Michael: an extraordinary beard history
What is it like to have grown and continuously kept a full beard from a very early age? What is it like to have a “most excellent beard”? Get a behind-the-scenes look at real bearded life through
Michael’s extraordinary beard history here in words and photos.
You started shaving at the unusually-early age of twelve. Before the onset of your beard development, had you ever dreamed of growing a beard when you got older?
The short answer is no. Although any time that I saw someone in the movies with facial hair, I found myself drawn to it. When I would watch my father shave, he would put lather on my face and let me use his Schick Safety Razor without the blade in it. At those times, there were very deep, almost unconscious glimmers of impending manhood. It was exciting yet unnerving.
Growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, facial hair was not in fashion. Being of Italian heritage, on both sides of my family, I can remember my grandfather and uncles having very heavy five o’clock shadows. Their wives would complain that they would get “beard burn” when their husbands kissed them. I was very intrigued by that concept.
With Italians being a touchy-feely type of people, I can remember being allowed to run my hand over my uncles’ stubbly cheeks. I distinctly remember thinking that I couldn’t wait until I could get my own stubble. It was specifically stubble that I wanted and not a beard. I suspect that if a relative had a beard, I would have focused on that.
Do you remember at what age you first recognized that you wanted to grow a beard?
In the early summer of 1966, I was looking in the mirror, just about to shave, when it occurred to me that in less than one day, my beard stubble was quite thick. It was one of those moments when a light goes on in your head. Even though I’d been shaving since I was twelve, I really never noticed my beard for what it was. Until that day, shaving was part of “personal hygiene” and a big nuisance. Because summer vacation had just started, I figured that I wouldn’t shave until school began in September. I was very curious to see what it would look like. For some odd reason, my parents never said a word to me about it. Nor did my brothers and sisters.
That summer, I was taking Drivers Ed at the high school and at the end of the course, the instructor approached me and said, “What are you? Some kind of freak? If you don’t shave that thing off, you won’t get your permit!” I was stunned. I dutifully shaved the next morning and received my permit, only to start growing it back the next day. By the end of summer vacation, my beard had filled in nicely. No one ever mentioned it, even though I was the only person who had one. Near the end of summer vacation, I was walking to the store, when the principal of my High School drove passed. He stopped his car abruptly when he saw me. He jumped out of the vehicle and slammed me up against a brick wall with his hand around my throat. He was so angry that he was red in the face and practically spit his words out. The gist of his statement was: You shave that disgusting thing off or else. Shaken, I went home and sobbed uncontrollably as I shaved off my beard. I actually called him up to report that I had done what he requested, but his wife answered. I told her what had happened and asked that she tell her husband. In the evening, the principal called our home and told me to stop harassing his wife. My parents never intervened, one way or the other. I had to go it alone. Long hair was not in vogue yet, so here I was with a crew cut and a very full, but trimmed, beard. To this day, I don’t know what all the fuss was about.
Were there others in your family who were bearded before you? What was their relationship to you? What were your impressions of their beards?
At the time, absolutely no one! For three known generations, no one, on either side of the family, had facial hair. One can only imagine what fine beards could have been grown with all those Italian genes floating around. By the mid 1970s, my two brothers, who are fraternal twins, and one cousin, grew their beards. None of them were dedicated beard growers. My one brother, when bearded, looked surprisingly like me. At first glance, he and I could pass for twins. His beard, though, was far more wavy and wiry. His real twin had a modest beard that was medium brown in color and had fairly straight hair. When we would get together, there was a feeling of being in a “club” of sorts. I never felt any competition with them. Occasionally, outsiders would make comments about who had the best beard, but it was never taken to heart.
You grew your first beard at age sixteen. Did you ever feel a bit shy about growing that first beard? What prompted you to grow it at that time?
Not in the least, although I was mortified when my body hair started to sprout. For some reason, my beard was out of the realm of “embarrassing puberty”. I was a painfully shy kid. I was picked on constantly throughout my school years, so I basically kept to myself. When you’re shy, you feel invisible. You think what you do and say makes no difference to anyone, which reinforces the sense of invisibility. So I figured no one would see my beard. Clearly, the Drivers Ed instructor and the principal saw it.
How did you feel about that first beard after you saw how it turned out?
I have to say, I thought that it looked great. There was no one around to compare it to, but I could see that it had a good shape and a nice density to it.
Did your peers at school comment on your beard? Did anyone ask serious questions about it?
None of my peers did. Even when I went to college and beards were starting to become more popular, no one my age mentioned it. It was the adults that approached me. I can remember taking a bus into Boston and a woman, who sat next to me, kept asking questions about it. Finally, she asked if she could touch it. I have to say that she couldn’t keep her hands off of it, which became somewhat embarrassing. There were many times, when standing in an elevator, someone would comment about my “wonderful” beard and ask me how it felt to have a beard and if was it difficult to maintain. This always made me smile. In the working world, I had a number of jobs renovating old houses. It was a very guy-oriented occupation. On a number of occasions, co-workers would come up to me and say, “I thought about growing a beard, but it seems like a lot of trouble. I hear it itches a lot, too.” I would then launch into a commentary about techniques on beard growing. I would try to engage them in conversation about it by saying, “This is something our fathers never talked to us about.” They would listen intently and allow some personal thoughts. Some of them would then give up shaving for about a week, but would declare that their girlfriends didn’t like it and then shave it off.
