Bearded

“Look at that guy’s hair!” one tourist packed into the Times Square mob cried out. “He looks like a water buffalo!”
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They wanted to be seen, their hirsute faces expectant, beaming. It was the Friday before the National Beard and Moustache Championship and unseasonably warm for November in New York, ideal for a parade. The competitors had just finished their march from Rockefeller Center up to Central Park, where they’d posed for a hurried photo, and back to Times Square. In that moment, these bearded men had something so many people want—the sensation of celebrity.

“Look at that guy’s hair!” one tourist packed into the Times Square mob cried out. “He looks like a water buffalo!”

I was among those being gawked at. Seven months earlier, in mid-April 2015, I’d come across a notice for the National Beard and Moustache Championship online. The event’s seeming absurdity piqued my curiosity. Competitive bearding? Please. Why would anyone want to grow flamboyant facial hair in the first place? Believing there was no better way to understand the competition and its participants, I entered.

At the time, my beard was short, which made it difficult to determine which of the 18 categories (18!) I should compete in. Would I grow a moustache like the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, one that slid down my lips and curled tightly around my nose like the Nike logo, or an Amish beard that cradled my cheeks and chin, or maybe a Fu Manchu with whiskers that sprouted from the corners of my upper lip and shot down past my jaw? Overwhelmed by the choices and terrified at the prospect of interviewing for a job with a Fu Manchu, I kept it simple and entered the Full Beard Natural category. This meant I could grow my beard as long and thick as I wanted; the only rule was I could not use any “styling aids,” which the competition’s official website defined as “moustache wax, hair spray, hair cream, styling foam, hair gel, hair pins, rubber bands, hair ties, and the like.” I didn’t use any of “the like” anyway, so I paid my $49.04 entry fee and began diligently tending to my beard. “When you find the right look,” the competition’s website noted for first-time competitors like myself, “you will know it by the compliments you receive, especially from strangers.”

Seven months later I had a lush beard that changed color from deep brown at my sideburns to sandy blonde under my chin. As a beard became my defining feature, it caught the attention of strangers—at a bar a woman I’d never met approached me, dug her fingers into my beard, and promptly walked away. I think this was a compliment. A bouncer described my beard as “luxurious,” and a family friend said it was dense like “steel wool.” Once, while playing pickup basketball, someone called me the “right-handed James Harden.” Harden, a guard for the Houston Rockets, sports a full, wide beard juxtaposed with close-trimmed hair on the sides of his head—a look I’d been more or less copying as I grew my beard. Friends from my hometown who saw photos of me on Facebook called to express concern that I might be depressed. On Halloween, when I dressed up as Tom Hanks from Castaway, people asked if my beard was real. Most women didn’t like it, but a lot of men told me they had “beard envy.” They said if they could grow a beard like mine, they would.

Leading up to the competition, my beard became a burden. I had nightmares where I shaved it off, only to wake in a sweat frantically patting my face. In public, I could feel myself no longer being viewed as an object of attraction—I’d become an interactive exhibition. I promised myself that after the competition I would shave the whole thing off.

***

As the crowd thinned, I started talking with a competitor named Pablo Thaler. Pablo has an infectious exuberance. When he speaks, which he does in clipped, staccato bursts, his eyes widen like an excited child. Oh, and his beard: dense, dark brown, hanging like a thick stalactite from his face, with a moustache curled in tight loops above his upper lip. He was competing in the Verdi beard category, named after the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.

A lot of competitors told me they started growing their beards “because they could,” but Pablo had a story behind his beard. Before he grew it out, Pablo was about to become a father for the first time. He spent his nights dreaming about what it would be like to be a dad. But one night Pablo had a different dream, this time about his father, whose beard had made Pablo feel safe as a child.

“I had a dream from the point of view of myself as a child grabbing my father’s beard,” Pablo told me. “I woke up the next morning and felt assured about becoming a father.” Pablo started growing his beard, and when his son was born, the first thing he did was reach for his dad’s beard.

