One man’s quiet and hairy protest against your assumptions about masculinity and grooming
By Meir Rinde
December 29, 2005
I’ve reduced my beard to a mustache and gotten nothing but howls of protest. The protest, in fact, is part of the reason I did it. For months, as I allowed my shaggy, spotty beard to painstakingly worm its way out of my skin into the open air, I would teasingly suggest to my girlfriend that when I got sick of it, maybe I would trim my facial hair to just a mustache. She would indicate, gently, that it wasn’t such a good idea.
When my longed-for rabbinical beard never materialized, and a series of haircuts among my coworkers drew my attention to my developing mullet and overall shagginess, I began to think seriously about how to refashion my face.
At home I talked more frequently about the mustache option, peering at myself in the bathroom mirror, and drawing a new sound from my girlfriend: a sort of combined giggle and moan, an amusement at how ridiculous I would look leavened with a moderately horrified realization that I might actually do it.
I’ve never been much of a style rebel, but as I stood in front of the mirror, covering my beard with my hands to see how a mustache would look, I began to wonder at my girlfriend’s worries and to get my back up at the invisible pressure to keep my face bare. To not have a mustache.
I understood that the mustache is just one of the many body signifiers people use, from shoe color to makeup, and it was a little silly for me to get worked up about what people would think.
But wasn’t that very feeling that I was about to do something silly just another manifestation of internalized conformist pressure?
And the very triviality of the mustache made it all the more interesting. It’s such a small thing, literally. Why does it raise such hackles? Plenty of men have mustaches, but somehow in my white, urban, middle-class, intellectual-professional demographic, they’re anathema. Anathema, in its literal sense: evil, unclean, deserving of excommunication. A badge of porn actors and criminals, of white trash.
But what about firemen, our post-9/11 heroes? Gay men, our era’s fashion avant garde? Barber shop quartets, lumberjacks, English professors, the various stalwart American icons? Did you know Martin Luther King Jr. sported one?
So I did it. The beard went, but the mustache stayed.
Initially my girlfriend would laugh with renewed shock every time my mustache and I walked into the room. She thought I looked like Father Guido Sarducci. Stepping out of the shower, my hair a mess, I saw a resemblance to the haggard al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed at his capture.
Trolling the Internet and newspaper archives, I didn’t find much literature on the antipathy toward mustaches. But as an indication that a rumored mustache revival may be straining to emerge, a couple alternative weeklies have recently waded into the topic.
In August, the Free Times of Columbia, South Carolina, ran a story by Kevin Langston, who wrote about trying to grow a mustache, and pretty much covered all the angles: the ridiculous movie characters who wear mustaches (Milton in “Office Space,” Kip in “Napoleon Dynamite”), the mustache-growing contests for charity, the mustachesummer.com site, and the historical inquiries of psychiatrist Allan Peterkin, author of “One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.”
A couple of lines in particular got my attention. Peterkin came up with some 15th-century English anti-mustache legislation and other tidbits of cultural history, but I found his foray into Freudian interpretation most interesting. Facial hair makes us resemble our fathers, whose domination we struggle with, so we need “to psychically castrate ourselves daily to reduce this rivalrous tension,” he wrote.
“Shaving is both a symptom of and defense against id impulses towards our parents. The self would become a patricidal, incestuous, hairy phallus if left unchecked, so we kill it just to carry on,” Peterkin wrote.
Like many discussions of facial hair, Peterkin’s argument doesn’t account for the all-important distinction between mustaches and beards, but it does usefully point to the intense sexual resonances of a hairy face. There is something creepily gender-blurring and genital about a mouth rimmed with hair. (Would straight women who say they’re turned off by kissing a man with a mustache thus be experiencing a flash of lesbian panic?) Yet mustaches are undeniably a freighted signifier of exclusively male sexuality. Women (almost) never wear them.
And just consider, again, the conventional mustache icons: porn stars, firefighters, baseball players, construction workers, Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck – all of them images of one or another kind of virility. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2000, editor and columnist Tunku Varadarajan argued, “The cult of the mustache persists only in ultra-patriarchal societies, like India or Turkey.” It may continue to appear in certain American ethnic groups for the same reason.
There are other credible factors, besides sexual connotations, that may contribute to ’stachephobia: a lingering counterreaction to the 1960s hair rebellion and the influence of the shaving industry, for example. But I’m convinced gender issues are the strongest force behind the weirdly intense abhorrence of mustaches.
Social changes that include the rise of feminism have arguably tainted overt displays of masculinity, at least among the politically correct set, and what is more deliberately male than a mustache? In theory, if not in practice, men grow beards simply by not shaving; but all mustaches require shaping and weekly maintenance, even in their most basic versions. They show an active embrace of a distinctly male look.
To go even further: mustaches have actually become symbols of caricature, the banner of men who are so proud or so self-assured of their traditional masculinity that they don’t realize how threatening, distasteful or ridiculous society finds their attitudes. An extreme example is Geraldo Rivera, whose facial hair broadcasts his foolish bravado, but any mustachioed off-duty policeman who blithely saunters into a bar, looking to pick up chicks, demonstrates the phenomenon.
By extension, this theory holds that among some men, a mustache is a quasi-secret signal that the wearer has in fact embraced the inversion or camp celebration of the brawny look. Every boy wants to become a firefighter, but sometimes he grows up into a gay man who just enjoys looking like one. He deliberately puts on a hypermasculine face as a signal to other gay men. Or, another man will wear a mustache as a joke, a sign of superiority, a commentary on the loucheness of other males. Put simply, my friend Danny looked at a photo of my new look and described ‘staches in general as “white trash or hipster-ironic-white trash.”
Is my mustache hipster-ironic? Almost – but no. It’s not a gag. In my mind, I’m taking a stand, a tiny little stand, against expectations. In my sensible shoes and mall-bought button-down shirts, commuting to my job and scribbling notes at meetings, I challenge people who see me to decide if I’m nonetheless giving off the wrong class signifier, endorsing an outdated gender role, alluding to spurious heroes or making an inside joke.
I’m doing none of those things. I’m simply, defiantly wearing a mustache, waiting to see if your stomach turns and your mind skips a beat. I want you to wonder, “Who is that masked man? And how can I be like him?” ●
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