Dudes, did you participate in Movember? What did you grow? Had you ever grown facial hair before? Did you shave it off after? C’mon, I’m on the edge of my seat, I want all the details. Except, I don’t. I’m actually kind of sick of hearing all about men’s facial hair.
Look, I love everything about the cultural swing toward more facial hair on men. It looks sexy, it’s usually less time-consuming and less expensive to maintain than a shaved face, it flies right in the face of some modern mainstream beauty ideals, and it’s a little easier on the environment. Plus, hey, I have a bias toward more variety in physical appearance. I like your beards – from the George Michael to the ZZ Top. I like your goatees. I like your moustaches – from plush Burt Reynolds push-brooms to high-maintenance hipster handlebars. Sometimes, I even like your ironic mutton chops. (But not your soul patch; soul patches are the rum raisin of facial hair.)
But start a soothing stroke along your scruffy cheek or chin (if you haven’t shaved it yet), because here’s where I ruin it for you. I don’t mean to metaphorically kick you in your probably-also-Movember-worthy nutsack, but I need you to think about some stuff that probably got lost somewhere between when you were torn between choosing a technologically marvelous beard trimmer or a très retro boar bristle brush ‘n mug combo.
Movember is full of problematic and complex socio-cultural ideas that get little attention in any discussion about it, lost like so many freshly-clipped hairs swirling down the drain of the bathroom sink.
Here are three big reasons I’m officially over Movember:
1) It’s very nostalgia-invoking (which is not as harmless as it sounds)
Ah, the good old days. Lumberjacks, sailors, Ernest Hemingway. You know, when “men were men.” The problem with nostalgia is that it dangerously erases what was bad and harmful about the past. It ctrl-alt-deletes right over everything that was wrong “back in the day.”
For example, when “men were men,” (i.e. when we as a society adhered more rigidly to gender-essentialist norms) it was more acceptable for husbands to beat wives, it was more acceptable for a male boss to expect sexual favors from a female secretary, it was more acceptable to pay a man more for doing the same job as a woman. It was also more acceptable for grade school boys to physically bully each other. Meanwhile, it was less acceptable for men to pursue careers in nursing or teaching.
In glorifying the “good old days,” you are essentially saying the world was better when marginalized people had it worse. As a sometimes-marginalized-person, it feels lousy to hear someone talk lovingly about an era when I would have had to choose between lying/hiding the fact that I’m queer, or face real legal, life-or-death consequences. It’s totally OK to feel love for parts of the past, but you have to accept the complexity and reality of the past. When “men were men” and sailed great distances to make a living, some of those sailors were also part of the triangle trade.
The history and evolution of male facial hair is fascinating and absolutely worth reading, writing and talking about. At the same time, it doesn’t stand apart from history. As Billy Joel has taught us, “the good old days weren’t always good.” Remember all of this when you are moustache-waxing poetic about the golden age of facial hair to someone who might not have had it so great in the 1890s.
2) It re-enforces gender-based appearance norms (that I find annoying and inconvenient)
Beards are natural. Real. Authentic and timeless. If you dig deep back into your high school biology memory bank, you’ll recall that one of the anatomical features that distinguishes us mammals from all other classes is that we grow hair all over our bodies (also some middle ear bones, mammary glands, and a neocortex, but who’s counting?).
In this regard, some of us are class-ier than others, right? I mean, I’m definitely some kind of super-mammal (and I haven’t even been struck by lightning, touched anything radioactive, or had any other super-power-forming experience).
So, body hair – including facial hair – is part of our mammalian birthright. Except when it isn’t. Please take a moment for a simple addition problem: count how many times you saw hair on the face (no, eyebrows and eyelashes do not count), legs, armpits – essentially anywhere not on the head – on a woman in the month of November. Second addition exercise: same addition problem but count up the men you encountered in November with hair in those locations. Moving on to subtraction: subtract the second number from the first. If you live in the United States and you don’t have a negative number, I will buy you your own yacht, complete with a tastelessly misogynistic moniker plastered on the back.
If body hair is so natural, so essential to being a mammal, why do some of us feel significantly more comfortable existing in more natural states than others? The reality is that in the U.S., there is enormous pressure on women to remove or reduce visible, non-cranial-covering body hair. Removing body hair takes time, energy, and money – all things that most women could stand to have more of, not less.
Sure, some guys take flak for having a back that’s “too hairy,” or pluck out from under a unibrow, or wax something (or somethings). I get it, you are not immune to the pressures of our appearance-based culture. At the same time, some of these more modern manscaping grooming habits come under scrutiny as emasculating. They peg manscapers as being “too much like women” (Which is supposed to be an insult, right?).
The mere fact that we have added words like "manscaping" and "metrosexual" to our lexicon means that they are marked as different, unexpected from the norm. Another way to say this is to ask what you call a woman who removes or reduces any body hair. Well, what do you call her? Stumped. We don’t have a special word for a woman who removes or reduces body hair because it’s “just what women do,” right?”
Essentially, you get to have it both ways. If you want to remove some body hair, you can be seen as “taking care of yourself.” If you want to eschew a blade forever, you can cast aspersions on the shavers with complete impunity – or even with some admiration for your gender-essentialist curmudgeonliness (think of Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec). The fact that some assholes in high school made it really unappealing to take off your shirt at the beach does not erase that hairy is the default expectation for men.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider why hairless is the default expected appearance for women. Even in the midst of perpetual peril.
