I started the account, I didn’t know what would come from it. It’s pretty incredible what has happened - I never expected to get so much positive attention from people all over the world. Everyone has something that they’re insecure about and I’m glad my story is resonating.
How do you deal with moments of insecurity today?
I allow myself to have bad days.
Living in the world of the woman is hard! There’s a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way. Sometimes, we’re going to feel insecure and have bad days and that’s OK. I allow myself to feel insecure and just have a bad day. In the past, when I was first trying to train my brain to think more positively, I would shame myself into liberation. I would bully myself to stop feeling negatively. That wasn’t helpful. I think it’s important to feel however you feel.
I also try to reach out to a friend, whether it’s a close friend, or a friend online, who can relate to what I’m going through. There’s radical power in opening up.
What advice do you have for people who suffer from body image issues?
My number one piece of advice is to start talking about it. Of course, not with just anyone. Find someone you feel safe with just and start talking about what it is that’s weighing you down because there's power in articulating your feelings. I can’t overstate this enough.
I also think it’s important to be aware of what’s in your social media feed. Social media can be a positive space as much as it can be a negative one. It’s really helpful to follow accounts that talk about empowerment, body positivity and self-love. And follow accounts of people who look like you! It can be a little tricky though - to find accounts that make you feel empowered. Make sure you’re not following accounts that shame you into feeling comfortable. Shame, in the reverse, doesn’t help either. Follow accounts that celebrate doing what you need to do to feel comfortable (if you want to wear makeup, or wax your arms, go for it! It’s all about empowering yourself to feel safe.)
And my last piece of advice is to really find a way to express yourself. Whether it’s journaling, writing poetry, painting or taking photographs try to find a way to express yourself. Journaling has been incredibly helpful for me, so I’ve gotten into a habit of doing that. Also, photography has helped me immensely. When I first started growing out my hair, I was growing it out, but not really showing it. I would take photographs of my body and express myself that way. I would objectively look at a photo and think it’s beautiful, and then think, wow, that happens to be me!