That day I asked Pablo and others for advice on how to improve my beard, and I was surprised by the encouragement I received. I expected the competitive bearding community to be catty, to take their facial hair too seriously. Instead, competing was like becoming part of a social club in which everyone is deeply fascinated with the same subject, which just so happens to be growing on their faces. I received endorsements to “let it rip!” and to go for something called a “lion beard” because I had “a good face and nice eyes.” When I was advised not to use shampoo on my beard I cringed because I’d been applying a small dollop every few days in the shower. I was told to brush my beard nightly to prevent split ends.

Pablo recommended I grow a Verdi beard like his because my moustache was long enough to curl above my lips. Up to that point, I hadn’t done anything with my moustache. If I pursed my lips even slightly, they’d disappear in my beard. Despite all the waxes out there, the best product Pablo had found for his beard was a John Frieda anti-frizz cream that his wife uses. As he talked, Pablo stroked his beard.

Pablo called his beard the “best human filter” because it immediately charms strangers. I’d noticed this about my beard, too. People I’d never met wanted to touch it, wanted to know how long I’d been growing it and how I maintained it. When I asked Pablo if he’d ever shave, he vigorously shook his head and said, “If you have the ability to make others happy and you don’t, then what kind of man are you?”

***

My knowledge of beards before the competition had been limited primarily to the “grief beard.” Conan O’Brien grew one after he lost “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno, Al Gore after he lost the 2000 Presidential election, and Paul McCartney after the Beatles broke up. Bruce Wayne has one at the start of The Dark Knight Rises while he’s serving his exile from fighting crime, and in Anchorman, when his news anchor career is derailed, Ron Burgundy grows a scraggly beard.

But beards aren’t only associated with sadness. The study of hair understandably captivates people because of all it can tell us about humanity. “The pilary system is a perfect microcosmic structure,” the late dermatologist Stephen Rothman claims in the introduction to “The Biology of Hair Growth.” “In this microcosmos we find birth, development, aging (sic) and death, activity and rest … There is hardly any field other than that dealing with the subject of hair in which the groups of interested people can be so heterogeneous.”

The bearding community expressed a similar passion for hair. At the parade, a beard product salesman named Richie Finney, who had a gray and black mane of hair pulled back in a ponytail and a matching beard that he’d been growing out for four years, excitedly told me, “The police forensic scientists can actually take out a hair and tell you the last time you did a line of cocaine!”

***

I grew accustomed to being noticed for my beard, to having it praised by strangers. Twice I was singled out at comedy clubs by comics who stopped in the middle of their acts to comment on my beard. One British comic, remarking on why he loved the possibilities America offers people, pointed to me and said, “You can grow a giant beard and wear skinny pants and NOT be a hipster!” I wondered what it would be like to go from being celebrated for something that was completely and wholly your own, that was actually part of you, to being unnoticed again.

I hopped a train to Brooklyn where registration for the competition was being held in a conference room of a Sheraton. There, Phil Olsen, the organizer of the National Championship, looked up my registration information and noted that there were too many people signed up in the Full Beard Natural category. Olsen’s beard was like Pablo’s, but a little longer and came to a more narrow, rounded tip far below his chin. He made unblinking eye contact, and when I introduced myself, he said my last name—“Sundt!”—before I could, which impressed me considering there were 300 competitors.

After pausing to study the shape and contours of my beard and moustache, Olsen thought I might be able to compete in the Verdi category, like Pablo had suggested. Olsen brandished a weathered metal ruler and stuck it through my beard until it hit my chin. Verdi beards could be no longer than 10 centimeters, or just under four inches. My beard was long, but well short of the limit (it was only about two-thirds as long as Pablo’s); if I stuck my index finger in my beard it reached to my middle knuckle. So I switched. Pablo and I were now competing in the same category.

This meant I could use styling aids—moustache wax and “the like”— and if I wanted to seriously compete, I probably needed to style my moustache similar to Pablo’s. Thankfully the vendors sponsoring the event were handing out free products. I was given a sample of “moustache glue” that came in a small, square, sealed wrapper.

