It’s often thought that models have little career longevity. Belgian beauty Hanne Gaby Odiele has dispelled this myth: she has been one of the industry’s most visible faces for almost a decade, racking up high-profile clients including Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and Versace in the process.
Last week, however, she made headlines for a different reason when she revealed in an interview with Vogue magazine that she was born intersex. Broadly speaking, the term "intersex" refers to a series of conditions which lead to a child being born with a variation in sex anatomy. It’s not particularly rare – it’s estimated that around 2 percent of children are born intersex – yet knowledge and awareness of intersex identities is still disappointingly limited.
Odiele disclosed that she was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition which meant that, even though she was genetically male in chromosomal terms, her body was resistant to male hormones. She was born with internal testes, no ovaries and no uterus. “I will never know how it is to have a period or have a baby," she revealed. "But I also don’t stand up peeing! I don’t have a penis! I am intersex, but I am much more female. I am not facing a biological clock – I have no clock!”
As is the case with most intersex children, doctors quickly recommended that Odiele be subjected to surgeries which the medical community calls "correctional", but which intersex advocates and their allies define as IGM (intersex genital mutilation).
The surgery is an intrusive procedure officially defined as torture by over 18 UN treaties. Medical students were permitted to look at the models genitals without consent in the name of research and Odiele’s parents were fed a series of fear-mongering statistics by medical professionals until they eventually consented to the surgery. “Doctors often use scare tactics to make intersex patients decide, but too often the scare tactics are out of fear of a non-binary body,” explained Odiele in a Buzzfeed interview. “If you’re healthy, why do you need to be fixed?”
Many patients aren’t told that they were born intersex – patients like Odiele, whose parents were told to lie and say that the surgery she faced as a 10-year-old was actually to rectify a bladder problem. The model’s parents have also spoken out to highlight the lack of medical information provided to them as well as the biased medical opinion that "corrective" surgery is the only way forward.
Odiele’s mother admits that she felt alone and therefore didn’t discuss the issue; a phenomenon which leads to cultural invisibility and, in turn, exacerbates the lack of awareness about intersex people. This is a problem which Odiele, by speaking out about her own experiences, is looking to help eradicate.
Thoughtful media coverage is crucial for intersex people, who have often seen their identities erased from mainstream discussions. One particular artist making waves in the UK is Ela Xora, who last year launched a series of exhibitions entitled "Signs of Intersex People" and will this year stage exhibitions and talks at the Royal College of Art and the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford.
“As I show, intersex people like Hanne are not a new phenomena,” Xora explains. “They have been born in our society from the beginning of recorded history, if you take the time to actually look behind the years of concealment.”
Not only does Xora’s work illuminate intersex deities absent from museums and classical art institutions, it shows that the reluctance to acknowledge intersex rights stems largely from deliberate erasure. “Intersex bodies are abundant in early Western European history,” explains Xora, “but they have been institutionally masked from public view in museums, hospitals and schools because they contradict myths.”
The myth in this case is the idea that biological sex can be divided into just two categories: male and female. This pervasive yet misguided assumption is often used to buoy exclusionary arguments which actively strip non-binary bodies and identities worldwide of human rights.
In truth, both biological sex and the social construct of gender identity exist on a wide spectrum. Increasingly, organizations worldwide are uniting to raise awareness of these facts, as well as protesting the harrowing consequences that result from this ignorance. interACT is the organization through which Odiele chose to tell her story in full: the model features in a series of short informative videos online which have collectively racked up hundreds of thousands of views since she went public with her story.
Described as a series of advocates looking to protect the legal rights of the intersex community, interACT aims to nurture and educate a new generation of intersex activists as well as provide plans to heal the trauma that involuntary surgery can cause.
Odiele spoke of her own trauma in the original Vogue piece, explaining that she was put on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) at the age of 10. “[I felt like] a sad mess,” she said. “The hormones they gave me were fucking up my body. I knew something was wrong.”
Crucially, Odiele still didn’t understand the medication she was taking at this age and was therefore unprepared for the side effects. “It’s like being in menopause from a young age – for somebody who cannot have a baby, it’s kind of ironic. I still developed breasts, but very late – everything was a little delayed on me.”
Odiele reveals that she realized she was intersex when she read an article in a Dutch teen magazine that described a girl that couldn’t have children and had experienced surgery. She reached out and soon got in touch both with the girl and an intersex self-help group; inspired by one particular story to reach out and discover her own identity.
Now, Odiele herself has become that role model for other intersex people worldwide whose condition may well have been hidden from them. Not only is she promoting the work of valuable organizations and speaking out against the practice of IGM, she is actively raising awareness of intersex identities and dispelling the pervasive myth that biological sex is binary.
The fashion industry is still (rightly) criticized for its lack of diverse representation, a problem which remains evident in the series of whitewashed runways and ad campaigns continuing to pass without comment.
Still, by becoming the first high-profile intersex model in the fashion industry, Odiele is at least using her hard-earned platform to eradicate the stigma that shrouds various non-binary bodies across the world. We're excited to see what's next for this formidable force in the fashion industry.
For more on the topic of gender and sexuality, check out our exploration of Brian Anderson and homophobia in sports.