Monday, February 18, 2008

Beards Are Back. Real Men Don't Care.

When I was in high school, I grew my first beard.

My father had decided to grow his beard out during a trip to Yellowstone Park, and I thought it looked pretty good on him. I suspect that that was what influenced me to try it out for myself, a year or two later.

Also, a lot of the Jesus People I hung out with had beards or moustaches, during the early seventies. That was a strong influence on me, not because I felt that I had to look like them in order to fit in, but because I strongly admired those men, and I sought a way to express my admiration.

Unfortunately, men of my father's generation didn't think that beards made men look "professional," so Dad shaved his off a mere two weeks after he'd first started growing it --- just when it was starting to look good. To my recollection, that was Dad's first and last beard.

Fortunately, I was not constrained by such considerations. I soon learned that I had "beard-friendly" genetics. I had a pretty impressive beard by the time when I graduated from high school in 1974. It wasn't as thick or impressive as it would become in later years, but it was still pretty impressive, considering my age.

I soon decided that I really liked the look. It felt as if it fit me like a glove. But there were times when I shaved it off, even though I would have preferred to keep it. Usually, the reason had something to do with the need to find a job. Given a choice between beardlessness or penury, I chose beardlessness. Even so, I admit that I felt a certain amount of resentment when I had to do so. I could not for the life of me figure out why folks felt that facial hair or the lack thereof had anything to do with how qualified I was to do particular jobs. Frankly, I still can't.

When I was a student at College of The Ozarks from January of 1976 to December of 1977, the school had a dress code which prohibited beards. But one clever student figured out a way around the policy, at least for a short time. He persuaded them to sponsor a "Bicentennial Beard Contest". The objective, ostensibly, was to pay homage to the past by striving to grow a beard which most closely resembled a historical figure (such as a president) chosen by the contestant. Contestants could abstain from shaving, but only if they wore buttons identifying themselves as contestants whenever they walked around on campus!

Silly, right? But kind of fun, too. I took second place in the contest, right behind a guy who ostensibly had tried to grow a beard which looked like Lincoln's beard. (He looked nothing like Lincoln, in my opinion.) In my case, I just went through a book showing photos of U.S. presidents, and selected a president whose beard was the biggest, thickest beard I could find. I seem to recall that Garfield was the president I chose to emulate.

During the 80's, I lived in the Boston area and worked at the Harvard Cooperative Society for 5 years. During that time, my employer allowed me to grow a very long and thick beard. One time I was walking down the street in Harvard Square, and someone shouted, "ZZ Top" at me. I didn't mind that so much. Another time, a guy driving by in a pickup truck shouted, "Get yourself a real job." I did mind that, since I was working two different jobs at the time.

I also grew an extremely long and thick beard during the four years when I worked as a database specialist for YMCA Child Welfare from 1996 to 2000 here in Chicago. The hippie era was but a distant memory, so no one could claim that I was especially fashionable. But I didn't care. I liked the look, and I had never been much of a slave to fashion anyway.

Why am I reminiscing about my history vis-a-vis beards? Because I've recently seen a number of articles proclaiming that "the beard is back," in publications such as Time magazine, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

It's kind of ironic, because even though I much prefer the bearded look, I happen to be "clean shaven" at the moment, on account of the fact that I don't want to do anything which could make it even more difficult for me to find employment.

A number of the people who have discussed the latest trend have talked about how growing a beard is a way for a man to assert his manliness and his unwillingness to be a conformist.

Both of those things are probably true; but it seems to me that a person who feels a need to assert his manliness is, by definition, not particularly manly. And a person who feels a need to assert that he or she isn't a conformist is, in a strange way, just as subservient to societal demands and expectations as anyone else.

Real men don't follow the trends. Real men make the trends or ignore them altogether.

True nonconformists don't feel a need to make public "statements" about their conformity or lack thereof. And nothing could be more conformist than adopting a particular manner of dress because everyone else is suddenly doing the same thing.

In short, the people who will grow beards because beards have become trendy are, in general, insecure people who allow other people to do their thinking for them. So even though I think it's kind of nice that the current trends happen to favor my own stylistic preferences, the truth of the matter is that I will continue to make stylistic decisions in a manner which is relatively independent of what others may think or say.

Just don't be surprised if I choose to grow a beard as soon as I find a job where employees are allowed to do so!

No comments: