A woman who covered up for 13 years, because she felt like a ‘freak’ due to a condition which causes excess hair growth, has embraced her natural look.
Leah Jorgensen, 33, has polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder which causes thick, dark hair to grow on her face and body.
From the age of 13, she was called a ‘man’ by bullies who teased her about her appearance and says she developed severe anxiety stemming from the shame.
In a desperate attempt to hide the hair, Leah wore full-sleeved, high-necked shirts and long trousers throughout her teens as well as shaving her face and entire body.
She feared people getting close to her and seeing the hair on her face which resulted in her not having her first kiss until age 27 and avoiding the dentist for 12 years.
‘I had never seen women who looked like me. I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to talk about it,’ Leah, of Madison, Wisconsin, said.
‘My way of coping with that shame and embarrassment was to hide. My daily goal for a long time was to just get through the day without anyone noticing how hairy I was.
‘Because I have so much of it, it was very difficult to hide it. I developed a terrible case of anxiety and it really took a toll on my mental health.
‘I had a bad experience with a doctor, who had never seen such an extreme case of hirsutism. She was startled and made a facial expression.
‘She also had a figure on a piece of paper and she drew where the hair was. I was so sensitive that it really upset me and made me feel like a freak.
‘In junior high school a classmate noticed the hair on my face and there was this group of girls that would tease me about it and call me a man.
‘I felt ashamed, embarrassed and scared, like I was somehow less of a woman.
‘I covered up with clothes and shaved my face, and if I was going to be showing any part of my body I would shave it.
‘It gets hot and humid here in the summer and I would wear hoodies year round so I would be drowning in sweat.
‘People would ask me, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ and I was just like, ‘Leave me alone.’
‘My family members were aware of my condition but they didn’t know the extent of it. It was brought up a few times, ‘Do you want to do laser hair removal or electrolysis?’
‘At that point I couldn’t even picture myself going into a facility like that and showing them.
‘I was really convinced I would lose my friends and my family would disown me and I wouldn’t be able to get a job or a boyfriend, I would just live a miserable life alone.’
In December 2015, Leah was hit by a car as she crossed a road and she had to be taken to hospital by ambulance.
Paramedics cut her clothes off and she underwent surgery and therapy, so people saw the extent of her hair growth up close for the first time.
‘I realised no one cared what I looked like, they just saw me as a person. It really helped me to get over it,’ she said.
Around that time, Leah also connected with a man who found her attractive, body hair and all.
She is no longer in a relationship but said the fact that he embraced her for who she is helped give her a much-needed wake up call.
‘I realised that I never really disliked how the hair looked,’ she said.
‘The problem was not with the hair, it was with people’s perception of it.
‘I thought, ‘Enough is enough.’ I didn’t want to run from it anymore.’
Since she stopped removing her body hair just over a year ago, Leah says she feels empowered.
She no longer shaves her legs or arms and wears low-cut, sleeveless tops as well as showing her legs in public.
She bravely wore a bikini for the first time last summer and regularly shares photos of her hair with her 2,500 plus followers on Instagram.
Leah said: ‘People definitely stare or try to take photos but I expect that because you don't really see women who look like me.
‘I used to be scared of people noticing my hair but now I embrace it and let it grow. I'm unique and that is perfectly fine.
‘I do still shave my face because I like how my face looks without hair, but I used to shave multiple times a day and now I will go a couple of days.
‘It has been incredibly empowering.
‘I hope that sharing my story will give others courage. And to women who have hirsutism; you are not alone.
Next month, Leah is one of 100 women who will be photographed for a book promoting diversity as part of a project called Underneath We Are Women.