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?