3) It silences and erases the reality of women with facial hair (or, when will I get MY month of facial hair celebration?)
I hate to break the well-plucked wall of secrecy on this but, guys, women have facial hair. It's not just Agatha Fratelli from The Goonies. It’s called hirsutism and it means “excessive hair growth.” Basically, how your hair follicles respond to testosterone (not necessarily the level of testosterone in your body) determines your overall outward hairiness. It’s people like me. And, it can be treated! Wait, what?
When we talk about hirsutism, we are talking about a benign, cosmetic abnormality. Historically, we have a bias toward “correcting” benign, cosmetic abnormalities for the sake of feeling more comfortable or safer out in the world; it is easier to change our own appearance than to expect acceptance from the rest of the world. Take a minute to let that one sink in.
There are numerous drugs available to “treat” hirsuitism; you can ingest or apply any number of drugs to “correct” something that is a totally harmless genetic attribute. If this doesn’t seem weird to you, consider a world where it was normal to chop off a few centimeters of toe to “correct” Morton’s Toe, another harmless genetic abnormality (abnormal because it only occurs in about 10% of the population).
In a minority of cases, these drugs aren’t used to counter hirsutism; they’re used as part of a treatment plan for transgender women. I am not going to dismiss or downplay the importance of passing in a transphobic society, but suffice to say, in an ideal world, a transgender woman with facial hair would face the same level of discrimination as a non-transgender woman: none.
But this goes back to everything I brought up earlier: body hair, including facial hair is not generally accepted as normal for women. We are reminded of this regularly. From Harnaam Kaur (the 20-something Sikh woman who was “caught” at the airport by a surreptitious photographer) to the RA who encouraged residents to engage in a no-shave November (and in doing so was labeled as a “weird feminist”). While some of these stories push the narrative toward the story that body hair is normal, I still don’t feel comfortable going out into the world like this.
As if being a hairy, lady-identified individual didn’t cause me enough stress, I also have alopecia areata. This means I have random bald patches that spring up. Depending on the body location – too much hair is not-OK and hairlessness is also not-OK. And even though there are drugs, creams, lotions, shampoos, and surgical procedures to “correct” naturally-occurring baldness in men (implying that baldness is not OK), consider difference in response to a bald man vs. a hairy-legged woman. Consider that there is a counter-narrative of virility and sex appeal for bald men to lean on to remind them that they are accepted by society as-is.
In short, there is too much to ‘splain, so let me sum up: it is utterly frustrating and rage-inducing to watch mainstream media spend a month celebrating widely-accepted-and-considered-normal facial hair on men while saying, at best, nothing about women’s facial hair and, at worst, “Eww, gross.” If facial hair is so amazing as to dedicate a whole month to celebrating it, I want in on some of that action.
OK, are your eyebrows furrowed in some righteous sense of injustice? Wanna know what can you do?
Great. I’m so glad you are open to thinking about how you can cultivate your facial follicular garden and help everyone else who is not similarly encouraged. Those aren’t mutually exclusive activities! I am excited to have you on board as an ally.
First, don’t judge women by the choices we make about our body hair. If body hair on women isn’t your thing, that’s OK (but also, maybe do some reflecting on how you came to have that preference; it’s an active, not a neutral preference).
In the non-vanilla sex world, there’s a saying: “not my kink.” It’s a short-hand way to say, “I don’t particularly care to do that but I am also simultaneously capable of not judging the fact that you like to do that.” That’s easy, that one’s all in your head. If you see a really attractive-to-you woman take a long stretch, revealing her hairy armpits, can you work through the process of seeing it as a choice she made rather than, “Eww gross?”
Leveling up, can you call out other people for judging women with body hair? When you hear “Eww gross,” can you challenge Judgy McJudgerson to see body hair as a choice as if all choices are valid regardless of whether or not they’re personally appealing to you?
When I was younger, if I saw totally-freaky-to-me-weirdo my reaction was, “Eww, what a weirdo.” Now, my response is, “Thanks pal. Every visible, unapologetic weirdo makes the world safer for weirdos.” As a visible, unapologetic weirdo myself, I am invested in a safer world for weirdos and therefore thankful for other visible, unapologetic weirdos going about their daily business in the midst of non-weirdos.
The point is, I think even Judgy wants to be able to go to class in yoga pants and Uggs sometimes without experiencing ego-eroding derision.
Last, let’s say you prefer body hair on women. Let’s say it’s a total turn-on for you. Own it. Don’t be afraid to express that preference if you’re asked or if it comes up in conversation. Respond to that “eww gross” with “Actually, I think leg hair on women is pretty sexy.” Don’t be that guy in high school with a “secret girlfriend.”
My gram used to say “That goes to show ya, there’s a club for everyone.” It’s OK to be in the club of people who prefer some amount of body hair on women. I assure you plenty of other people are walking around with membership cards tucked into their wallets.
Anyway, I’m dying to get this conversation started. More than anything I want to be talking about gender and body hair instead of carrying on like nothing’s going on under the surface. Do your gender identity and level of body hair collide? Do you feel like they match? Should body hair be a gender marker? If you are female-identified, what’s your body hair level like? Are you comfortable with it? If your sexual preference includes female-identified partners, do you have a body hair preference on partners? How are we going to include people of all genders in Movember next year? LET’S TALK ABOUT IT! GO!
* Yes, I realize that my generalizations about society and culture are specifically rooted in the United States, current day. Yes, I am aware that there are other parts of the world and other times in human history with different stories to tell about women and body hair.