The Fight for Facial Hair

Reclaiming our Mustaches, Beards, and Sideburns in this Great Age of the Hipster

Paul Wellman

Enough is enough. It is time to set the record straight and take back that which so rightfully belongs to all of us on the other side of puberty — be we man, woman (I’m looking at you, Frida!), cool, uncool, or just hopelessly in between. The cultural highjacking of a proper mustache or beard by the skinny-jean-wearing, “I only use film cameras” purist, beanie-and-thick-rimmed-glasses-clad crowd ends today.

Thanks to dihydrotestosterone — that magical hormone that makes upper-lip pushbrooms, Fu Manchus, full-face sweaters, and Elvis-esque lamb chops possible — the timeless powers of a carefully cultivated furry face have been enjoyed as far back as 3000 BCE. From the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamian civilizations to Ancient Rome and Greece right on through the Middle Ages to contemporary times, beards and soup strainers and sideburns have been worn proudly along the front lines of history all over the world. In short, to grow or not to grow has been a personal choice since we first figured out how to remove them.

A beard was a symbol of wisdom in India, virility in Greece, royalty in Egypt, honor and sexual prowess for Medieval knights, and mandatory for a proper Gaelic Celt. Similarly, the mustache has been associated with everything from mystical knowledge and artistic whimsy to Wild West outlaw bad-ass-ness, law enforcement professions, pipefitting abilities, and pornography stardom. The mind boggles when considering the volumes of events, be they everyday activities that make up a life or history-altering affairs like the Civil War or Woodstock, that have been presided over by folks with some sort of purposely grown hair on their face (and the strong likelihood of little bits from their last meal hiding inside).

At the root of this enduring and impressively varied hairy presence is one simple fact: Having a prominent lip caterpillar or thick beard changes the way the world sees you both literally and figuratively. It can announce your station and stature in life, be grown as an undeniable secondary sexual characteristic, help conceal your identity or enhance your current one. After all, facial recognition is a big part of the way our brains work and, as a result, the way our collective evolutionary story has unfolded. And, well, not much else defines a face more — be it for better or worse — than a big bushy beard or a long and curving mustache.

Given this, one would assume that even the most historically challenged among us would know full well that both tradition and a strategic type of biological imperative are being heeded when a man chooses to lay down his BIC or Schick and walk the world with free-flowing facial follicles. However, this is increasingly no longer the case. The beard and ’stache have become darlings of trend, and with this new found status, their real backstory is in danger of disappearing down the memory hole of the hyper-consumption-obsessed and shortsighted masses. It is a dangerous direction for something as time-honored as a mustache, and, though I don’t think they are doing it on purpose, I blame the hipsters for this destructive decay.

The many furry faces of Ethan Stewart.

Usurping the Power

Look around your favorite caffeine emporium or the next Bon Iver show at the Bowl and you are sure to see legions of anti-cool cool kids sporting beards and ’staches of all ilk right along with their forearm tattoos and ironic T-shirts and carabiner-clip keychains. From Tom Selleck’s legendary mustache (aka the Magnum P.I.) to Civil War-inspired colonials (linking mustache-sideburn combos) to tip-curling Rollie Fingers tributes to beastly throat-cloaking Velcro crumb collectors, virtually all members of the facial hair family — save for perhaps the Hitler/Charlie Chaplin — are now regularly deployed by the hipster set.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with another subculture appropriating the unique wonders of letting their face hair flow, and, for all the aforementioned reasons, it is certainly to be expected. The trouble lies in the fact that, despite its subversion-loving underpinnings, the hipster ethos has recently jumped the shark straight into the mainstream of Americans aged 20-35, filling up the racks of places like Urban Outfitters and H&M and encouraging beer drinkers to actually consider Pabst Blue Ribbon an acceptable option for any other reason than fiscal frugality. Even the music they stock their iPhones with has begun to win Grammy’s. There is no denying it: “Hipster” has become hip, a commercially exploited and increasingly popular and easy aesthetic to replicate … and the sheeple are digging it.

This development has blurred the understanding of the roots and cultural import of facial hair so radically that many have begun to see beards and mustaches — the latter especially — as treasures (or horrors as the case may be) uniquely branded as being of and for the hipster demographic. We are losing sight of the true origin story of facial hair.

Grow It Because You Can, Man

Since I sprung my first goatee at the age of 15, I have more often than not had some sort of hair-on-my-face situation, a fact born out of a certain blend of laziness and a desire for cheap and renewable thrills. This practice has led me to a long list of entertaining/useful run-ins, including being able to buy booze before my 21st birthday; overhearing strangers as they gesture toward me and say, “Ask that guy. He has a beard, I’ll bet he knows a good place to eat”; scaring groms off of set waves at Rincon when my mustache is particularly big and walrus-like; and, my personal favorite, being told by a bouncer at a rather fancy nightclub in Vegas as I twisted the upturned end of perhaps my longest ’stache ever, “Hey, man, you can go in right now. A mustache like that should get you anywhere.”

Sure, these perks of belonging to the anti-razor set have also been equaled by less-than-ideal judgments. I mean, how can you feel good when your wife tells you that your face looks like a pile of pubic hair? But overall, I have taken pride in the fact that I am, at least in one small way, walking in the steps of the many great men before me who have let it grow on their lips and chin and cheeks.

So you can imagine my upset when, last December, shortly after trimming a solid little beard that I had gotten going during a hospital stint into a fine ape-hanger, I had a run-in with a stranger that confirmed my fears about what the hipsters’ muddling ways mean for our culture’s baseline knowledge.

While waiting for an ATM on the Mesa one morning, I heard the couple behind me discussing my look.

“Wow, look at that mustache,” said she.

“Yeah, total hipster,” replied he with a judging snicker.

“I know, right? No one ever used to have them except maybe my creepy uncle,” concurred she.

“It’s a definite trend now; they’re so cool,” concluded he with the same bit of self-important indignation.

My blood boiled at their ignorance as I took my $40 from the machine. I considered delivering a brief history lesson as I turned to face them, but then, just as I was preparing an opening line about a person named Abe Lincoln, I noticed the guy, probably in his late twenties, touching his naked upper lip. This gave me pause long enough to hear him muse, as much to his sweetie as to himself, “Maybe I should grow a little something. I mean, I’ve never really done it before.”

With that, I, too, reached for my upper lip, my pointer and index fingers tracing the prickly ends of my ’stache as I made eye contact with this dude, my brain realizing that perhaps the primordial allure of facial hair is not so easily subjugated as to be swallowed whole by the hipsters. “Let it grow, man,” I said with a smile and a telling nod, my voice outwardly warm with this newfound hope and the future looking just a little bit brighter.


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