Happy Beard Birthday!

Twenty years ago, I last got a good look at my chin.

We were on a family vacation in Florida, with all of the slow pace and lassitude and relaxed approach to life that you associate with a welcome, sandy beach vacation during the cold weather months.  I got totally into the kick back spirit of things and just didn’t feel like shaving — so I didn’t.  And after letting the whiskers sprouting from the lower half of my face run riot for a few days, and surviving the initial itchiness that inevitably comes with any growing beard, I decided I might just keep the beard for a while to see how rejoining the hirsute set worked out.

I’d had a beard in college and when I worked as a reporter for the Toledo Blade, then shaved it off when I took a job on Capitol Hill.  There weren’t many beards on the Hill in those days.  I grew the beard again when I went to law school, then shaved it off again when I started to work at the firm because having a beard didn’t seem like a good idea for a new associate in a law firm in Columbus, Ohio.  But by 1997 I’d been at the firm for 11 years, and I figured by then my colleagues would be willing to put up with a little beardedness.  And the great thing about a beard is, you can always shave it off.

Twenty years later, I’ve still got that beard hiding my chin(s).  The color of the hairs has changed from solid brown to a mixture of brown, gray and white, and I’ve gone through three beard trimmers trying to keep the bristles in moderately presentable form.  I’d like to say the beard makes me look distinguished, but that remains an aspirational goal that is yet to be achieved.

Happy beard birthday to my whiskers!

 

Beards And Bacteria

Beards seem to be a source of endless fascination for medical researchers and health care reporters.  Ever since Peter Griffin grew a beard that served as home to a nest of birds on Family Guy, their prevailing view seems to be that male facial hair must be host to countless forms of microbial life and teeming with potential disease-causing agents.

bird-beard-peterSome stories contend that the coarser nature of beard hair makes it more likely to trap food particles, note that stroking beards can cause a transfer of germs, and offer helpful observations like “If someone [is] eating dairy products it can get stuck in their beard and become a bit rancid.”  In another recent incident, a microbiologist took swabbings from beards, pronounced himself appalled by the results, and provoked stories with leads like this one on the USA Today website:  “Beard hygiene is important unless you want to have the equivalent of a dirty toilet seat growing out of your face, according to a microbiologist who swabbed a bunch of beards and was shocked by the results.”

Makes you want to cringe any time you’re in the vicinity of some stranger with a rancid sour milk-scented hairy toilet seat on this face, doesn’t it?

So, speaking as a guy who’s had a beard for the last 20 years, it was refreshing to see a new bit of research that counters the notion that beards are germ-ridden potential public health disasters waiting to spread plague and illness throughout the population.  A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that clean-shaven men are more than three times more likely to have a challenging form of infection-causing bacteria called MRSA (for methicillin-resistant staph aureus) on their cheeks than bearded guys, and also are more likely to have faces with staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin and respiratory infections and food poisoning.

Why would this be true?  Researchers think that those two forms of bacteria might form colonies and breed in the microabrasions caused by men repeatedly scraping their faces with sharp objects (otherwise known as shaving).  And, even more intriguing, a separate analysis indicates that beards may be home to microbes that actually kill bacteria, which could lead to the development of new forms to antibiotics — which something that the world desperately needs because bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the current array of antibiotics.

That’s right:  in the space of a single article, beards go from filthy petri dishes of lurking disease to the potential salvations of the human race!  I think I’ll celebrate by guzzling some dairy products and letting a few drops find a whiskery home.

Mysteries Of The Van Dyke

When I was a kid the back cover of every comic book — whether it be Richie Rich, Scrooge McDuck, or Superman — had the same set of yellow-colored ads.  They offered the most tantalizing products imaginable, all designed to stir the fertile imaginations of 10-year-old boys.  “X-ray specs” that would allow you to see through anything!  A Sherlock Holmes kit so you could become a real detective!  A treasure chest box with unknown contents that could contain just about anything!  A gizmo that would allow you to throw your voice, so your Mom would think you were trapped in a chest!  (Ha ha!)

But one of the most evocative ads touted the mysterious “Van Dyke” beard.  It was not a cheap, full beard that hooked around your ears and would clearly look totally fake.  No, the Van Dyke ad promised a more nuanced, sophisticated look that vaguely resembled Robin Hood:  chin whiskers that came to a point and sweeping sideburns.  You could enjoy an “exciting, romantic” look at was “impressive anytime.”  And, hey . . . the smiling guy in the ad did look pretty impressive.  You didn’t see many Van Dykes — or for that matter any facial hair of any kind — sported in suburban Akron, Ohio.  No doubt the Van Dyke look was more popular in the major metropolitan areas like New York City, or perhaps somewhere in France.

