I was at a launch party for a new beer. A man I had never seen before, a stranger, walked up to me and began stroking my face. Ordinarily, this would warrant a reaction—a deflection of the hand, an awkward syllable uttered in discomfort, a look along the lines of “Why are you touching me, strange man?”—but I didn’t budge. We locked eyes and he pet my face. It wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Once my beard reached a certain length, strange things started happening. The Year of the Beard taught me a few things.
I started growing facial hair as soon as I was able. At 17, I looked like a musketeer with a pencil-thin goatee, which I thought becoming, especially since I was living in Europe. It wasn’t. A French friend told me that my “moustaches were dégueulasse.” But this was my first opportunity for facial-hair rebellion, and I wasn’t about to let one guy trip me up as I leapt into manhood.
In university, I experimented with a chinstrap. It’s an unfortunate look that, so far, has only been pulled off successfully by one man. And he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But a girl on the volleyball team told me I looked better, older. Women: never doubt the power of your compliments. I’m quite sure men have started wars as a simple excuse to hear women tell them they look good in uniform. That one compliment was enough to influence my shaving patterns for years. There would be weeks where I’d be cleanshaven, but more often than not, I sported some degree of shade.
I saw the power of a bearded man in a suit. It was on the streets of Europe. The juxtaposition of sophistication and ruggedness was striking, like a wolf in a limousine. I thought to myself, “I can do that.”
And so, I let it go. I pushed past the awkward stages of semi-growth that occur somewhere after a month, and, again, was egged on by a barrage of compliments. Never before in my life had I been congratulated so much. Mostly by other men.
This has been The Year of the Beard. From the hipsters pulling your Americano at the local artisanal espresso bar to the runways of Milan to George Clooney and Ben Affleck palling around at the Oscars—the beard is everywhere. A raft of new products subsequently appeared: organic beard oils, wooden beard comb sets, beard shampoos and conditioners and beard control creams, all catering to the swelling number of bearded men among us.
While pinpointing the exact genesis of a trend is near impossible, in all likelihood men’s modern infatuation with full beards—not just scruff, but burly face-gardens— started the same time that classic cocktails and vintage-inspired workwear was began to gain popularity. Beards, like those other trends, embody a kind of return. To masculinity, to authenticity, to a simpler, better time.
Last spring, a university in Australia, citing some kind of scientific analysis, made headlines declaring that the world had reached “peak beard.” The trend had reached its apex. The thinking was that, as beards grew in popularity, their allure wore off. What once seemed novel and edgy, and therefore attractive, to a mate became so common as to be moot. Like having a Twitter feed, or DJing.
My chosen style was long and thick on the bottom with slightly shorter sides. It made my jaw look wide and sharp, which it isn’t, aged me by about ten years and added around 35 pounds of bulk. Or, so it seemed. Men introduced me to their friends who also had beards, as if we should be members of some secret club, like a motorcycle gang or the illuminati, brothers in wiping our mouths after every bite.
One evening, a couple asked to take their picture with me (or, my beard, rather). This was something I had been asked before. At 6’7” I was used to being the tall guy. But now, my beard had taken over my identity.
For all the praise heaped on men who embody individuality, there is encouragement that comes with being part of a trend. It’s intoxicating. Few men out there would scoff at being told they embody masculinity, but I wasn’t sold on being just a well-manicured beard. It’s the one thing I share with, say, Kate Upton: I’m more than my appearance, damn it.
Besides, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Though I hid it with precise and meticulous combing, I maintain that my beard was patchy on the sides; it was itchy at almost all hours, and sometimes even painful, especially if slept I on it the wrong way.
But there it was, for better or worse, hanging off my face, inviting high-fives and unwanted touching. As the strange man at the party continued fondling—“where does your chin even start?”—I wondered exactly how this was okay.
What is it about a beard that prompts men to transcend the societal (and physical) barriers we put up for everything else? It might be a primal response. Beards are undeniably animalistic. Some speculate that in our age of extended adolescence among men, facial hair is being used as a way of asserting one’s maturity. “I am man! See me grow!”
But in the moment, it was unpleasant. I wasn’t insulted—it was meant as a compliment, and I was flattered that a man—gay, straight, or otherwise—would feel comfortable reaching out for my face, uninvited. But it signaled what I had begun to suspect: that beardedness, for all of its mainstream ubiquity of late, is still a kind of novelty. And for better or worse, I had become its spokesman.
And so, I put the plug in my bathroom sink and grabbed the clippers. I paused for a moment, wondering if I would miss the compliments, the flirtatious looks from women, the quasi-celebrity status. And then I shaved it down the skin.
Image by William Ukoh