February 14, 1991

Much Ado About Nothing

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.


I keep seeing pictures of Saddam Hussein: a mustache and eyebrows surrounded by a face. The owner and publisher of this paper has grown an Ambrose Bierce-Wyatt Earp type mustache.

Mustaches are symbols, but I'm not quite sure what they symbolize.

The stereotype villain in old-time horse operas always had a mustache. It was usually of the type that could be twirled while he contemplated what delicious evil he planned to inflict on the heroine. I always rooted for the villain because it seemed obvious to me that what he planned to do was much more interesting than what the hero had in mind.

Most Americans just don't trust mustaches. Tom Dewey, it was said, lost the presidency to Harry Truman by a mustache. Hitler had a mustache and Ghengis Khan is generally pictured as having a mustache. Saddam Hussein, one would think, would have sounded the death knell of the mustache.

I can't be objective about mustaches. I remember my adolescence and trying to grow one only to have it look like a smudge of dirt. When it finally did grow out, I tried to trim it. First one side then the other, trying in vain to get it even until there was nothing left to trim.

Both of my sons have mustaches. I like to kid them about it by pointing out that it seems ridiculous to cultivate on the upper lip what grows wild around the a_ _ _ _ _ _ (try armpits for size). There is an unmentionable joke which associates a moustache with crab lice (Phthirus pubis).

Why mustaches? Why not goatees, or bushy eyebrows, or sideburns? I think that a mustache is a fence-sitter's compromise. He wants to strut his maleness but is afraid to fly in the face of a convention that requires certain professional groups to be clean-shaven. Beards are often considered a sign of non-conformity; but not mustaches.

The whole business seems to go in cycles. Abe Lincoln and U.S.Grant had full beards. Soldiers during the Civil War also had beards. Beards are forbidden in the modern military except for submariners. The faces of TV people are always naked, or moustached. Radio folk often have beards; at least the men do.

Physicians, particularly surgeons, rarely have facial hair, while it is considered O.K. for psychiatrists.

I have a full beard which I claim is functional. First, I don't have to shave. I consider shaving to be a ridiculous act when there are no beard lice. My beard protects my face from the sun and cold. I break out in a cold sore when my face is exposed to the sun.The truth of the matter is that I just like having a beard. It feels right.

Just as breasts are symbols of femaleness, facial hair is a symbol of maleness. Only women with endocrine problems can grow an appreciable amount of facial hair.

I experimented with facial hair and found that the change was always traumatic. It changes a man's identity, which I find disturbing. That first look in a mirror after removing a beard makes one feel emasculated and naked. It's a shocker.

Palestinians and Jews are both circumcised but only the Palestinians and Orthodox Jews have beards. Israeli soldiers are clean-shaven. Perhaps it relates to the Old Testament and Samuel: "I caught him by his beard and smote him and slew him."

My impression is that most men like to sport(note the word "sport") beards but are afraid of giving the impression that they are showing off. They are. They are strutting their masculinity much like a peacock spreads its tail, or a woman struts her femaleness by emphasizing certain anatomical features.

The origins of shaving or plucking facial hair is also lost in prehistory. Evolutionary biologists now puzzle over the mystery of why men(not women) are the only mammals that normally grow hair that, if not cut or plucked, will cover the mouth. It seems unlikely that it evolved to strain soup, which was not made until the invention of the cooking pot.

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