Beard: a retrospective

My father had a mustache when I was small—a thick mustache—and I had never seen him without it. One day he shaved it off and I was so weirded out I was afraid to be dropped off at school because I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize him when he came to pick me up.

Those fears were probably unfounded, but they express the reverence I had for the glory of facial hair even at a young age.

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to grow a beard. Unfortunately I’m not an overwhelmingly hairy guy and so this took a number of years—and failed attempts—to be truly feasible. My first real attempt at a beard was when I was twenty, and it did not go well. I have a large bald spot on the right side of my jaw bone just along my chin line. I tried my darnedest but it just looked like a strap-on stage beard, one I had found in a dumpster behind a center for performing arts as it wasn’t even a “full” fake beard.

It was with that lopsided and patchy beard (I liked to call it post pre-pubescent), and some equally bad-looking white-guy dreadlocks, that I first expressed interest in the woman who was to become my wife. And it was because of that beard, and probably also those dreadlocks, that I was initially emphatically rejected.

After shaving off the beard and the hair, and eventually winning the woman (there may have been a few more steps involved in this, it’s hard to say for certain), I tried almost every year of marriage to grow out my beard. I made it a few weeks—one month at best—and then my wife would put her foot down and threaten to pour peanut butter in it while I was sleeping (my wife doesn’t believe in passive-aggression). Then I would shave, and usually stop buying peanut butter for a while.

Finally, after six years of marriage I decided it was time to push through. I grew stubble. Then I grew longer uneven stubble. Then my wife began to be ashamed to be seen with me in public. Then I pushed through the month mark. Somewhere around six week after starting, I had a reasonably respectable beard on my chin, and my wife was no longer horrified by the man she married.

This beard grew slowly and took a while to fill in. I still had that bald spot along my jaw line and it remained visible until the hair was an inch or two long.

I was living in China at this time and the locals absolutely loved that I had a beard. One big reason is so few of them could grow one if they wanted to. Another reason is there are some funny cultural issues surrounding beards. While it is a very old tradition, and most admit it shouldn’t really be followed anymore, the tradition states a man should not grow any facial hair he is the oldest living male in his family. That is, my beard declares that I no longer have a grandfather or father or even an older brother (all false). With the increase in quality medicine, this has dramatically limited the number of people in China who feel comfortable growing a beard, but it did not limit folk’s amusement that I had one.

While this current generation mostly discards the tradition, they nonetheless fear the wrath of their fathers should they take the leap and grow something out. Because of this tradition, and because of the lack of hair follicles on their faces until late in life, people would often mistake me for being much older than I was.

At one point, when I was 27, I hopped in a taxi, gave directions, and the driver took off without a word, yet he stared a bit at me. He looked back at the road and then looked at me again, this time looking me over head to toe as a gawking man might inappropriately do to a woman on the street. Again his eyes went to the street and after about a minute he turned and said, “So, what are you, 50?”

More than a little aghast, I said no and told him how old I really was—he simply refused to believe me.

The words in Chinese for a beard vs. a mustache are literally “big beard” and “little beard” respectively. This made for some quality puns and jokes when I joined a mountain biking club with a biker in their ranks who sported an epic mustache. This thick of a mustache would have been impressive in any culture, but it stands in even more contrast in a culture where few can grow more than ten hairs on their upper lip. It’s a big enough deal that, for the entirety of the time I rode my bike with this gentleman (which was a number of years), I never heard his real name or heard him referred to as anything other than Little Beard.

Little Beard had been biking with this crowd much longer than me but people quickly named me “Big Beard” and the comparisons began. There was only one problem with being identified with Mustache, the guy was a total bad ass, and… well… I am not. When out ahead of the pack, instead of stopping to wait for everyone to catch up, he’d ride down the mountain and come back up to check on us. When I was ahead of the crowd, I’d usually lay in the mud and put my feet up on a rock to drift off to sleep with a warm blanket of wet dirt around me. But that’s the difference between Big Beard and Little Beard I suppose.

 

After a little over two years of having a beard, I decided it was time to get serious. From my youngest years a child and my first desire to grow out a beard, it was always with one goal in mind. To cut it in to the style popular during the American Civil War—otherwise known as friendly mutton chops. If you don’t know, this beard is huge mutton chops “holding hands over the top lip” hence the name. Basically it’s when a person grows a full beard and then shaves his chin and all the way down his neck. If done correctly it almost looks like a mustache that went wild and tried to grow up the cheeks to connect with the hairline.

I had hemmed and hawed over this for a while because my wife had finally decided she actually liked my large beard. Both she and I were fairly certain she would not like the civil war cut. A man, however, can only postpone his dreams for so long before he gets antsy and has to pursue his calling. So with buzzers in hand I removed my chin hair and allowed the cold winter air to blow over my neck. It was my childhood dream finally being realized, and I looked looked in the mirror.

I looked like shit. There was no way around it.

My wife was somewhere in the back of the house confused weather she should be crying or laughing after she saw me. I then went back in to the bathroom because surely there was a way to make this better. I looked up some pictures online and found I needed to push the line further out from chin, so I tried that. It was a little better, or…. no it was no better at all. I trimmed, and I snipped, and trimmed and I snipped. But even after a while of working on it, it became abundantly clear, there is probably no style of facial hair less flattering on me than friendly mutton chops.

Then again, this was my life dream. I had wanted this forever. Not just any beard—this specific beard. Unfortunately, the shift from Bert to Ernie is a pretty dramatic shift. I looked like a puppet, not a weathered war general. This was decidedly not what I had in mind.

At this point I did what any self-respecting man in my situation would do. I kept the beard for a month just to make sure I didn’t change my mind about it, and then had a new passport made with a picture of the beard displayed prominently on page one so I could enshrine the horror for ten years. Then I shaved it down to just the mustache and started over again.

Even after writing about just how bad it was, I sit here now thinking about how awesome I’d look if I just tried again. Something about that style is still deep inside of me crying out to be a part of my face. Unfortunately friendly mutton chops are really the worst of both worlds. You have a long enough beard that you have to take care of it with conditioning and combing—or whatever it takes to not look plastered to your face in the mornings. But you still have to shave, and shave regularly. Because, while stubble looks alright on an otherwise clean face, stubble on your chin when you have a big beard floating above it just does not work.

For now, I keep the big beard. There is something about the look of a small animal attacking my face that just is too attractive for me to pass up.