The Desolation of Hair

I once met a bearded woman. Not a circus freak mind you, nor a Grimm’s fairy tale crone, but an ordinary young woman sitting in the same library-quiet room as myself. She wore faded jeans, a clean blouse, women’s loafers, wire-rimmed glasses. Her brown hair fell long and straight as sails in a calm. She had a calm honest smile and carried herself as a woman might, meaning she did not overtly stare at others, laugh loudly, or spread her legs apart when sitting the way a man might. Overall she gave the impression of a woman who expended the minimal amount of effort necessary to present herself as female in our society so she could live her life unperturbed by other people’s expectations. Except that she had a beard.

Her cheeks were bare, but from her chin hung a goatish beard about eight inches long. The hairs were soft and wispy, not quite thick enough to hide the contour of her face underneath. When she was thoughtful, she would run a finger idly through those hairs and twirl them around into curls, much like a younger girl might have done with a ponytail. She looked like the fresh-faced model from a 1950’s beauty cream poster, blissfully unaware that some graffiti artist had scribbled a beard on her.

Shocked may be too strong a word for how I reacted. I was certainly perturbed. I know I flushed with embarrassment. Exactly why I was embarrassed and for whom wasn’t clear, but that is what it means to be young, and I was quite young at the time, not yet twenty-five. This woman was not doing anything, she was merely sitting and thinking with the confidence of one whom presumes, without question, her right to sit and think in public. But her very existence, now that it was known to me, required an adjustment on my part. It required my brain to expand its understanding of the world. I now lived in a slightly bigger, more diverse world, a world where a woman could not only grow a beard, but choose to keep it.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. I wasn’t at peace with it. It felt wrong in that vague, undefined way that pineapple on pizza feels wrong. At the same time I was keenly aware that “how I felt about it” really didn’t matter to anyone but me. It was my burden to carry or drop as I chose, though if I wanted to be a jerk about it, I could try to make it other people’s burden too. I did not choose to do so.

Aside: This is supposed to be a frivolous little blog post, but I’m going to stick a little moral here in the middle, so you can all feel like this is time well spent and not simply another distraction from those responsibilities you are currently shirking.

I know people who are racist or sexist or homophobic. They have ideas of what the world should be like that don’t mesh with the way the world actually is. I’m OK with their personal cognitive dissonance as long as they accept it as their problem. But unfortunately most of them don’t. They decide that the world has to change, not them, and that is what causes all the trouble in the world. End aside.

It took me about an hour, more or less, to get over it. I even think I was able to do it without too much staring. OK, I decided. My world now contains woman who can and do grow beards. Cool. Different. Personally, I find it unattractive, but I feel the same way about nose rings and plucked eyebrows. To each their own. By the end of the hour, I was feeling pretty mellow about the whole thing except for one lingering dissatisfaction. I felt like I ought to shave off my own beard.

It was a thick, untrimmed, bristly thing which rounded out my “missed-the-hippies-by-a-decade-or-two” fashion statement. I have no pictures at hand, but it was a horrible beard. I grew it in high school and let is grow feral. I’m sure it delayed my first kiss for years. I’m also sure my Mom begged me to get rid of it. It seems like the kind of thing she would beg me to do, but I did not pay a lot of attention to what my Mom said back then. Even when she was reading me the riot act in her best rattle-the-windows voice, I had learned to cringe convincingly without actually paying attention to the words. Which must be a genetic trait, because my own pre-adolescent children have already mastered it.

I was too insufferably proud of my beard to consider shaving it off. Most of my high school friends could not grow a full beard, whereas mine had appeared virtually overnight. [For those of you born after the internet: “virtually” here means my beard grew very quickly. I do not mean it grew in a computer simulation.] Yet I’m not sure where the pride came from. It wasn’t as if there was any effort or sacrifice involved. Most of the “work” of growing it happened while I was sleeping, something I could have done just as easily in a coma, though I have never tested this hypothesis. There is a persistent myth that hair cells will continue to grow for hours after death, which I thought was rather cool. Of course, only a teenage boy would find pride in an achievement that a corpse could equal.

But the truth was, I had grown a beard in high school to hide my weak chin and soften my over-large nose. So years later, when I saw this woman confidently sporting a beard, contrary to all modern cultural expectations, it occurred to me that I had no reason to be proud of a beard I had only grown to hide my perceived defects. If I had had half the quiet confidence this woman displayed, I would have shaved my own beard off.

But I did not. I simply stopped being so insufferably proud of it. And from time to time I mowed the hairs down to a uniform length and shaved a neat edge to it on my throat, because everything I knew about personal grooming, I learned from mowing the lawn.

