Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Gentlemen, Grow Your Beards!

I guess it’s official. The sparse trimmed beard has become the go-to look for young men, at least young white men. Male magazine models have it. My students have it. Athletes have it. Guys on sitcoms have it.

Nobody alive in the US has experienced this before – a moment when beards are standard wear. During the postwar decades, any beards were a rare find. Maynard G. Krebs on “Dobie Gillis” personified the weirdness and lack of responsibility associated with beards in the early 1960s: he wore a little goatee and fainted when the word “work” was spoken.

With protests in the later 1960s came beards. But many political protesters kept shaving. The students who knocked on doors for Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy in 1968 thought that being “clean” might help them connect with average American voters.

Beards were still “dirty”, as in the frequent and mostly wrong-headed phrase, “dirty hippies”. Those who wanted to separate themselves from conventional culture wore sandals, jeans, colorful fabrics, long flowing hair, simple jewelry, and for many men, beards. Not cutting facial hair was somehow sticking it to the Man.

Since the 1970s, beards have waxed and waned among the fashionable, but they became popular in rural northern America, when their obvious advantages in winter were rediscovered. When I lived in Maine, the greatest concentration of beards I ever saw gathered once a year at the Common Ground Fair, the nexus for the hardiest of back-to-the-land pioneers, environmental proselytizers, handicraft artists, and everyone else who was “alternative”. Few of those beards were trimmed.

The Common Ground Fair still attracts the faithful to Unity, Maine, but beards have gone mainstream. I think it’s funny. The preferred male facial hair style requires even more equipment and care than shaving did. Portions of the face are kept clean, in rigid patterns that barely differ among millions. Other regions must be trimmed, often requiring a separate expensive tool. Some (lucky?) fellows have such thin facial hair that they don’t even need to trim.

I suppose that young men today have some good associations with this style. I remember the hullabaloo when Don Johnson tried it out on “Miami Vice” in the 1980s. “Miami Vice made stubble cool,” said Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ magazine. I don’t think that most young men have heard of Don Johnson. Whom are they thinking about?

I don’t know, because I am afraid of asking. I probably couldn’t keep my surprise at this sartorial choice out of my voice. My association of 3-day growth is the look of camping trips, bad hangovers, and sleeping on park benches. Why imitate that?

I have no idea. Somehow “5 o’clock shadow” has become “designer stubble”. As in many things, I live in a different world than young people, a world full of images they have not imagined.

Some biologists claim that human females generally find men with beards more attractive. I find that hard to believe. But women who do like men with beards can go to Bristlr, a dating site for those who love beards. Certain religions mandate that adult men grow beards. The freedom of growing facial hair is lost when it is commanded.

But I won’t complain if beards are in. I appreciate that men, rather than their employers, can now select their own grooming style. There are endless possible beards, as the men who enter the yearly World Beard Championships demonstrate in outrageous variety.

Beards, especially white ones, have centuries of good associations behind them. They can stand for the kindliness of Santa or the wisdom that comes with age. Deciding not to shave everything opens up a world of possibilities for self-expression.

Long live beards!

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 10, 2015

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