Of Beards and Men
It wasn’t meant to end this way, for a time it felt so right, like we were meant to be together, like we were soul mates. In truth things had been unraveling for some time, I was turning into someone I did not want to be, I felt trapped, controlled, manipulated. So one fine Saturday morning I mustered enough courage to say enough, is enough, and so it was that after a short altercation in the bathroom, my beard was gone.
Those of us with half an ounce of peripheral awareness will have witnessed the recent explosion of bearded males walking amongst us. Such has been the proliferation of bearded heroes, that adjectives like pandemic and phenomenon would not be out of place in describing the urban lumberjack apocalypse we are living through.
Given that I work on the edges of what could loosely be termed fashion, and particularly since my stock and trade is selling face creams, I wanted to take a closer look at this phenomenon, a closer look at what was going on, on the faces of the hipsters and the trendsetters. Over the previous 12 weeks I had grown a beard, in order to find out what all the fuss was about, and more specifically to conduct my own piece of research into ‘Beard Oils’ to ascertain if they were gimmick or indeed the wunderkammer oil many proclaim.
From the start I sensed this trend might be more than just a facial hair experiment, more than a passing fad. It felt more complex, part fashion; young urban males having adopted the axe-wielding lumberjack as their current point of aesthetic reference. Partly urban man reclaiming some previously forfeited sense of manliness, reconnecting with their inner brute, if only to balance their burgeoning online shopping habits. Was it partly a response to the fallout from the GFC? Middle class males searching for something more meaningful than corporate greed and boardroom politics and finding it in a canvas backpack, a new tattoo and a walk in the woods. It definitely felt like anyone with a hint of ginger in their heritage was exploiting a moment in time and in the process getting just a little over confident with the process.
Whichever the case, at the start, I will admit it was liberating. To not have to go through the routine of a morning shave meant a certain air of ‘c’est la vie’ came to my morning ritual, often flowing on to my wardrobe choice and even into my day proper.
I will even go as far as saying that in the early weeks I felt more manly, more rugged, a sensation I totally enjoyed, and for a time people commented on my growth suggesting it suited me. My chest popped, my stride lengthened ‘this guy was on fire’. Already I was surreptitiously studying which version of a bearded guy I would be; French poet, austere nobleman, aloof musician, rugged woodsman, the ‘Zig Zag’ guy, Lenin.
Then somewhere about week six or seven, out of nowhere, a sea change occurred, suddenly as I passed by the windows of parked cars or answered my mobile phone I was catching glimpses of a beaten down Hemmingway, a bloated Jim Morrison, a disheveled mill worker. At first I found it all slightly amusing and told people about it, thinking it funny. Then it just wasn’t. I was actually starting to see myself as a middle-aged man whose best days were behind him. Growing a beard was starting to effect my psyche and I was turning into a monk, a mildly depressed monk.
Perhaps it’s the commitment that growing a beard requires, there is a certain discipline to it, G.K.Chesterman said it best, ‘you cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion’. There are definite sacrifices required that force something of a minor withdrawal from the everyday tittle-tattle of society. Women become more distant, certainly you have no wish to put your face next to one, primarily because you know that your beard feels rough and wiry, but also because you know it smells, a regrettable truth that you yourself can live with because it’s your smell and in a weird way not altogether unpleasant. But this is not an odour for sharing, not with a loved one, nor a friend and certainly not a stranger. So instead you stand back a little when its time for introductions, lingering at the back of groups, standing to the side in elevators. It becomes harder to imagine yourself having sex, without inducing the thought of a red cheeked, bulbous nosed Santa rutting away on one of the elves after a little too much brandy.
With a beard the reality is some things are just better performed from a distance.
Ironically you end up grooming more not less, you are by definition a higher maintenance device, as you attempt to shape and contort the beard to suit or at least to hang in a manageable manner.
All of this does nothing to reduce and ever-increasing feeling of mild isolation, its hard not to hum “ I’m a lumberjack and I’m ok”.
Recognising this was not a state to spend a lot of time in, the moment had come to take back control, to feel sharp again and to stop looking like a caricature of myself as a fishing boat captain. So I decided to shave. No more white and ginger minge, no more itching and scratching. I needed freedom and what is left of my youth back, and with the single flash of a blade it came to me, albeit with a bit of a rash. A beard may indeed be slow to grow but I can tell you it is also quick to go — relief.