I didn’t actually get around to shaving it off completely for a several years, and when it happened, it was not a planned event, though neither was it the whim of a moment. The circumstances were unforeseeable and out of my control, but once set in motion, unstoppable. It was like watching a car accident from a distance. You know exactly what is going to happen, but you are powerless to stop it. You can only decide whether or not to watch.

I was in my mid-late twenties, and I had a girlfriend. She had very beautiful, long, reddish-blond hair which ensnared me. When she was excited, it would shift like water and reflect light in waves. When she was shy, she would lean her head forward and her hair would fall around her face like a curtain closing, with one eye peaking out coyly. And when she was close to me, her hair smelled exactly the way flowers ought to smell. You may tell me that it was simply the expensive salon shampoo that made her smell this way, but I was convinced it was her personal biological alchemy. She took pains to keep her hair clean and brushed and shiny despite the grueling schedule of an overworked science graduate student with a daily bicycle commute.

And then one day, without warning, she took me to a hairstyle convention in town, so I could watch while her hair was cut by a professional in front of a crowd of hair stylists, fashion writers, and personal care product salespeople.

May the sadistic wench who cut her hair burn in hell.

It has been twenty-plus years since that day, and I cannot express what a relief it is to unburden myself of these words. I can say it now loud and clear. May she burn … in … HELL. (The stylist, not my girlfriend).

I could not have said it then. Our relationship was going through a rocky stage, and any negative comment about her very, very short haircut would have been unappreciated. I believe she was making a statement. Or a plea. Or even a test. Whatever it was, I was expected to understand without having it spelled out for me. But I did not understand. I guess I was not a good speller. The best I could manage was, WTF?

I knew a response was expected, but anything I might have said would not have been honest, supportive, and convincing. Maybe I could have managed two out of three.

So instead, I shaved all the hair from my head. Except my eyebrows. Which turned out to be an acceptable, non-verbal response. At least, it seemed to have a mollifying effect on our relationship. Everyone else, however, began to treat me like a cancer patient, which was not comfortable. It makes one feel fraudulent and despicable. I grew back my beard back as soon as I could (and my girlfriend grew her hair back as well), and I did not think of shaving it off for another twenty years, just in time for my mid-life crisis.

A word about mid-life crisis.

We think that attention-deficit disorder is a condition that some are born with and others are not, but I believe we raise boys to be deficit in attention. We teach them to go out and explore and experiment and achieve. The big, astounding, complex world of possibilities becomes a huge candy shop. We want to be crab fishermen, zamboni drivers, gentlemen pirates, oil drill rig operators, sandwich shop owners, wartime medics, and third world dictators, and we try it all. We take a bite of everything the world has to offer and move on to something else. Eventually we reach an age when the tide of testosterone ebbs, revealing a beach littered with the half-chewed remains of our cupidity. We see all the unrealized potentials we didn’t pursue to any conclusion. The crazy, spinning, kaleidoscope of the world stops spinning, and we realize that it was never spinning to begin with, that it was ourselves spinning in circles, chasing our own tails.

That moment of clarity is what our culture calls “mid-life crisis.”

And what did I see with my new mid-life clarity?

I saw that I was terribly bald.

By which I do not mean completely bald. To be completely bald would not have been as terrible. My head looked like some cow with a particularly rasping tongue had licked me from forehead to crown and then decided that perhaps grass was a better choice after all. I had also lost hair from my shins, of all places, which turns out to be a common aging effect with the awesome name of “anterolateral leg alopecia.” To add insult to injury, certain hairs began over-compensating. I discovered a two-inch silk thread growing from the edge of one ear and there were several small enthusiastic patches on the side of my skull that grew faster than their neighbors, erupting like crab grass as though some ripe thought had fermented just underneath. And my eyebrows became positively feral.

Admittedly baldness can be an attractive trait. I understand it is useful if you are selling ammonia cleaning products or recruiting fascist vandals. ButI was doing neither, and anyway, you have to be completely bald for either of these pursuits. It was time to do what men my age do and take a number one razor to my head.

I expected to return to my cancer patient look but no. Somehow in the years since my angst-ridden twenties, I had grown a chin. My nose had shrunk a little. I had started cleaning my glasses and you could see my blue eyes. I looked younger, healthier, perhaps even intelligent. The ugly duckling finally turned into, not a swan exactly, but let’s say a rare and curious blackbird.

Which leaves me to wonder. Is this how I had looked all along? Was my younger self too lacking in confidence to look in the mirror and see what was actually there? I don’t know the answer, but sometimes, when I’m in a crowd, I like to sit and think about it, my fingers idly stroking my clean-shaven chin.