Belgian supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele, who is famous for strutting on high-fashion runways, dropped a bombshell this week when she revealed to USA Today that she is intersex.
“It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo,” 29-year-old Odiele told the newspaper. “At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly all right to talk about this.”
Individuals who are intersex don’t fit traditional definitions of female or male based on their genitals or chromosomes. According to the United Nations, about as many intersex babies are born as are redheads.
By divulging her true identity, Odiele told USA Today, the supermodel hopes to raise awareness of the often secretive surgeries intersex children are forced to undergo. Odiele reportedly experienced such a procedure at age 10, when surgeons removed her testes, which were internal and undescended. USA Today reported that Odiele was born with XY chromosomes due to an intersex characteristic called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). She later underwent vaginal reconstructive surgery.
Sue Stred, a professor of pediatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University, told USA Today that parents whose children are born without “typical” genitals may be encouraged to have their child undergo cosmetic surgery solely for aesthetic purposes. Stred likened the surgeries to “a nose job on a 7-year-old.”
Those decisions can cause children to become permanently infertile, as was the case for Odiele, and dependent on hormone replacement medications. Eventually, Stred said, that premature choice may harm the child’s relationship with his or her parents.
“There is a sense of betrayal when teens or young adults find out,” Stred told USA Today. “Some individuals leave medical care altogether because they are so angry at what physicians did to them before they were the age of consent.”
Odiele, whose modeling career began when she was 18 after being discovered a year prior at a music festival in Belgium, said “it’s not that big of a deal being intersex.” She said her parents’ decision has had traumatic effects on her.
“I am proud to be intersex,” she told the newspaper, “but very angry that these surgeries are still happening.”