Monday, September 12, 2011

Open Forum Monday: The Beard

There are times in our lives in which everything snaps into focus. They're rare moments, precious and few, in which everything aligns; it's the twist of a key as the tumblers into place. It's the satisfying snap of the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, the last resonant chord that lingers on long after the orchestra players have packed their cases. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, you know. There's no mistaking it for anything else.

For me and my self-image, that moment came several years ago when I grew a beard.

I've written before about how much time I spent—wasted, truth be told—not liking my face. For years and years I honestly never enjoyed looking at myself. I hated taking photographs, and generally would assume a rictus of absolute fear and loathing when someone pointed a camera my way.

My eyes always danced away when I walked by mirrors; if I absolutely had to assess myself in a reflective surface—after a haircut, say, or when combing my hair in the morning or seeing how a new pair of pants might fit—it was with the defeated attitude of, oh well, guess that’s the best it’ll ever get. I pissed away precious years worrying about piddly stuff no one really noticed—thinking my eyes were too small, my nose too big, my forehead too high, my skin too uneven, my lips too thin . . . the list could be endless, in the old days.

And it was a waste, of course, because now, when I look back at old photos of myself (grimacing, looking panic-stricken), all I do is shake my head and think what a babe I was. Attractive enough, sure. The number of guys chasing after me in the old days should have told me that. But a babe in a more literal sense, too. I was smooth-faced and bright-eyed and oh, so young. And stupid. Stupid that I frittered away time and energy hating my looks.

The turning point for me came several years ago when I grew a beard. Oh, I'd sported facial hair before. In college I walked around for a few weeks with an embarrassment of a moustache. It was so white and peach-fuzzy that it looked as if I'd bent over to sniff a dandelion and come away with it all over my upper lip. In the very early nineteen-nineties, long before they became ubiquitous in the midwest, I grew a goatee, kept it for a year, and after being teased relentlessly about it by all the same people who grew the very same configuration of facial hair three years later when it was popular, finally decided it didn't suit me.

When I left my full-time job at the university a half-dozen years ago, though, one of the first things I decided to do was grow a beard. Now, this was in the days (again!) before beards became the ubiquitous hipster recession accessory that they are now. I'd never considered having one before. I only knew about two people who weren't collecting social security checks who had one.

I waited until I'd taken the big step to stop working at an office job because growing facial hair when you're working full time is annoying, for one thing. One has to put up with jibes from co-workers who first want to know if you forgot to wash that first morning, then who have to put in their opinion on how your face is looking every day after. When I was working at home in my office and studio most of the day, no one was going to care if I looked a little scruffy.

So I did what I'd been advised to do, which was simply not to shave for four weeks. At the end of that time I cleaned up my neck, used my clippers to trim my Unabomber face down to a neat, trim, short beard, and looked into the mirror at the blond fur that was left.

And I just knew. Everything clicked; the camera came into sharp focus, the tumblers fell, the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. I stared at myself in the mirror that day, eyes wide, and realized that I should've had that damned beard all along.

The change has really meant a lot to me. I can't say I'm a total Narcissus. But my friends and family might. These days I'm thrusting myself into photographs when I'm not wanted, grinning like a fool. There are Japanese tourists at this moment reviewing their digital photos from Times Square last week and wondering who is that enormously tall white guy stooping down to smile along with them in their family poses. I can't walk around a Restoration Hardware or a Bed, Bath, and Beyond without checking myself out in every mirror in the damned place. Is my hair lookin' fly? Oh, it totally is. Is my face rockin’? Oh yeah, baby! And when I do a self-inspection, I’m practically winking at myself, cocking finger guns, and firing them at my reflection while leering, “Lookin’ good, handsome!”

Apparently having a beard makes me change my -ings to -in's, too.

I’m not one of those guys whose interest in someone is directly proportional to the amount of facial hair the chap is sporting. On other guys, I can take the stuff or leave it. On myself, though, it's simply right. It feels as if I've found a look that on the outside matches the way I feel inside, when I'm at my best.

Although I've had the beard for years now, I spent enough of my life in self loathing that getting a look at a handsome face in the mirror (and I'm talking about mine, of course) is still a nice, novel feeling. I’m happy finally to be living at least a part of my life without fearing the mirror and what I’ll see there.

I'm curious about the experiences of others. I know that a lot of us here have expressed our struggles with how we see ourselves. Was there ever a moment when everything suddenly shifted from wrong to right for you? What was it?


  1. Beards are hot...could we have a picture of yours?

    great blog, by the way


  2. Raulito,

    I suggest looking at the little photo in the 'About the Breeder' section in the sidebar. You can see it larger if you follow the link and click on the photo.

  3. I never really thought about it before but your post made me realise that I had always assumed that unlike women, men from the day they're born are equipped with absolute self-confidence and never ever doubt their looks.

    I'm still reeling from this new insight.

  4. Countesszero,

    Hah! Hardly. To some extent, the culture simply encourages us not to think about it or express our doubts and feelings about the way we look, or fear we look.

    Scratch someone with XY chromosomes though, and you'll find a mess of self-doubt about looks underneath.

  5. I was lucky enough to be able to grow a full beard at the tender age of fourteen when I was a freshman in high school. I could grow a fuller beard than many of the seniors. Back then, though, I shaved it off daily. Not because I didn't like it; I never really thought about it. It was partly because I was trying to look young to attract older men, partly because I was a swimmer, and partly because my dad aggressively wanted me to look a certain way, and a beard was not part of that. I finally got one my freshman year of college when I just stopped shaving for months at a time. I would grow my beard out really long then shave the whole thing off. It wasn't until Sophomore year that I decided to just keep it trimmed. Now I'm rarely without one. Like you, I just feel right with a beard, always have, but now especially with my hair long (which I also wanted to do since I was twelve). I love that I look either like a wild man with a mane and beard, or a composed young scholar. I look in mirrors constantly now too, something I never did. Men and women love to touch my hair and talk to me about it. It has really boosted my self esteem.

