How to Maintain Your Beard
Originally published in Seattle Weekly
In 1986, when I first attempted to grow a beard, the general consensus was that beards were for murderers and maniacs. Almost no one in mainstream America wore a beard during the eighties, and even in Alaska a beard was a serious statement that the wearer ate cold beans from a can and slept with his dogs. The only public figure of any note who wore a beard at that time was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who also wore a bow-tie, rode a mule, and carried a blunderbuss.
I always felt that clean-shaven adult men were suspicious-looking—either too vain or too conformist to let their face do what nature intended—so I strove to grow a beard from the first sign of a fuzzy wisp under my nose. In every country from Greece to Pakistan adult men wear flourishing moustaches as soon as they are able and until they die, just as they are expected to wear pants, and many of the world’s religions consider the beard an obligation for the observant men.
Unfortunately this association with fundamentalism has discredited the beard over the years, so that clean-shaven faces have come to represent modernity and beards, by extension, to signify archaic and traditional ways. In the sixties, the hippies wore beards to announce their rejection of modern life (and their embrace of nutritional yeast and zucchini bread) just as in the eighties American men rejected the hippies by pampering their cheeks like babies’ asses. The nineties featured a brief explosion of goatees, so that in 1994 it seemed like a majority of American men were auditioning for a job as a sitcom bongo player, but the mass-insanity passed and the goatee returned to its rightful place as the beard of choice for doormen in Irish bars.
For the last few years the beard has surged in popularity, first among indie-rockers in denim-rock bands, and now increasingly among the general population. I see them sprouting on faces everywhere, and I’ve noticed that I’m asked about my beard more and more all the time. It occurs to me that today’s young men, and the young women and men who love them, may be as confused about the care and maintenance of beards as I was at their age, so they keep bringing the topic up in the hope that someone will offer some encouraging words of advice. I remember asking my Dad, who wore a moustache for thirty-five years, how he kept it trimmed so perfectly. He explained by taking out the scissors on his Swiss-Army knife and making a snipping motion while looking at me like I was retarded. This is the way men in my family explain things to each other. I used to surreptitiously examine older men’s beards in the hopes of divining their secrets, but had to be very careful not to get caught staring too intently, especially in my old Pike/Pine neighborhood around the corner from the old Spar, where altogether too many men would have been HAPPY to show me how they trimmed their beards.
Eventually, through a process of trial and error in which I regularly snipped off half of my moustache while ill-advisedly trying to groom late at night while drunk, I learned some of the age-old secrets which I now humbly offer to the next generation of beard-wearers struggling to find their beard identity.
First, embrace the beard which nature hath given you. Too many young men agonize over the patchiness, sparseness, coarseness or wispiness of their beards, when the truth is that all beards have their own grace. Many full-bearded men wish they had one of those wispy, patchy beards because the sparse beard looks youthful and chic in an FHM photo shoot kind of way. I’ve listened to so many guys complain that they can’t grow a beard because “it won’t grow in here, and over here, and right here on the side.” The fact is that no one else examines your beard that closely. Let it grow and learn not to obsess over its faults. A beard is an opportunity to be freed from contemporary vanity, do not fall prey to anxious fretting over small imperfections.
Second, do not listen to women who say they don’t like beards. They are expressing the ancient female art of domesticating men by shaving and perfuming them, and if you succumb to their cajoling then they won’t stop with your beard. If your girlfriend threatens to break up with you if you grow a beard, I challenge you to test her resolve. Don’t be cowed by empty threats. I can’t count the number of “facial-hair-haters” who ended up reluctantly conceding that they actually liked my beard once they interacted with it. Also, do not be swayed by girls who claim not to like beards because their father either had or did not have a beard. They will use that excuse to justify all kinds of shit. (Readers who feel that this advice is sexist or misogynistic are invited to come run their hands through my lustrous beard. Bring zucchini bread.)
Third, do not over-trim your beard. This is a common mistake and not just confined to young men. George Lucas over-trims his beard in the common misapprehension that it will reinforce his jaw-line, when in actual fact the opposite is true. His beard ends up looking like a chin-strap on a football helmet. Your beard should properly end somewhere around the place where your face hits your neck, and if your face goes all the way down to your chest then your beard should too.
Another form of over-trimming common to young men is the douchey pencil beard, like the one on the “tough” runt from the Backstreet Boys. These beards look like someone smeared ink on the top of your bong. They won’t camouflage a weak chin and they won’t make you look like a player if you’re not a player. Any beard that requires more fastidious plucking than a Brazilian wax is generally going to send the message that you wish you’d been born a girl.
There is some case to be made that these eye-liner beards are a cultural expression popular among certain segments of the population of Miami, Orlando and Palm Beach, and that if Florida disco-smoothies DIDN’T wear them then drag kings would have that much harder of a job getting dressed, but I am unmoved by these appeals.
Fourth, if you decide to let your beard go wild and develop into a fabulous Appalachian bird’s-nest, please do not fall prey to the misapprehension that this makes you a more serious person. A wooly and unkempt beard does not automatically confer upon the wearer any actual wisdom or experience, and many a young man has sidled up to, for instance, some drunk members of the Banditos Motorcycle Gang, expecting that his long beard will gain him a measure of acceptance. It will not. What a long beard WILL do is relieve you from ever having to think about your face again, because your face will have been replaced by your beard.
Fifth, and finally, don’t bother investing in any electric beard-trimmers. My Dad’s mockery contained the wisdom of the sages. The majority of trimming can be accomplished with a small pair of scissors. The trick, just like cutting hair, is to keep the scissors on the same plane as your face. Never trim your mustache along the line of your top lip, instead turn the scissors so the blades cut up and down, then trim across your beard like you’re trimming a hedge. To thin out a too-thick pelt, simply run your disposable razor lightly over the surface of your wet beard.
Hopefully these hints will aid you in the care and maintenance of your beard. As our generation grows older I hope to see some Martin Van Burens, William Howard Tafts, and Walt Whitmans distinguish themselves in the public sphere, until it’s once again safe for a bearded man to run for the office of President of the United States. Until that time, I and my beard will remain vigilant.