November 2004


How we look affects how we feel about how we deal with others. People are social animals, and however much you feel yourself to be an individual, we're all connected.

About every 10 years or so, I decide that I ought to grow fur on my face. Sometimes my decision follows some worse-than-usual razor mishap. At other times, it is just that I cannot be bothered to shave. In the past, I never kept to my resolve much past a week. As anyone who ever tried can tell you, the process of growing a beard sucks.

We don't usually notice our hair, unless it gets really dirty or something gets in it. It just lays there and we comb it occasionally. When you let hair grow where there hasn't been any before, it bothers you. It itches. Growing a beard is kind of like lying down on a pillow covered in horse hair and waking up with half of it stuck to your face.

Add to these discomforts the fact that you look like a bum stuffed into your clothes, and it's easy to see why so many men shave almost every day. But we men who have been shaving since our teens wonder what we'd look like if we ever grew a beard. So we conduct an experiment (but seldom succeed).

But this time, I had some help. I dislocated my shoulder. Not being able to bring your favored shaving hand to your face is a big inducement for growing a beard. I toyed with the idea of trying to shave with the wrong hand, but I slice myself up enough with my good hand to make using my other hand an unattractive proposition. That razor gets really close to some major arteries and veins.

There are lots of other consequences, too. Everybody you know greets you with, "Oh, you're growing a beard!" or they grab their own face and ask, "What's this?" Once that ritual is over, you'd better be prepared for their favorite beard story. The better you know someone, the longer the version of this story you get. Store clerks and co-workers usually confine themselves to the short version, thankfully. That's a help because there are only really two stories: 1) Why I didn't keep my beard, and 2) Why I wish I still had it.

Very few people are really satisfied with the beard they can grow. 90 percent of people's complaints about their own beards are that they're "uneven."

   "I looked like my beard had been attacked by a couple of chipmunks." "It looked like some drunk had a go at my beard with rusty old clippers while I was asleep." "Made me look like my mother's worst nightmare."

People say these kinds of things because they're true. Beards are seldom uniform. They're like the rest of our features. People usually don't complain about the unevenness of their ears (unless extreme) or how their eyebrows are weird. We seldom complain as much about things we can't do much about. Beards are different. Hot soapy lather, a little courage, and a razor will fix just about everything that's wrong with your beard in about 10 minutes. Of course, that won't fix what's still wrong with your face.

Which leads me to another observation: many men who grow beards do so because they think they looked a lot better when they were 20 than they do now at 40. If you have a full beard, nobody can see all those chins you've accumulated --  it's hard to decide whether their beard is full or their face is fat.

A few men just look good, regardless of their face hair. Tom Selleck is a good case in point, but  he is the exception rather than the norm. Most men look either better or worse  because of  their beard. It makes me wonder what women would look like with whiskers. Take some supermodel type and put onto her face a good, professionally-done fake beard -- would we be able to get past the "looks weird" to decide whether it looked good?

In an interview some years ago, Loni Anderson described the process of going suddenly from brunette to platinum blonde. She said she was always catching sight of her own reflection in mirrors and wondering, "Who in hell is that?" I'm no actor, so I'm nowhere near so attuned to how I look to other folks, but it is a shock to see some stranger looking back at me in the mirror every morning. I'm not sure how well I'm going to like him when I get to know him better.

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