For the past decade or so, my facial hair has fluctuated back and forth between neat and trim, and fully grown and bushy.
As any man who’s taken the time to grow a full beard knows, the strangest part isn’t having a beard itself, but everything that goes along with it. I never really stopped to think about these things—and you can’t—until you just try it for yourself.
Normally in the summer time, I either shave most of my beard off, leaving “chops” or sharply-defined sideburns, or at least give myself a serious trim. But for some reason, this summer I decided to try something different and just see what would happen if I stopped trimming it altogether.
I learned a few things about living with a relatively big beard, and about how people react to a man with a beard. Here are a few of my observations.
#1: People will ask you what your intentions are by growing a beard.
People you know, and even people you don’t know simply cannot resist commenting on it. They can’t not say something.
If you’re the kind of guy who has a short beard or no facial hair at all, and you start to grow a longer beard, people will barrage you with questions. As soon as they notice that your facial hair has gained volume or length, they’ll ask “Are you ‘growing it out?'” What kind of question is that? Growing it out to what? Some arbitrary length measured by a certain number of inches?
Sometimes, just to annoy people, I’d say “Yes. I’m going to keep going until I look like Billy Gibbons” (the guitar player from ZZ Top). I tried to say it with conviction so they couldn’t tell that I was just trying to end the conversation.
#2: People view your facial hair as a sort of public statement.
It’s weird: people treat the fact that you have a natural amount of facial hair as though you’re trying to prove a point. They’ll ask if you’re “going for the mountain man look,” or they’ll say you’re “turning into a lumberjack.” They’ll compare you to movie characters (Jeremiah Johnson, for one) or real-life celebrities that are in the current news cycle.
Since I started growing mine out most recently in the summer of 2018, and I live in Colorado, many people said “You look like Charlie Blackmon” (the Colorado Rockies center fielder). I don’t mind the comparison, but I couldn’t figure out the point of comments like that. Do they think I’m intentionally trying to look like someone else? I’m just being me!
It almost becomes a point of pride for some people. If I had a big, bushy mane, then gave it a decent trim, people would say knowingly “Ahh, couldn’t take it anymore, huh?” as though it was an admission of defeat.
Some men, who can’t grow a lot of facial hair, would comment on my beard, and tell me about their own experience. “I can’t grow a beard. I’ve tried, and I only get a small mustache” or some variation on that theme popped up in conversation many times. Some guys told me “My facial hair comes in too patchy to grow it out full like that.” I didn’t mind these comments, but it was always a bit weird how people would tell me about their own facial hair without me even asking or saying anything related to the topic.
#3: Beards eventually become unwieldy and require maintenance.
At first, just having a small amount of facial hair requires no extra thought or work at all. And it’s quite freeing to not need to shave at all for days or weeks at a time. But eventually, I realized I had built up a “daily regimen” for beard care. My facial hair grew so long that each morning after I woke up, I’d have to wet it down and use a boar-bristled brush to get the hair away from my face and out of my mouth. I’d have to brush it multiple times throughout the day in a similar manner.
“Bed head” for facial hair is a thing, too. There were days when I’d wake up and look in the mirror and my whole beard looked shoved far to the left and needed to be straightened out. Who knew?
In my experience, if I wanted to keep my beard and mustache under control, I had to keep a comb with me always. This meant I had to wear pocketed shirts so I could keep that comb handy. So, eventually, having facial hair began to change not only the perception people had of me, but it started to change my wardrobe.
I’d also have to shampoo my face when taking a shower. I talked to a woman one time who was dumbfounded at this idea. “It makes sense, I guess, but I just never thought about that before. I didn’t realize beards are made of hair too!” she told me. Now that was a strange comment, but I don’t think she was alone.
#4: Everything in your life becomes more complicated with a large beard.
And the larger it gets, the more complicated it gets. Eating and drinking becomes complicated (more on that later).
I eventually got tired of my face getting so bushy that I asked a hairdresser what to do. I wanted the length, but my facial hair naturally spikes out like a hedgehog. She told me that my hair is so curly and wavy that the only thing to do was use beard oil. She showed me how to use it, and I tried it for a few days. I hated it.
First of all, you have to put it on, and that’s a hassle. It also makes your hands oily. Ugh.
Second, you can’t forget that you’re wearing it. I got into the car once, and as I buckled my seatbelt, the shoulder belt slid over my face and smeared beard oil onto my shirt. Ugh.
Third, you can’t touch your beard. Sometimes, I’d sit in an easy chair, and rest my elbow on an armchair and put my chin in my hand. Boom: oily hand from the beard oil that I had forgotten about. Ugh.
Bottom line? Beard oil isn’t for me. So I’m stuck with a bushy and wavy beard.
#5: You need a napkin for EVERYTHING you eat or drink.
Once your facial hair reaches a certain level, you can’t even drink ice water without having something to mop up the mess. If I just took a drink of water from a glass, immediately, I’d spill water all over my shirt unless I had a napkin handy.
I once asked a guy with a beard much larger than mine how he dealt with this, and he told me “I just drink everything through a straw. Everything.”
Everything that comes near your face requires cleanup: dinner, coffee, milkshakes, salad dressing, potato chips, anything. Anything and everything you eat can get stuck in your beard or mustache. Also, you have to keep brushing your facial hair away while eating so it doesn’t get in your mouth. Growing up, I remember tell my sisters at the dinner table “you have hair in your mouth” if they hadn’t pulled it back into a ponytail. But it was strange to learn that the same thing happens to men with beards.
Also, people are used to seeing (and getting) a milk mustache when they drink chocolate milk. That’s a funny, socially acceptable, and predictable outcome. But if I went out for a drink and took even one sip of a beer with a foamy head, people would look and point and say “Uhh, you have beer foam on your face” as though I didn’t already know. I got used to grabbing 5-10 napkins every time I went out to eat or drink, and wiped my mouth after every sip. It gets old, and you get used to it, but it’s annoying.
#6: Some people love beards; some people hate them. All will tell you how they feel.
I’ve noticed that older generations (60+) in particular don’t like the look, and they’re not afraid to tell you. Elderly folks who are polite say “That’s not my style, but that’s just fine.” Older folks with less tact would show irritation their face and say “Huh. Is that the style these days?” or another response that sounded jocular but their faces often betrayed their words.
It’s funny: facial hair is something that grows on a man naturally. I felt like, with older folks in particular, they took personal offense as though I was trying to be some sort of counter-cultural hippie that eschews respect and order.
Yet, I can’t help being struck by the fact that a big, bushy beard is the natural state of a man. Absent modern technology like sharp razors and shaving cream, pretty much all men (at least white men like me) would have a large beard. It’s much more unnatural and unusual to have a clean-shaven face.
#7: You start to get known for your beard.
I knew some guys who had shorter facial hair earlier in the year, and, when I saw them later in the year, they wanted to tell me (or show me) that they were growing out their beard too. They wanted my approval. How strange.
Once during the summer, I went into a salon for a haircut. I mentioned the style of cut I wanted and the stylist said “Oh, I know.” I didn’t recognize her, so I said “Really? You remember me?” Her response caught me by surprise. “Of course, we all remember you. The guy with the big ginger beard.”
Huh? I have a “big ginger beard?” What a funny observation. She was right—she did remember me, and she got my haircut right. But I wasn’t aware that they knew me without even remembering my name.
Last week, I came home from an out-of-state trip, and my wife said she’d reached her limit and asked me to trim it. So I did the very next day. It’s not a big deal, and it never has been. My beard wasn’t even that big. But it was an interesting experiment and I learned about myself and other people, and how they react to an unshaven man in the 21st century.