Cathy (not real name) has been struggling with excess body hair for as long as she can remember.
In school, she says, people nicknamed her “zinjathropas” (hominid who lived about 1,500,000 years ago), something she swears she will never forget.
“It hurt when people whispered about me and tried to come up with all possible reasons as to why I have a lot of body hair, including that I might have been born a man,” she says.
Cathy adds that in later years, she was forced to look for a way out of her “hairy mess” as she believed it was the reason men didn’t ask her out often.
“I’m 33 years old and have never been in a serious relationship. My “encounters” do not last longer than a week, and that is if I have made the effort to keep in touch. In most cases, I get the hint that he is not into me and I move on,” Cathy says gloomily.
It can be quite a challenge when a woman takes the appearance of what some might refer to as non-feminine.
Smooth, soft and easy on the eye is what we’ve been told women should be.
However, some women were given a little more testosterone than they ‘bargained for’, meaning they might possess more hair on their bodies than men, or have voices deeper than what meets the feminine criteria.
Fiona Umulisa, one of such women, describes her life as a journey of low self-esteem.
“Growing up was a challenge because people treated me differently and I always felt out of place. I was always picked on at school because of my male-ish physique and deep voice,” Umulisa says.
She adds that socialising with others was always a nightmare because she didn’t fit in.
“I always wished to be like others and even though I am now learning to cope with my unique appearance, things like dating and doing girly stuff are still a challenge for me. Having a naturally masculine appearance when you’re a woman is something that puts you down,” Umulisa says.
Like Cathy, 26-year-old Janet (not real name) feels like her masculine jawline is the reason guys don’t ask her out.
“I’ve been teased about my seriously defined jawline since primary. I was told I had a man’s face and even though I laughed it off sometimes, it actually made me uncomfortable. I always told myself that if I got the money needed, the first thing I’d do is look for a plastic surgeon who could fix the problem. I’m still working on that,” she says.
What is behind this?
Dr Charles Sindabimenya, a physician at Doctor’s Plaza Clinic in Kimironko, says that for a woman to have a muscular appearance, it may be caused by exposure to abnormal hormone levels such as testosterone or estrogen.
He says that the differences can be very noticeable, or they can even be subtle, but in most cases they are noticed during puberty. For example, a girl can develop a very deep voice as a result of having high level of hormones.
“A girl’s vocal cords grow a bit during puberty but when the testosterone hormones tend to be too much, then the voice grows deeper. Some may even develop a husky voice as a result of smoking or drinking, but this is just a consequence of a habit,” Sindabimenya says.
According to Dr Rachna Pande, a specialist in internal medicine at Ruhengeri Hospital in Musanze District, every child has both masculinising and feminising hormones. During puberty, there is a surge in one type of hormones, leading to appearance of secondary sexual characteristics like a deep voice and beards in men and a softer look in women.
“After menopause, as the level of estrogens declines, women start to have some masculine features like a receding hair line, growth of beard and others. But a young woman with male features is abnormal. It is mostly due to higher levels of hormones like androgens or testosterone or declining levels of estrogen,” Dr. Pande says.
Dr Pande explains that there are numerous causes such as hormonal disorders, like those of pituitary and adrenal glands, which can lead to this abnormality. Conditions of the ovaries like ovarian tumors, polycystic disease of the ovaries, congenital chromosomal disorders, drugs like anabolic steroids, corticoids taken for long, can all cause masculine features in a woman.
Diagnosis of the cause can be made by blood tests, estimating the level of hormones in the blood.
Pande adds that society is not aware of the cause of such a problem, hence people tend to sympathise with these women or mock them. Some even consider them as transgender yet these women feel embarrassed because they also consider themselves abnormal.
She advises that women with this problem be investigated to know the underlying cause and take treatment since all conditions, except congenital chromosomal disorders, are treatable.
Is there a way out?
Women can try cosmetic interventions like electrolysis to remove unwanted hair, voice modulation by practice can make the voice soft again, but all in all, these women should know that they are still women regardless.
Due to some hormonal imbalance, they have altered features but that should not weigh them down.
Dr George Nzaramba, a consultant, is of the same view – on how women can deal with their masculine attributes.
