‘I am free to be myself’: What a modern-day ‘Freek’ show teaches us about self-acceptance
SEATTLE — Some things can be hard to understand.
On a recent night at the Funhouse in Seattle, audience members looked on in horror as members of “The Wreckless Freeks,” a modern-day freak show, tortured their bodies with nails, darts, staples, swords, and more.
Some in the crowd turned their heads or covered their eyes when the spectacle became too much to bear.
“It was shocking,” said Brittney Shaw, who was watching the performance. “It was totally shocking and I didn’t even know people still did that.”
“Like, I have no words,” said Shaw’s friend, Maddi Baker. “It’s confusing and amazing at the same time. It’s just like, why?”
The answer to that question depends on which member of “The Wreckless Freeks” you ask.
For 32-year-old Little Bear Schwarz, known by her stage name “Little Bear the Bearded Lady,” her journey to “The Wreckless Freeks” began around age 14.
It was then that she started to notice hair growing on her chest, neck, and face -- unusual places for a teenage girl to have hair.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Little Bear (born Renee Schwarz), had a disorder called Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS.
While the disorder can lead to enlarged ovaries and cysts, it also leads to high levels of testosterone that can result in facial hair and male-pattern baldness.
“So my parents were just like, how were we going to get rid of this? I mean, all I could do is shave every day,” she said. “So from age 14 to 31 I just shaved my face, neck, and chest every single day.
“I was kind of raised into being ashamed of it because, like I said, we’re not taught to feel otherwise. There were no examples of bearded women to make me think that it was OK. So I always thought, ‘If I don’t shave this I’ll be alone and unemployed for the rest of my life.’ So I just shaved every morning because I constantly lived in fear of people noticing.”
It wasn’t until she met her boyfriend and made plans to move to Seattle that Little Bear decided it was time to embrace who she really was.
“He and I sat down and he said, ‘Just so you know, you don’t have to shave. We live in a pretty progressive city. I don’t mind it, and you work from home,’” Little Bear recalled.
“There was something really freeing about knowing that between where I lived, who I was with, and where I worked there was no longer anything holding me back. I had no more reason to shave, so I just stopped.”
While she had learned to accept her condition after 16 years of hiding it, the world wasn’t ready to accept it with her.
“Sometimes I have people come right up to me and tell me I’m disgusting, or laugh right in my face,” she said. “I think the most painful thing is when it became de-humanizing and people say ‘what is that?’ or ‘what is it?’ When people stop using human pronouns towards me, it’s pretty hurtful.”
But Little Bear found support among “The Wreckless Freeks” when founder Michael “The Mighty Lurch” Robinson asked her to become part of the group.
Robinson, who acts as the group’s “strong man” and performs various feats that showcase pain (like letting audience members use him as a human dartboard), has his own reasons for doing what he does.
“A little over three years ago I started getting pain in my wrist joints and it gradually spread to where every joint in my body hurts all day every day,” Robinson said.
He said the cause of his pain remains unknown. Sometimes the pain is dull, he said, but other times “it’s so bad that I want to curl up and cry.”
He said the pain he inflicts upon himself on stage helps him cope with the pain he feels every single day.
“It’s a way for me to say, ‘Hey body, I can take whatever you can throw at me,’ because this stuff I do intentionally and if I can face that, I can deal with hurting all the time.”
While it might be hard to understand or appreciate what they do, each member of the Wreckless Freeks is doing something that a lot of us have a hard time with. They’re being true to themselves.
“I am who I am,” said Lurch, throwing his hands up into the air with a smile.
“Own who you are and have fun doing what you want to do,” he said. “That’s the most important thing about life to me. If you’re not having fun, why the hell are you doing it?”
For Little Bear, who works from her Capitol Hill apartment during the day as a freelance writer and historian, embracing who she is means embracing something that some people will just never be able to understand.
And you know what? She’s OK with that.
“Joining a freak show was what made me feel the most human,” she said. “Because I’m surrounded by people who are like me and love me.”
“I am miles happier,” Little Bear said, when asked to compare her life now to her life without a beard.
“Because I am free to be myself.”