A bearded lady (or bearded woman) is a female, with a naturally occurring beard normally due to the condition known as hirsutism or hypertrichosis. Hypertrichosis causes people of either sex to develop excess hair over their entire body (including the face), while hirsutism is restricted to females and only causes excessive hair growth in the 9 body areas mentioned by Ferriman and Gallwey.
A relatively small number of women are able to grow enough facial hair to have a distinct beard. The condition is called hirsutism. It is usually the result of polycystic ovary syndrome which causes excess testosterone and an over-sensitivity to testosterone, thus (to a greater or lesser extent) results in male pattern hair growth, among other symptoms. In some cases, female beard growth is the result of a hormonal imbalance (usually androgen excess), or a rare genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis. In some cases a woman’s ability to grow a beard can be due to hereditary reasons without anything medically being wrong.
There are numerous references to bearded women throughout the centuries, and William Shakespeare also mentioned them in Macbeth:
you should be Women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret,
That you are so.— 138–46; 1.3. 37–45
However, no known productions of Macbeth included bearded witches.
Sometimes it is caused by use of anabolic steroids. Cultural pressure leads most to remove it, as it may be viewed as a social stigma.
The "bearded lady" is a cliché—a staple of a carnival sideshow.
Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection that influenced the perception of women with excess facial hair were applied differently across race. Women of color who had excess facial hair were actually perceived as evidence of human’s evolution from apes, whereas white women with excess facial hair were perceived as diseased. A beard on a white woman only challenged her sex, whereas a beard on women of color challenged her species.
Some famous bearded women were Krao Farini and Julia Pastrana.
Notable examples were the famous bearded ladies of the circus sideshows of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Barnum's Josephine Clofullia and Ringling Bros.' Jane Barnell, whose anomalies were celebrated. Sometimes circus and carnival freak shows presented bearded ladies who were actually women with facial hairpieces or bearded men dressed as women, both practices being lampooned by comedian and former circus performer W.C. Fields in the 1939 film, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
.. I made all Elbonians look identical, even the women, with long black beards ...