Top fashion model Hanne Gaby Odiele has revealed that she is intersex.
The Belgian model, 29, said she is speaking out about her intersex status to break the taboo and discourage parents from putting their children through unnecessary surgeries, according to the Daily Mail.
"It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo. At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly all right to talk about this." Odiele told USA Today in an exclusive interview.
According to the United Nations, about 1.7 per cent of the world population is born with intersex traits - which is about the same as the number of redheads. Intersex persons are born with sex characteristics that are not exclusively male or female.
In Odiele's case, she was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which meant that she has some XY chromosomes, instead of all female XX chromosomes. This resulted in her being born with a set of undescended testes. Her parents had them removed in a surgery at age 10, after doctors warned that they could cause cancer and keep her from developing as a female.
But Odiele was not informed about the true reason for the surgery until she demanded answers a few years later, around age 12 or 13.
She says she underwent yet another surgery at age 18 to reconstruct her vagina, which also left her in agony.
"I am proud to be intersex, but very angry that these surgeries are still happening," Odiele said.
"If they were just honest from the beginning... It became a trauma because of what they did," Odiele said.
Sue Stred, a professor of pediatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University, says parents often feel compelled to have their intersex children undergo surgery so they look more typical. But in many cases they may just be cosmetic, while carrying lifelong repercussions - such as infertility and a reliance on hormone replacement medications. Stred says the threat of cancer has also been 'vastly overwrought'.
Odiele was discovered at a Belgian music festival at the age of 17, but has only begun to talk about her intersex status with close friends in the industry in the past year. So far, she says she has not experienced any kind of backlash.
Odiele's husband, John Swiatek, is also a model and 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.
Odiele will also talk about being intersex in this month's issue of Vogue magazine. She is partnering with interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth to raise awareness and champion against childhood surgeries.