A while back The Huffington Post decided to tell me what my face means. They weren’t the first media outlet desperate to generate content quoting ‘experts’ of dubious stature and as I’m sure you’ve heard recently – they weren’t the last. You may be burning out from all the discussion about facial hair that’s been going on over the last few years: There are blessed women who fetishize it, politicos who demonize it and fashionistas that classify it. At some point we all silently agreed that it was acceptable that something as innocuous and natural as grooming facial hair had become a spectator sport complete with rules, regulations and speculators weighing in on ‘what it all means’. While this discussion may be new to you, it’s old news to me…
When I first grew my beard in 2000, I had friends, family, co-workers and strangers alike go back and forth between telling me what it represented and asking me what it meant. The first references I got were Silent Bob and Grizzly Adams (this was 2000, when Kevin Smith was still making movies and Adam Sandler was still using Grizzly Adams as a punchline). When 9/11 happened some people said it was insensitive and said I looked like Osama Bin Laden (seriously). If you’re keeping score within the first year of me having a beard, the meaning projected onto it by other people had flipped from obscure (if whimsical) pop culture references to allegations of terrorism. I remember thinking at the time, “This is crazy. People are crazy.” I had no fucking idea.
From time to time people would take me aside ask if my grooming choices were a cry for help or if I was making a statement. Mostly folks were just curious about the ‘mystery of my beard.” I was told that women hated beards even though I was dating a girl who absolutely adored mine. For the first time in my life I’d become the center of a lot of unwanted and unwarranted attention and opinions for something as simple as a grooming choice. This fascinated me to no end and I’ll tell you why: The secret of my beard–the secret of every beard–is that there is no secret at all. It doesn’t mean anything you think it does. It doesn’t make me more masculine, more rugged, more fashionable, more terrorist, more homeless. I didn’t grow it because it was cool or ironic or because I was depressed or any of the other trite diagnosis that go along with having facial hair. I’m a hairy guy, shaving feels weird and seems unnatural. That is the be-all-end-all of what my beard means thus it’s been an absolute headfuck to live through the rise and supposed fall of beard fetishism.
The ‘meaning’ of facial hair and what it represents has become a cottage industry for people who are convinced that there is an ulterior motive behind it. The latest interpretation is that beards symbolize individuality or masculinity. Beards aren’t an accomplishment. You’re not in control of your ability to grow a beard. If you exercise, eat right, try harder at work, are a good person, wrestle bears, score chicks, blow dudes, or blow up buildings – the hair follicles on your face will function as they always have. I’m not complaining about how beards became cool, I’m not upset that their popularity is declining, I’m not suggesting they’re traditional or claiming that they give you edge. I’m articulating the ridiculousness of inventing, clinging to or rejecting an identity based on facial hair.
The more we pontificate over what beards mean, why people have them and what ways they should groom them the more ridiculous we sound. Especially if you consider in my short life I watched the interpretation of beards change almost weekly before winding up at their current status as an oversaturated trend that is sure to drive the women away in droves. I’d like to think that the newest bollocks about ‘peak beard’ meant that we were all going to just drop the issue and the idea of focusing on them so much could just fade away into the ether, but I know that won’t happen. Facial hair will continue its meaningless ride up and down a roller coaster of vapid fascination. Pundits will weigh in with conjecture and propaganda and none of it will mean anything or matter, ever. The secret of the beard won’t ever be discovered by wringing your hands and trying to understand the cultural significance of it’s existence on a strangers face.
Chasing down the subtext of beards is a doomed trip down an existential abyss and I won’t join you. You’ll have ideas and theories that continually feel new and insightful but are always the same old shit. I will watch from the precipice as you spin further and further down the rabbit hole. You’ll be certain beards are cool until someone tells you that they’re not. You’ll suspect it’s ironic, you’ll think it’s sexy, you’ll think careful grooming means something and then be sure that it’s actually the lack of that tells the tale. You’ll wonder about it, you’ll lust after it, you’ll hate it, you’ll want one of your own. Spin, spin, spin. Ever-questioning, ever-accusing, always obsessed. I’ll stroke my beard, turn away and nod knowingly to myself as you fall further into futility demanding answers and declaring understanding before changing your mind and doing it all again.