For the past decade or so, my facial hair has fluctuated back and forth between being 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 about having a beard isn’t your facial hair itself but everything else that goes along with it.
Normally in the summertime, I either shave most of my beard off, leaving “chops” or sharply defined sideburns, or I at least give myself a serious trim. But for some reason, a few summers ago, I decided to try something different and see what would happen if I just stopped trimming my beard altogether. I learned a lot of interesting things about living with a relatively large beard and about how people react to a man with facial hair.
Here are seven observations I made while undergoing a social experiment called “growing a beard.”
#1: People will ask you “what your intentions are” by growing a beard.
It’s really strange. 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 then you decide to start growing 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 start to ask, “are you growing it out?” What kind of a question is that? Growing it out to what? Some arbitrary length measured by a certain number of inches?
Sometimes just to annoy people, I would say, “Yep. I’m going to keep going until I look just like Billy Gibbons.” I liked to keep people guessing half the time they couldn’t tell if I was kidding or not. Really, I just wanted to end the conversation.
#2: People will view your facial hair as some 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 you if you’re “going for that mountain man look, ” or they’ll say, “you’re turning into a lumberjack.” They’ll compare you to movie characters like Jeremiah Johnson in my case, or real-life celebrities in the current news cycle.
Since I grew my beard out in the summer of 2018 and I lived in Colorado at the time, several people told me, “you look like Charlie Blackmon,” the Colorado Rockies center fielder. I didn’t mind the comparison necessarily, but I couldn’t figure out the point of that comment. Were people thinking I’m intentionally trying to look like someone else? I’m just being me!
It almost becomes a weird point of pride where some people like to challenge you.
If I had a big bushy mane and then gave it a decent trim, people would say, knowingly, “Haha… couldn’t take it anymore, huh?” as though it was some sort of admission of defeat. Sometimes men who can’t grow a lot of facial hair would tell me about their own experience.
“I can’t grow a beard. I’ve tried, and I can only get a small mustache,” or some variation on this theme popped up in conversation many times.
Totally unsolicited, men would say, “my facial hair comes in too patchy to grow it out full like that. I didn’t mind these comments so much, but it is a little bit weird how people tell me about their own facial hair without my even asking or even saying anything related to the topic at all.
#3: Beards eventually become unwieldy and require daily maintenance.
At first, just having a small amount of facial hair requires no extra thought or work at all. And it’s quite freeing not to need to shave 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-bristle 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. And get this: bed head for facial hair is a thing.
There were some days when I’d wake up and look in the mirror, and my whole beard looked completely shoved far to the left or far to the right and needed to be straightened out.
If I wanted to keep my beard and mustache under control, I had to keep a comb with me at all times. 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 mentioned that to a woman one time who was dumbfounded at this idea. “Wow, that makes sense,” she told me. “But I just never thought about that before. I guess I didn’t realize beards are made of hair.”
Now that was a strange comment. But I don’t think she’s the only one who was thinking it.
#4: Everything in your life becomes more complicated with a large beard.
And the larger it gets, the more complicated it gets. Even eating and drinking start to become tricky.
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. For three reasons.
First of all, you have to put it on, and that’s a hassle. It also makes your hands oily. Yuck.
Second, you can’t forget that you’re wearing it. I got into my car once. And as I sat down and buckled my seatbelt, the shoulder belt slid over my face and smeared beard oil over my shirt. Yuck.
Third, you can’t touch your beard. Sometimes I’d sit down in an easy chair and set my elbow on an armrest and then put my chin in my hand. Boom. Oily hand from the beard oil I had forgotten all about. Yuck.
Bottom line: beard oil is not 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 point, 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, it would spill water all over my shirt unless I had a napkin handy. I once met a guy with a beard much larger than mine, and I asked him how he dealt with this. He told me: “I drink everything through a straw. Everything.”
This started to wear on me. I found that everything that comes near your face requires cleanup. Dinner, coffee, milkshakes, salad dressing, potato chips, water; anything and everything you eat can and will 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 telling my sisters sometimes at the dinner table: “Um, you’re getting hair in your mouth” if they hadn’t pulled their hair back into a ponytail. But it was strange to learn that the same thing could happen to me. Also, people are used to getting a milk mustache when they drink milk or 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 beer with a big head, people I was with would point and say, “Uh, you have beer foam on your face,” as though I didn’t already know.
I eventually got used to grabbing five to 10 napkins every time I went out to eat or drink and wiped my mouth after every sip. You get used to it, but it really is annoying.
#6: Some people love beards. Some people hate them. All will tell you how they feel.
I noticed that people from older generations, say 60 plus, in particular, don’t seem to like the look. And they’re really not afraid to tell you. Elderly folks being polite would sometimes say, “Well, that’s not my style, but that’s okay for you. “
Some older folks who were less diplomatic would say, “Huh? Is that the style these days?” or some other response that sounded somewhat jocular, but their faces were visibly annoyed.
It’s funny. Facial hair is something that grows on a man naturally. I felt like, especially with older folks, they took personal offense as though I was trying to be some sort of counter-cultural hippie eschewing respect and order. Yet I can’t help being struck by the fact that a big bushy mane is the natural state of a man. Absent modern technology like sharp razors and shaving cream, pretty much all men– at least men with a similar ethnicity to me–would have a large beard. It’s actually much more unnatural 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 that year. And then when I saw them later in the year, they wanted to tell me or show me that they were growing out their beard too. It was weird. It was like they wanted my approval.
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 was confused because I didn’t recognize her. So I said, “Really? Do you remember me?” Her response caught me by surprise: “Of course, we all remember you. You’re the guy with the big ginger beard.”
Huh. I have a big ginger beard? What a funny observation. She was right, I guess. she must have remembered me; she got my haircut right. But I wasn’t aware that they knew me without remembering my name.
At the end of that summer, I came home from a week-long out-of-state trip. And my wife looked at me and 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 was. My beard wasn’t even that big, but it was a fascinating experiment. And I learned about myself and other people and how they react to an unshaven man, in America, in the 21st century.
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