The ad said you could put the beard on in seconds to “suit your mood,” and to make the look even more natural and believable you could check which hair color you wanted, to better match your actual hair color.  Hmmm . . . I guess I’m “medium brown.”  But two of the hair color options were “grey” and “silver,” which obviously meant that distinguished older men were ordering the Van Dyke look.  A downy-cheeked, hairless youth, wanting desperately to cross that bridge to adulthood and being taken more seriously, could spin some pretty good fantasies about donning a perfectly matching Van Dyke and sideburns, thereby transforming himself into a mysterious, continental figure, and venturing out into the world of grown-ups.  Alas, the $7 price tag was just too steep.

I thought about the mysteries of the Van Dyke last weekend, when we were at a family wedding and I realized with a start that almost every male over the age of 16 other than the groom had a beard.  And what an exotic collection of chin whiskers, too — from the little patch beard directly under the mouth to full flowing foliage to carefully cultivated, bristling stubble.  Short beards, long beards, pointy beards . . . it was a colossal beard fest.  And yes!  There were several gents with a Van Dyke/sideburns combo, and you know what?  It looked pretty darned impressive.

The chuckling guy in the comic book ad would have been proud.

Beard Behavior

There’s been a lot of chatter about beards lately.  A few days ago Buzzfeed ran a piece about the rise of “lumbersexuals,” men who like wearing flannel, communing with nature, and cultivating long flowing facial locks.  Many modern baseball players, too, look like they could easily pass for one of the Smith Brothers on the cough drops box.

And, as seems to be inevitable in our modern culture, some people are reacting strongly against the nascent “beard culture.”  There have been postings in the Twitterverse that equate beards with testosterone-drenched, toxic masculinity.  To these folks, the hairy chins of modern men uncomfortably appeal to traditional notions of strutting male behavior and the 16th-century hegemony of elaborately bearded, male-dominated European nations that trampled countless peaceful native civilizations.

Speaking as a guy who has had a beard for most of his adult life, I can only suggest that everybody chill out, already.  There isn’t any deep secret to beards, or burning desire on the part of men to channel our inner Yukon Cornelius.  In reality, the impulses that cause men to grow beards are, like men themselves, much less complicated.

Many men grow beards in college because it is the first time we plausibly could.  We wondered how we would look in a beard, and then if it came in without looking like a laughable embarrassment we realized that ratty beards have another advantage:  they allow you to avoid the hassle of shaving every day.  Anyone who knows a college-age male knows they typically aren’t attentive to the imperatives of personal hygiene, and avoiding another step in the morning ablution rituals is a powerful incentive to guys who would rather sleep in a little longer.

Men often leave beards behind when they leave their college years.  But, as middle age approaches, beards can once again become tantalizingly attractive for two reasons:  you’re going bald, or you notice that you’re developing an appallingly saggy neck, or both.  If you’re losing the hair on the top half of your head, why not try to compensate by growing hair on the bottom half of your head?  And if the area directly underneath your chin bears an unfortunate resemblance to the wattles on a Thanksgiving turkey, why not try to mask it with facial hair and hope nobody notices?

So don’t fret about those hirsute men, whether they’re wearing flannel or not.  They’re not trying to return to the glory days of northern European world dominance.  As like as not, they just want to avoid dragging a sharp razor across their faces or to compensate for the unfortunate physical impact of the vicissitudes of age on their self image.

A Happily Hirsute Face

I’ve had a beard for much of my adult life.  I first grew one in college and kept it until I started a job after graduation.  I grew it back when I was in law school, then shaved it off when I began working at the firm,  About 13 years ago, when I was feeling lazy on a longer-than-normal family vacation to Florida, I didn’t shave — and I’ve been a bearded soul ever since.

I like having a beard.  Why?  Because it somewhat hides my chins.  When you reach your 50s, every bit of skin just seems to sag, and it’s not pretty.  Any form of cover — even if it is coarse, increasingly gray and even white hairs — is preferable to those ever-trembling wattles.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that I wish my facial hair were even more extensive than it is.  The werewolf, although cursed, had the right idea in this regard.  If my beard covered my forehead, it would help to mask the receding hairline and cover that weird, vertical crease that magically appears above my left eye when I wake up every morning.  If the hair grew right up to the area around my eyelids, the unfortunate world wouldn’t be exposed to the spidery crow’s feet that are spreading across my face like the cracks in a broken windshield.

Facial hair covers a lot of mileage.