Before today, we knew a few things about insanely successful fashion model Hanne Gaby Odiele- she is fearless, beautiful, and insanely talented. Such was known through her features with reputable magazines like Vogue Italia and photoshoots with high-fashion brands like industry giants such as Mulberry and Balenciaga. But while Odiele created a successful career in the fashion industry, an essential part of her identity was unknown to the public eye. Today, however, Odiele revealed this much more intimate piece of information- she is intersex.
“At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly all right to talk about this,” says Odiele in an interview with USA Today. “It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo.”
What does it mean to be intersex? Simply put, intersex individuals are born with sex characteristics (like genitals or chromosomes) that do not adhere to the typical definitions of male or female. Being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics. This can mean a variety of things for different people- one can lack a vaginal opening, a notably small penis, and a scrotum that is divided resembling a labia are all cases of intersex individuals, according to the Intersex Society of North America. It is not the same as transgender: someone whose gender identity — how they feel inside — does not correspond with their birth sex. An intersex individual can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual.
Odiele is one of these people. She is not beautiful despite being intersex. She is not successful ‘even though’ she is intersex. She has always been intersex. She has always been beautiful.
The model was born with Androgen Insensitivity Sydnrome (AIS), in which a woman has XY chromosomes more commonly found in men. The condition also caused Odiele to be born with internal testes and without a uterus and ovaries. While genetically she was male, her outward appearance was more female or even somewhere in between. If her testicals weren’t removed, “[Odiele] might develop cancer and would not develop as a normal female girl,” according to her interview.
At the age of 10, her testicles were removed in a difficult surgical process. At 18- having been discovered at a music festival at the same time- underwent further surgery for her vagina. It’s these surgeries that have encouraged the model to speak out and give a voice to intersex people. Many of these surgeries are conducted for cosmetic reasons rather than medical urgency, led by problematic efforts to make a child appear more ‘typically’ male/female.
“I am proud to be intersex,” she said, “but very angry that these surgeries are still happening.”
Many intersex people are born without knowing of their status. The United Nations has concluded that up to 1.7 per cent of the world’s population will have intersex traits, which is around the same number of people born with red hair. Despite being a decent sized minority, being intersex is not often spoke about because of the stigma attached, and doctors have a history of lying to patients or conducting previously mentioned surgeries without the individuals consent.
Odiele choosing to be vocal about her identity shines a light of hope for intersex youth. The model hopes to advocate “no surgical treatment until individuals have psychological support” to make a decision purely their own.
“It is time for intersex people to come out of the shadows, claim our status, let go of shame, and speak out against the unnecessary and harmful surgeries many of us were subjected to as children,” she said in the interview. “I will use my voice and platform to help end such abuses.”
She also brings diversity to the exclusive modeling-industry, showing an intersex individual can be successful, happy, and completely normal. Despite an uncommon condition, Odiele fights expectations for her identity without any shame. She has been open about her status in the past with friends and associates. She says she doesn’t fear any backlash from colleagues in the fashion industry. “They will see me as they have before,” she says. “Nothing should change.”
Her husband, model John Swiatek, says he is “incredibly proud and happy” his wife is speaking out. “I am very impressed with her decision to advocate for intersex children in order to give them an opportunity to make up their own minds about their bodies, unlike the lack of options and information Hanne and her family (and many others) were given,” he says.
In an interview with The Ground, Odiele and her fashion are described as belonging, “to no category of style, model, or person.” She is whoever she wants to be. Off the runway, the same rule applies to intersex people: “You can be whoever you want. It doesn’t matter.”
For more information about intersex individuals, you can read here.