The first thing people notice about 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, beating inside the body of a compassionate, sensitive woman.
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...
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: As your body began to change, how did your family react? Were they worried? Were they supportive?
HK: “Oh, they are supportive now because they can see how much of an impact I have had on people’s lives, all over the world. They see that now... Even if I were to be a mother some day and see my daughter going through something very difficult, I’d want to help her in every way I could. And I think for my parents, or the world in general, just seeing a woman with a beard can be very confusing. And parents worry about their children. They worry about their child's future and marriage prospects, and about how society might treat her. You know how the world is... I think my parents were worried about these things.
Thankfully, I am very strong. I believe in self-empowerment, in personal growth, and in the power of ‘me’. I allowed other people to see that I was actually doing okay. They could see that I was living my life the way I wanted to. And I think the more people see that strength, the more they back off. You will still get the occasional taunt or ‘opinion’ from an extended family member, or someone in the community. But I guess that just comes with being a public figure. I've learnt that people will always have an opinion...”
NB: Tell me about what happened when you hit puberty, and first noticed that you looked different from the others...
HK: “At first, I didn’t even know I had a beard! You see a lot of Indian girls with a little bit of hair on their face, a little bit of 'peach fuzz'. And, to be honest, when my hair began coming out, I didn't think it was something I needed to be ashamed of. Until people started bullying me because of it. See, this is how the mind works. Like for me, it felt so natural, I was oblivious to it. But it was when the world started taunting me about my hair that I developed an issue with it. And that happens too much to young girls.
I remember, around the time I hit puberty, my body size began to change, and the facial hair became more noticeable. So I went to a beauty salon and got it waxed... it was so painful! Imagine what it would be like to have your face waxed at such a young age?! It was just horrible. I was doing that maybe twice a week, and I just couldn’t bear the pain. Then I started shaving and tweezing, and tried various other hair-removal methods. But I was also battling PCOS; it’s such a common condition that one in five women have it. This condition comes with many side effects—like infertility, irregular menstrual cycles, facial hair, either gaining a lot of weight or losing a lot of it, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, high cholesterol, and mental health issues. It's a difficult condition to deal with...”
NB: And you were bullied... How did you cope with that?
HK: “I hated school! I absolutely hated it! I always tell people, as a joke, that if I have a child, I will home-school him or her, or send them to a private school, not a public school at all! I had such a terrible experience and my education was interrupted because of the incessant bullying. I would ditch classes. I would hide in the girl’s toilet. It impacted my mental health, my self-esteem, my self-confidence. The other kids would stab me with pens and kick footballs at me. It’s one thing to be verbally abused, but to be physically abused had a horrible effect on me... And for what? Just because I had facial hair?!”
NB: What was your turning point, when did you say to yourself, 'Enough!’?
HK: “For me, the bullying would start at 8:30am and go on until 3:30pm, Monday to Friday, from the start of an academic year to the end. Now, when you go through such abuse, you either curl up and do nothing about it, or you can stand up for yourself and deal with it. At the age of 16, I went through a lot, like punishing my body for the way that it looked, so I used to self-harm. That led to me being suicidal because I thought that there was no place on Earth for me—especially because of the way people taunted me. To feel like I didn’t belong here impacted me a lot. And I felt like I had had enough of everything, and I was ready to end it all.
That was my turning point. Because I realised that I needed to channel those emotions into something positive. And if that meant embracing myself and looking after myself in a way that I wanted to, then that’s what I needed to do. So after years of painfully removing my facial hair, I decided to let it grow.”
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 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 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.”