Growing a beard is like a superpower—a way to take the face your parents gave you and totally transform it. A beard can impart its wearer with an academic’s seriousness or a beach bum’s casual cool; it can make you look like a wounded loner or a goofy father figure; and it can say whatever you want it to say—but above all, a beard says “I chose to look this way.” Even though having a beard is no longer cool, men who sport them can be seen as more desirable and virile. Beards have become shorthand for possessing masculinity. And I can’t grow one.
After a few days of not shaving, all I get are a few crunchy wisps, mostly on my neck. My facial hair is somehow both gnarled and pathetically thin, so I look like a cross between a wizard and a depressed teen. I don’t like the way beards look, but I hate that I can’t grow one! Why can’t I make the same transformational follicular choice so many others make effortlessly?
So I decided to stop shaving until I had grown a full beard. No matter how long it took. (I lasted just over a month.) Here's how it went...
There’s no other way to say it—my face looks bad. Instead of a sexy stubble, I grow a few strands of wiry black hair that stick out of my face at haphazard angles. It’s definitely a “look,” in that it looks like I gave up on myself.
You wouldn’t leave the house with a big obvious stain on your clothes, but that’s how my face feels. I’m too embarrassed to see other people so I stay inside all day and go to bed at 6 pm.
I stay inside all day again, and go to bed at 7.
I stay inside all day again again, and go to bed at 5.
I am no longer afraid to go outside. The beard finally doesn’t look like a mistake. It looks like something very ugly that I’ve done on purpose. The usual word to describe beards like mine at this point would be “patchy,” but that implies there are patches with hair. Not in my case. My left cheek is like a pristine, white sand beach dotted by a dozen palm trees that’ve been struck by lightning.
I am/I have a neckbeard.
Again, my non-beard leads to a pathetic cycle of desperation that I can blame on no one but myself. Dishes and dust pile up. Instead of going to the grocery store, I try to survive on bottles of chocolate Ensure that I already had on hand. This, of course, makes me feel even worse. I don’t read or watch TV. I just lay in bed, staring at my phone for hours and hours, reloading the same apps over and over again every few seconds.
Every day I wake up and think, “Thank goodness I’m slightly itchier than yesterday!” I didn’t even realize that itching was a thing beards do! I thought it would be soft! Instead, my face feels like someone crushed up a box of Triscuits and glued them to my neck while I was asleep. But I’m getting there. I delete all the apps from my phone and push myself out of the house. I’m back on track!
The beard and mustache parts still don’t connect. My cheeks are dotted with maybe 36 coarse hairs between them. The whole thing appears to have completely stopped growing. It’s like my hormones knew I was aiming for Hairiness Level: Mountain Man but stopped out of spite at Hairiness Level: Decaying Pig.
I start every conversation with a self-deprecating explanation of why I have such a lame face situation, but no one really seems to notice or care.
Truthfully, I expected weird looks from waiters, people on the subway, acquaintances, etc. I wanted to write hilarious, self-deprecating stories about cute girls at bars who loved my urbane banter but hated my disgusting facial hair. But the truth is, that didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the world doesn’t care about my dumb bullshit at all! Can’t strangers see I’m not the type of person who would grow a shitty beard? Or that I’m at least the type of person who would know he was growing a shitty beard and so was clearly growing it for hilarious reasons? The answer is clearly NO. My beard is shit and I hate myself.
It’s painful to catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, “This is the worst I have ever looked.” I wonder if the hairs that won’t come out of my face are instead growing up into my head, creeping up like vines between the folds of my brain, then wrapping their way around my eyeballs that will eventually leave me a blind zombie, screaming vainly in hopes of attracting a kind neighbor to kill me.
Why am I even doing this? How do I talk myself into these kinds of things? Why was I interested in trying to grow a beard in the first place? Was it a masculinity thing? Truthfully, I don’t think so. There are an infinite number of minor and made-up problems that can give a person a lifetime of anxiety and luckily for me, my manliness or lack thereof isn’t an issue I think about. I worry about silly things, like how often I should wear my bolo tie or whether life is worth living in a meaningless universe where cruelty is rewarded. I have worried zero times about how manly I am, probably because the answer is “Extremely Not.” Honestly, worrying about manliness seems like an outdated problem.
Still, my inability to grow anything even remotely resembling a beard has left me in a mental state that can best be described as frazzled. The experiment has worn me down. I’m torturing myself and I can’t think of a single good reason why.
I walk outside. The breeze tickles the handful of whisker-like hairs of my cheeks. “Ooh, this must be how a dog feels,” I think. It’s the best I have felt in weeks.
The hair is twice as thick on my right cheek as it is on my left cheek. And yet on neither side does it really count as a beard. My friend hits me with a devastating truth: “If you robbed a bank right now, in broad daylight, with no mask, witnesses would not describe the suspect as bearded.”
A full day of peace. Yes, the beard looks terrible and makes me feel even worse. But I’m glad I have given growing one in earnest a try! I’m glad I’m writing about it! Isn’t the very purpose of written language to convey the breadth of human experience? Maybe the beard and I can get along.
Nope, fuck this thing. I tug at my chin hair waiting for a movie to start and am overcome with nausea. The hair feels like a malign invader, its filthy black tendrils bursting from my flesh. Time for it to go.
I visit Gasper Como, Brooklyn’s favorite wise Italian barber, for a straight-razor shave. In ten minutes, I’m back to my spritely, fresh-faced self. I feel better immediately.
And I learned…nothing. I won’t BS you. I was hoping, maybe even planning, to discover that how you look is less important than how you feel, or something else vaguely platitudinal. But thinking about how I looked played a key role in how I felt over this last five weeks. As a result, I just sat around and felt sorry for myself the entire time. The bad feelings started because I looked bad. But by the end, it was because I wanted to accomplish something seemingly simple that I couldn't. And you could literally see the failure all over my face. I couldn't escape it.
But I’m still happy I tried. I'm better for it—more aware of what I am and am not capable of. Follically, at least. It was, by far, the longest 36 and a half days of my life, and I'm glad its over. It's nice to be able to look people in the eye again.
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