I worked at one of Boston’s major newspapers for a number of years during the mid ’70s. It was Old School mentality there, so my beard was looked upon as something suspect. But one day, I don’t remember the circumstances, a number of guys who usually heckled me came into the Editorial Department, where I worked, and started to ask about my beard. I was a bit uneasy because they were tough “townie” types. At one point, one of them asked if he could feel my beard. Who was I to deny him? And perhaps it would prevent my being “met in the parking lot” later on. When the guy started to pat my beard, it was like a signal for the rest of them to step up and get their chance to feel it. I felt like a one-man petting zoo. Granted, that experience was surreal, but it was a very positive experience and no one bothered me after that.
As your beard continued to mature beyond age sixteen, did you ever come to realize that you had a beard of exceptional quality? How did that make you feel?
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when being clean-shaven was back in style, that I understood I had a very good beard. Hindsight gave me a new perspective. By that time, I had a box full of photos from the past decade that showed me standing with my bearded friends and acquaintances. Mine always stood out. I was never competitive and my beard was just something that I could do, but here was strong evidence that I had something above the norm.
It was around that time that I started to identify myself with my beard. It became a symbol that represented me. For all my insecurities, I had knew that I had a good beard. This type of thinking got me into a few binds. I never let anyone trim it. I always did it myself, and with just scissors, no electric trimmers or barbers. It would take hours to get the right shape with always the nagging thought that I might take off too much. There is a line from The Karate Kid in which the teacher says to his student, who is taking care of a Bonsai tree, “Just cut away what doesn’t belong.” I totally embraced that thought, which produced many fine trimming sessions. There were a lot of changes in my life during that time, one of them being my self-image. Who did I want to be? What does that look like? Where does my beard fit in? And the most important question at the time was: Who am I without my beard? So you can see, my beard became more than a beard.
I was a bartender for a short while in an iffy part of town. Even though the place got rough at times, I had the security of being behind the bar, plus the quasi-elevated status of being A Bearded Bartender. I felt emotionally and physically protected, which gave me confidence. When a drunken fight would break out, I rarely hesitated to break it up. Usually, I would avoid any type of confrontation. But my beard was like that bar: I felt it protected me and gave me a sort of status that, in turn, gave me confidence.
Did you ever find yourself mentally comparing your beard to the beards of others? Did your beard always “win” the comparisons in your mind?
When I was younger, the comparison thing wasn’t there. When I see a guy with a beard now, there is always the quick comparison, because I’m getting very gray. It’s more like I think: I used to have a good-looking beard. By the late ’90s, goatees were coming into fashion, so I gave that a try. Oddly enough, I did find myself comparing mine with what I saw. It was funny to see that mine was so out of scale with what was out there. That’s when I would say, “I got that point!”
When I turned fifty, back in 2000, I sheepishly bought a beard dye kit. The whole turning-gray thing was making me uneasy. After I had done the deed, I felt as though I had a mask on. It felt completely false. So I trimmed my beard fairly short to undo the damage.
Did your exceptional beard give you a sense of superiority over those you observed to be less blessed in the beard department? How did that make you feel?
I can honestly say that it never happened. If anything, it made me approach guys who had any type of beard and tell them that it was good to see them exercising their male rights to having facial hair. On some deep level, this might be a superior attitude, but it doesn’t feel like that. I’ve found that once you can open a conversation with another bearded guy about facial hair, there seems to be a sense of comradeship. Guys want to share their experiences.
You remained fully bearded throughout many years when beards did not enjoy nearly as much acceptance as they do today. What kept you dedicated to wearing the beard?
Have you ever had an experience where the outcome could have been no other way except the way it was? As though it was predestined? That is how I feel about my beard. It just HAD to happen. It’s such a part of my being that I don’t even question it.
Random thoughts and observations on his bearded life from Michael:
- When I see myself in a dream, I don’t have a beard.
- Most women I know don’t like my beard.
- All the men I know really like my beard.
- If it’s going to be a cold winter, my beard starts getting thicker in the fall.
- Underneath my beard, I have a short sub-beard of blonde hair.
- On many occasions throughout the years, while walking through the city, homeless people have called out to me saying, “Hey, Mister, you have a great beard!”
- More times than not, I find that people react to me as a “man with a beard” and not as “just a person”. When they get to know me better, they go through a lot of “re-thinking” of who I am.
- I’ve found beards to be visually and socially “loaded” in both a positive and negative way.
- One time in a Philadelphia art gallery, the owner came up to me and said that she had to run an errand and asked if I would please mind the place while she was gone. I replied that she never saw me before and I could be a disreputable person. Her response was, “You have a beard, you have to be nice.” I ended up watching the gallery and taking phone calls for about an hour.
- A person’s car had broken down on the highway and I stopped to help. They asked me to leave, saying that they didn’t trust me because I had a beard.
- My father couldn’t grow a beard at all.
- I haven’t seen my upper lip in over thirty years.
- When I see a really great beard, sometimes I think: “Boy, I wish my beard looked like that.”
- There is a Burma Shave rhyme that goes, “Throughout this vale of toil and sin, your head gets bald, but not your chin.” I am losing my hair, but my beard keeps right on growing. That is a great comfort for me.
- In the summer, my beard does not raise my body temperature, or make me hotter. But in the winter, it keeps my face warm.
- I shampoo my beard every day and occasionally use conditioner. It never gets itchy.
- Within two years, my beard has turned almost completely white. My mustache is following quickly behind. I feel as though a very dear friend is going away. Now I find myself looking at men with gray beards to get a sense of what kind of “beard territory” I’m heading into.
Michael’s beard history photo album
Be sure to visit Michael’s photo album.
Photos are courtesy of Michael and are used with permission.
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