In 1986, when I first tried to grow a beard, the consensus was that beards were for murderers and maniacs. Almost no one in mainstream America in the ’80s wore a beard; even in Alaska a beard was a serious statement that the wearer ate cold beans from a can and slept with his dogs.
I always felt that clean-shaven adult men looked suspicious—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 of observant men.
Unfortunately, this association with fundamentalism has discredited the beard, so that clean-shaven faces have come to represent modernity and beards to signify archaic and traditional ways. In the ’60s, hippies wore beards to announce their rejection of modern life (and their embrace of nutritional yeast and zucchini bread), just as in the ’80s American men rejected the hippies by pampering their cheeks like babies’ asses. The ’90s saw 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.
In the past few years the beard has again surged in popularity, first among indie rockers in denim-rock bands and now increasingly among the general population. It occurs to me that today’s young men, and the young women and men who love them, may be as confused about beard care as I was at their age, so they keep bringing the topic up, hoping someone will offer encouraging advice. I remember asking my dad, who wore a moustache for 35 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 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 they look 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, 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. 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 this advice is sexist or misogynistic are invited to come run their hands through my lustrous beard. Bring zucchini bread.)
Third, do not overtrim your beard. This is a common mistake and not just confined to young men. George Lucas overtrims his beard in the common misapprehension that it will reinforce his jawline, when in actual fact 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 overtrimming 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. 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.)
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 will make you a more serious person. 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, don’t bother investing in electric beard-trimmers. Dad’s mockery contained the wisdom of the sages. Most trimming can be accomplished with a small pair of scissors. The trick, just as in 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 like you’re trimming a hedge. To thin out a too-thick pelt, simply run a razor lightly over the surface of your wet 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. Until that time, I and my beard will remain vigilant.