In the midst of the Snowmageddon that struck New Jersey, I decided to set my facial follicles free, granting a temporary pause to semi-regular executions by the sharp blade. They would finally realize their potential, though what that was wouldn’t be revealed until a week or so later.
An unshaven beard is like a blank canvas, or perhaps more appropriately, an ideal piece of marble or clay, ready to be carved and shaped. A more realistic comparison might be Wooly Willy, the children’s toy that uses iron filings and a magnetic pencil to offer new, often ill-advised, designs in manscaping.
Should I keep a full beard, perhaps embellished with some pattern or design cut into it? My initials? Crop circles? The word “Hello,” with the “Hell” on one side and the “o” on the other?
No. I couldn’t reconcile a full beard with my usual, aided-by-genetics, clean-shaven head. Many men do so, but for me, deciding on a line of demarcation between sideburns below the earline, and bare skin above it proved too much.
My wife suggested a goatee, which seemed a good way to avoid the issue of “sudden sideburns.” Goatees saw an explosion of popularity in the 1990s, and have a long history before that. Unfortunately, that history is tainted by the common use of the goatee as a primary distinguishing characteristic of fictional bad guys in popular culture.
There’s the evil twin or alternate universe imposter, exemplified by the mirror universe Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series. But It’s also been the the beard of choice for Hugo Drax in Moonraker, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, and many depictions of Satan, just to name a few.
Throw some bald on top and the evil quotient multiplies, with a fictional example in Ming the Merciless and a real-life one in Anton LaVey.
But, recalling the evil facial hair of another era—the handlebar mustache—I realized that for every Snidely Whiplash or Dick Dastardly, there is a Wyatt Earp or Rollie Fingers who provides redemption for the style. Maybe mine would be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) of goatees, exorcising its sordid history and unlocking new, virtuous image add-ons for angels, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Santa Claus.
Surveying my reflection after the deed was done, I admit I no longer completely trusted the man in the mirror. But, having no immediate urges to conquer the world or tie unmarried women to SEPTA, Amtrak, or NJ Transit rail tracks, I decided to keep the goatee for a while. I also vowed to play it straight, resisting the temptation to create a mirror universe “Anti-Dad” who might spook the kids by smoking profligately, spending money frivolously, and choosing vanilla ice cream to the exclusion of all other flavors.
Outside my home, the new look was greeted with polite surprise. A bearded man doesn’t have the same power to command attention as, say, a bearded lady, but somehow I felt like a sideshow freak just the same. Still, most of my acquaintances seemed to take it in stride—beards are in the midst of a resurgence, even among men who aren’t computer programmers, militia members, hipsters, prospectors, or lumberjacks.
In the caveman era, it’s unlikely that anyone shaved much, as it would have been a pretty harrowing experience with no shaving cream, and sharpened stones and clamshells instead of safety razors. The ancient Greeks saw pogonotomy—the shaving of one’s beard—as a punishment, which, between nicks and cuts, wasted time, and expensive blades and equipment, it still is today.
But growing a beard isn’t much easier. The first careful cut was hard enough; forced to consider bilateral symmetry, I almost resorted to a ruler or level. As the days went on, the process of shaving around the beard became more difficult, and the stakes grew higher—one slip might quickly spoil weeks of effort.
In addition, if I didn’t shave daily, the different strata of beard growth created strange textures. Instead of just skin or beard, there was now a third in-between level that gave my human face all the aesthetic appeal of a rock face, and like an archeological dig, it provided visual evidence as to when human tools had last been used in the area.
For me, the best part of having a beard is not having to shave. If it was going to take longer to maintain a beard than simply to shave it off, what was the point? Does having a beard make you warmer? Smarter? Tougher? Healthier? More attractive?
All of the above, according to several beard-promoting websites. The idea of a beard as a source of superior abilities had me imagining Anti-Dad’s arch enemy “Beard Man,” or, in keeping with superhero best practices, the more alliterative variation “Beard Boy.”
Beard websites, of course, have an agenda: they aim to sell slickly packaged beard maintenance products like beard oil, beard wash, beard conditioner, beard wax, and beard butter. The Beard Industry (which, in the style of Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Pharma, I’ll hereafter refer to as “Big Beard”) would have me believe, for example, that a beard will keep me warmer in the winter, but also cooler in the summer because the beard blocks the sun’s rays from reaching your face.
This might—sort of?—make sense, but count me as skeptical. I believe that in Big Beard’s perfect world, men would skip bathing suits and sunscreen altogether, and just spend the summer wearing nice, light, medieval-style hairshirts of their own oiled, buttered, natural beard hair—and hairshorts, too, for modesty’s sake.
I did learn from Big Beard, though—about state-of-the-art beard clippers and trimmers, for example, which explained how so many male celebrities seem to be photographed with perfectly manicured 5 o’ clock shadows at any time of day.
Almost as rewarding as discovering a new interest is exploring one and being able to say, “Nah, not necessary,” thus permanently simplifying one’s life. I decided right then, with no small amount of satisfaction, that the beard experiment needed to be cut short. Very short. Let’s say “clean shaven.”
As I shaved, I took advantage of the rare opportunity to view myself in unfamiliar states. Removing the beard and leaving the mustache, I felt a strong compulsion to make pizza, or canned ravioli, or jump over barrels à la Mario and Luigi. When the mustache was gone, I was hesitant to shave the last remaining bit of hair under the lip, commonly known as a “soul patch”—I wasn’t aware of a leaky soul, but when dealing with important spiritual substances, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.
Still, I supressed the urge to find a beret and a saxophone, or an open mic night, and scraped away the last evidence of my (mis)adventure in facial hair.
My wife expressed mild disappointment at the loss of the beard, a behavior which, I observed, was like admiring the wrapping paper more than the actual present. Having a beard is a personal choice, and for me, a beard was weird.
But if you’re a man considering a beard, don’t be dissuaded by my experience—I’ve heard beards have a way of growing on you.
Peter Dabbene’s website is www.peterdabbene.com. His new book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).