He says that for those who have beards, for example on the chin or even the chest, they can shave or even wax. But they should mind the method because they might only make the problem worse.
“Having masculine qualities is not that common among women but it can take a severe toll on a woman’s social life. In most cases, it is a result of a difference in hormones leading to the development of masculine features,” Dr Nzaramba says.
Nineteen-year-old Lynette Himbazwa says that the most demeaning part for her is being referred to as a man just because of her male physique.
“It’s hard enough accepting the fact that I look like a guy but people only make it worse when they look at you differently or say hurtful words. The brighter side of it is making so many friends and having a unique personality,” Himbazwa says.
But she chooses to look on the bright side and makes as many friends as possible, thanks to her unique personality.
However, she says, this positive nature can only be achieved if women accept who they are, something she agrees is hard but not impossible.
I say: Would you opt for plastic surgery if you looked like a man?
Everything happens for a reason and, most likely, such male hormones are for a positive reason, though we don’t often see it that way. Personally, I would accept that that is how I was meant to be. In fact, I would embrace it rather than see it as a problem.
Looking like a man when you’re a woman can be frustrating. Thus, if the chance to get rid of something presented itself, even if it meant plastic surgery, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it a try. No one enjoys having what wasn’t meant for their body.
I would definitely opt for plastic surgery to get rid of male traits. It makes you timid; you feel like you want to hide all the time from the public because you think you are abnormal. I wouldn’t take for granted any opportunity to get rid of such.
Who knows what may result from plastic surgery? You might try to get rid of something that had no further consequences on your body and eventually end up in danger. I wouldn’t go for surgery; I would just learn to appreciate how I was born.
I wouldn’t take the risk of going for plastic surgery. What if I end up with cancer or any other serious problem resulting from surgery? I would look at my male-ish features with a positive attitude and move on.
As long as those male hormones are not creating any further problems to my body, the best thing to do is to bear with it and embrace the way I was created. Living with excessive male hormones is not life threatening, but plastic surgery is. I wouldn’t take any chances.
Compiled by Dennis Agaba
High testosterone levels in women
When discussing testosterone levels in women, it’s most common to hear about suffering from low levels of the hormone, which can cause an array of unwanted symptoms. Problems can, however, appear at the opposite end. Women are at risk from high testosterone levels as well, which come with their own bag of tricks. Read on to learn more about this condition and its symptoms so you too can recognise whether testosterone imbalance may be the culprit.
Research has suggested that between 4 and 7 per cent of women produce too much testosterone in their ovaries. Abnormally high levels of the hormone in woman can cause a variety of problematic and embarrassing symptoms. Listed below are the most frequently reported signs of elevated testosterone levels in women.
Common symptoms of high testosterone levels
The most common symptoms of excess testosterone are:
•Increased hair growth. Often, women with high testosterone levels may develop increased hair growth on the upper lip, face, chest, nipples, lower abdomen, and other parts of the body. Additionally, fine body hairs may turn coarse and darken.
•Male pattern baldness. High levels of testosterone in women can also result in a thinning of scalp hair, a condition called androgenic alopecia, especially for those with a genetic disposition to baldness.
•Change in body shape
•Deepening of the voice. This symptom may be a gradual or rapid change from high vocal pitches to lower ones.
•Change in body shape. Over a long period of time, without treatment, women with high testosterone may find that their muscle mass increases, body fat is redistributed, and – in rare cases – enlargement of the clitoris occurs.
In addition to the physical and psychological signs outlined above, high testosterone levels can lead to a range of side effects and more serious conditions. These include but are not limited to the following:
• Skin problems. Too much testosterone is not healthy for a woman’s skin. The signs include excessive oiliness and acne.
• Mood. While some testosterone can boost a woman’s confidence, strength, and libido, too much can make a woman feel agitated and angry. These feelings of frustration can even lead to depression.
• Health risks. More serious symptoms of high testosterone in women are often related to the major health risks that can occur. High testosterone levels have been linked to insulin resistance, a condition that interferes with the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
Insulin resistance can cause adult-onset diabetes, and it can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease as well as cancer of the breast and uterine lining.