I had no idea that growing a beard meant diving (beard first) into a conversation about societal constructs. Who knew facial hair could make such a difference?
So, I’m a white guy, and being a white guy means being relatively free to do and be whatever I want without fear of being treated differently — let alone facing real, toxic discrimination — based on the way I look. It’s not fair, but it’s largely the truth.
One of my only physically differentiating factors is my brown, bushy beard, and surprisingly, it has taught me a lot about gender, society’s expectations, and maybe even a smidgen about racism.
Turn down the beard, turn up the body image issues
Men are not subjected to anywhere near the level of body shaming that women face, but as I’ve come to discover, even a tiny bit can sting.
For a lot of men, there’s shame and disappointment in the inability to grow “proper” facial hair, and shaving mine for the first time in over a year was a difficult glimpse into that world. Shaving my beard meant losing part of who I am, part of my (perceived) masculinity, and part of my identity. It was a lifestyle shift I was not prepared to make.
Without a beard, social interactions became notably different; I felt taken less seriously at work; my girlfriend at the time even told me in blunt honesty that she “just wasn’t attracted” to me without it.
But in playing devil’s advocate against myself, she sort of had a point: the ever-growing popularity of beards have made them into somewhat of a masculine expectation, so voluntarily going against the grain (zing) with a bare face means choosing the look that society may deem “lesser” at the moment. And though it’s important to realize we are solely responsible for how we accept or react to situations like this, feeling comfortable in your own skin can be a difficult proposition under any circumstances.
The “Ron Swanson Effect”
Some of history’s greatest minds and leaders — Honest Abe, Ernest Hemingway, and beyond — donned serious facial foliage, which sensibly correlates given that beards have been shown to give off signals of maturity, independence, aggression, and leadership, which are all traits of typical alpha males. That being said, television and the internet have popularized hypermasculinity and reinforced stark gender roles to the point of pure caricature, and Ron Swanson — Nick Offerman’s character in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” — is the perfect example. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big “Parks and Rec” fan, but it’s disappointing how wildly popular Swanson’s bastardization of masculinity has become.
The most common associations my beard receives: Steak. Guns. Liquor. Lumberjack (I live in Seattle). “Duck Dynasty”. Drugs. Terrorist (seriously?). Beer. Bacon (internet, I’m extra blaming you for this one). Sure, these can be humorous on occasion, but why must we perpetuate such an antiquated view of masculinity when the world is being opened up to such a fluid range of personal identity?
In my experience, being bearded has automatically cast a wide array of associations and assumptions about my personality, abilities, interests, and opinions all with one glance. And although my bearded archetype is nowhere near the toxicity of actual racism, as a white dude, it’s the closest thing I’ve experienced.
Growing a beard often means being subjected to every expectation of what a man “should be,” when in reality, having a beard means one thing, and one thing only: you can grow hair on your face.
Follow Garth on Twitter @garthinkingcap
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Photo by Alejandro H.