As a man growing a beard I believe I was nothing short of a complete and utter failure. Whining and moaning my way through the experience like a child on a long walk. As a social experiment however it was slightly more successful. The process did get me thinking about what it means to be a modern, urban dwelling, tech savvy, swamped in social media, male. Trying to live and fit in and at the same time defining a personal style in an age when almost anything goes, so long as you look like part of the team — what ever that means. What I learnt was that growing a beard for a time at least is a great extension of a man’s personal style, an addition to the repertoire, a string to the bow.
The process helped me realize although there is something appealing about letting it all hang out, but that there is also a toll to this when taken to its extreme and that is, the effect that your personal appearance has on your psyche, on how you feel about yourself — shallow as it may sound I do believe it to be true.
In a previous life when I played sport for a living every now and again a player would come into a thing we called ‘the zone’ an ethereal state where the game became easy, a very real sensation of having time and space when others were rushed and cramped. If and when this state of heightened consciousness came, you needed to cash in on it.
Wiser players would protect themselves, protect the state of form, they would practice harder, withdraw from hi-jinks, in short they tried to maintain themselves to allow the form to flow and to last.
I think this idea of maintaining your mental state is one worth noting. Respecting good health, respecting a positive attitude, by looking after it and nourishing it. Ultimately when I grew my beard I realised there is something nice about taking pride in my appearance, about cutting a svelte, clean-shaven figure. I thought about fashion and how silly chasing such a thing is, and that perhaps a better way to go is to define a look that you feel good about and that this might be a much more useful and healthy measure of style.
Growing a beard helped me decide that style meant embracing the ageing process at the right angle, working with it to cheat it and defy it, but not fighting it head on, clear in the reality that you can not reverse it, but instead perhaps learn to enjoy the process of your own personal style evolution. Adapting a look with consideration to yourself, the things you admire and want to reflect combined with a realistic approach to age and situation. Being something as opposed to following something.
In regards the beard oil experiment, which was at the heart of the exercise I felt it was a complete a bust. I do get the idea of beard oil, having taken the effort to grow a beard it feels right to do something in the way of grooming it. So there is definitely a need; to groom, to shape, to cleanse.
The issue I have with beard oils however is that they are simply not fit for the job. Although they look and sound nice, mainly they are a poorly mixed group of essential oils. And essential oils should not be placed onto the skin in concentrate form (I presume this is part of the reason they all suggest using the minutest amount, along with the fact that if you use any more it makes you drip like a seeping wound). They can and often do smell good, which I believe is almost their sole upside, but fit for purpose they are not.
Of course there will be those proponents of beard oils who read this and suggest I’m simply promoting my own products. And they may well have a point. Ultimately if a person using a product feels like it is working for them, who am I to say differently. But when we started Triumph & Disaster we set ourselves the challenge of never putting out a ‘me to’ product, created just to extend our range. And after growing a beard I believe this is where beard oil would sit.
So we won’t do it.
I do however have some advice for caring for your skin and beard when ‘going monk’ and it would go something like this;
• Use a great (natural) facial cleanser, preferably one that creates foam. Use this morning and night. Beards collect natural oil from both the skin and from the hair itself and over the course of a day this becomes stale. Also dead skin continually peels beneath the hair and needs to be washed out to keep pores clear and skin healthy. In my experience the skin underneath a beard needs more cleaning than it did pre beard.
• Moisturise. In many ways a moisturiser can act like a beard oil in that it gives weight and shape to your beard, but the moisturiser will also give your skin relief, it can be hard to rub into a thick beard but the skin around the beard still needs moisturizing, and what is left on your hands use to add shape to the beard.
• Comb it. At the end of the day this gave me a huge amount of relief and it got out much of the dead skin, I felt it also softened the bristles to a degree. Whatever, it felt great.
• Investigate a mustache wax, these I actually found to be quite useful, much heavier more in line with a hair product, a mustache wax is a great shaping tool and will deliver a pleasant scent.
• Buy a great scent and use it.
This concludes my own personal experience of growing and caring for a beard. In finishing I would like to say, let the bearded hipsters with their rolled up hems have their moment, everyone deserves one. The lumberjack fashion will run its course, but I for one will be spending my time henceforth focusing on what makes me feel good as much as what makes me look good, and if I gained nothing else from my bearded experiment, I believe this lesson learnt to be a jewel worth keeping.