    I still have moments when I look in the mirror and think, "God, you are one ugly, fat fuck." But that's my own personal issue.


  6. Ace,

    You hardly are fat. Definitely not ugly.

    A fuck, maybe. But a good one!

  7. Rob,

    Thanks man. I wasn't fishing for a compliment, but I'll take it. You, too, are an incredibly handsome man. I could gush about you all day, and some times do. ;)


  8. Hey breeder,

    I love your hot entries but really love it when you get personal with us. You're pretty much my favorite writer now, and since I love to read that's saying something. Thanks for being so real and honest and a real wordsmith.


  9. Rob, you are gorgeous and I imagine that I would find you as gorgeous beardless as with. I've yet to find that moment. I try different looks, hairstyles, facial hairstyles. Now I look at pictures of myself from about 10 years ago, and how small and twinkish I was. I miss that. I also miss the glasses I had...boxy black frames...I see those glasses on lots of guys, and find them so so handsome.

    I'm very much still a work in process. :)

  10. Writer,

    I had a similar issue with glasses for a while. I had round-ish ones that just absolutely did nothing good for me. I thought about going with the thick, box frames you're talking about, but then on a whim I tried on a thinner, boxy pair by Harley Davidson and it was perfect. I love my frames now. So don't worry, you'll find your style. You just have to try on a bunch of different things first.


  11. Rob: You're a handsome man, and the beard is perfect for you. I understand about image issues -- I think so many of us struggle with them. I think many of us ignore what we see in the mirror and, instead, focus on what we "don't" see. A mutual friend told me I was handsome, and that floored me because it has been such a long time since anyone called me that ... and even longer since I felt that way. Keep the beard, it's perfect ... it's sexy .. it's you. rjd aka Mark

  12. Writer,

    I have seen a lot of photos of you—we spent a lot of an evening together looking at them—and you were never anything less than handsome in any of them. You have more looks than anyone I know, too!

  13. RJD/Mark,

    Thank you for that. I liked what you see about what we don't see in the mirror—it kind of sums it up perfectly. I think we tend to use the mirror as a magnifying glass for flaws, too, especially minor defects no one else is going to notice.

    We'll be brothers in handsomeness together.

  14. Hey Rob
    I really do enjoy your posts that resonate with me. I to fought with the self esteem part. Realisticly, I knew I attracted attention, but I constantly second guessed it. I did not see what they did. I could look in mirrors and like what I saw, but hated to see me in pictures. My own version of myself never quite appeared in any picture. I too went through all sorts of facial hair (always slightly outside the trend of the time) and never felt it worked until I grew my beard last year. I am sure there are many factors, but ultimately it was age. I grew into the person I felt I was. Age can be a tough road in the world of gay, but my 40's have the most productive, most prolific and most satisfying time. I garner more attention from all ages now than I ever did when I was in my 20's and I am now secure enough to own it. Not in ego, just in comfort in my skin.
    I do hope you are feeling better and adapting to your new surroundings.

  15. Steve,

    I never really considered the age factor in my self-acceptance, but it certainly played a part. I spent all my teens and twenties worrying about looking too young, spent my thirties feeling invisible, and have really enjoyed myself in my forties. Like you, I've gotten more attention in this phase of my life than at any other, and that's always going to make one feel more comfortable.

  16. Hi rob,
    I had the same problem too when i was young. I was tease a lot about my look and apperance and i got sick of it. I was just like you, don't want to be photograph because i didn't tought that i was pretty and never really smile because of my front teeth, i have a small cavity. I had a unibrow, a big moustache, very skinny and i didn't like how i look. I almost never look at myself in the mirror and even today i don't like it. If i do, it is always very fast. I want to thank you, Ace and other friends on blog that help me getting through it, still have some little things to do but i am getting in there.


  17. I love beards. Not every man has the genetics to really pull it off, and that's fine. Scruffy beards are better than none. But I do draw a distinction. Purposely, closely cropped (what I call wannabe beards/goatees) don't do it for me. Nor am I exactly keen on anything Grizzly Adams or greater. There are exceptions. Bearded hipsters and messengers on their bikes can often cause me to nearly crash my bike. And I don't need anymore help in that area!

    Besides a feast for the eyes, they're fun to touch, fun to chew on, look brilliant with my spooge dripping from them, are more fun to chew with my spooge dripping from them, and hell I'm such a freak, they're even great when they smell like mac-n-cheese and weed.

    Fortunately, I have the ability to grow one. Unfortunately my facial hair, like my head hair, is course and straight. And once it reaches the length I'd like it to, the straightness of the hair makes it look all wrong to me. And to you main theme of self-image, I feel naked without it.

    I've also read (in GQ I think) that beards that stop just below the jawline accentuate the neck, and not usually in a good way. It's better to let it grow down to just above the Adam's apple. I've found this to be true for me in any case.


  18. Seph,

    The nice thing about facial hair is that there are all kinds of variations to keep everyone happy. I keep my own beard trimmed short so that I don't look like a missing band member from the Spin Doctors, but I do try to eliminate the mac-and-cheese scent.

    The beards I don't like are the pencil-thin, ultra-sculpted variety that heavier guys have taken to cultivating that try to mimic a jawline. Those drive me crazy.

    Mine stops about an inch above the Adam's Apple. It works for me.