The following morning, as I scrambled to put myself together for the competition, I hurriedly squeezed some glue from the wrapper and rubbed it between my fingers and through my moustache. Then I twisted each end of my moustache around a pen for a couple of minutes to make the curls tight.

The competition venue was Kings Theater on Flatbush Avenue, a once-regal movie house unused for nearly 40 years until it was recently restored for $95 million. Inside, there was a table giving away free clippers and beard-dyeing products and t-shirts. The theater smelled of varnished wood and beer, which was being sold for $12 a glass.

An usher directed me up a red, Baroque-style carpeted staircase where the competitors were grouped together around banners representing their home state or country. No one had claimed the flag for my home state—Minnesota—so I snagged it. As I searched for my place in line, I spotted Pablo, who was carrying the vibrant sky blue and white flag of Argentina. He gestured toward my curled moustache and said, “I see you took my advice!”

As the opening ceremony commenced, we descended the carpeted steps, posing for photographs along the way. Many of the competitors were in costume. I saw a medieval knight, a Viking, four guys in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band uniforms who called themselves “The Beardles,” a few cowboys and a Colonel Sanders. One competitor wrapped his entire beard around a wire-framed birdcage and stuck his head inside it. I embraced my inner hipster with blue chinos, white button-down shirt, navy blue suspenders and a dark blue bow tie.

Though the Minnesota contingent was small—just three of us—we were a notorious group. One of our members, MJ Johnson, had arguably the most popular facial hair at the competition: a salt and pepper Imperial Partial Beard that swooped out and up from his cheeks by about a foot on each side; he’s the one the tourists said “looked like a water buffalo”. When we spoke at the parade the day before, eight different groups of people interrupted us to take photos with MJ. He’d grown so accustomed to being photographed that he wore red-tinted sunglasses wherever he went to protect his eyes from camera flashes.

“At first, it’s about individuality,” MJ told me about why he started growing his beard. “You tell yourself, ‘I want to see how it changes me.’ … Then you become part of this big community … talking to reporters … it’s an adventure.”

Once we were on stage, I could hear veteran competitors giving advice to anxious rookies. I listened closely. “You can prance around. Make sure the judges see you!”

We stood solemnly for a recording of the National Anthem, but it didn’t take long for panic to ensue. Because of a last-minute category switch, one competitor who’d meticulously curled his moustache had to straighten it into long fine ends. “Anybody here have a hair-straightener?” he pleaded as we filed down the stage and into our seats.

Next, the emcee reviewed the judging criteria—all judges were to “determine which contestant’s facial hair best enhances his overall appearance, style, and personality”— and Phil Olsen introduced Madison Crowley, the reigning Beard Champion of the World, who would be giving the medals to those who placing in the top three of their category. Crowley’s black beard looked soft and shiny. He makes his own beard oil, of which he gave me a sample that I later re-gifted to a bearded friend for Christmas. His beard was about four times as long as mine and twice as wide.

Local news outlets scurried around the theater trying to get the best shots of the competition and secure interviews with the competitors while the first category, Natural Moustache, processed onto the stage. As each of the six competitors held a number, the crowd showed their approval by screaming their favorites. One competitor dressed like an old prospector started dancing.

Finally, the judges revealed a winner: John Cordes. Cordes and I had met the day before at the parade. He’s from Montana and began growing his moustache after he lodged a piece of grinding disk into his upper lip; at first he didn’t realize the severity of his injury, but the following morning when he got up to shave he sheared off a chunk of his lip. He’s had a moustache ever since.

With the announcement of each category, my friends and mom became more invested in the competition. They started picking out their favorite styles and sizing up the competitors, imploring me to add more glue to my moustache. One friend thought my beard was a serious contender, especially given my category switch. “You might have a chance,” he whispered. For good luck he applied some extra glue to my moustache and tightly twisted up its ends.

***

At the start of the second intermission—just after the third member of the Minnesota contingent, Marc McShane, won for Best Amish Beard— the emcee announced that all Full Beard Natural and Verdi contestants needed to go backstage.

I wandered down a narrow white hallway to a spare dressing room with two walls of long horizontal mirrors and bright, burning bulbs. There was a bathroom and a mini-fridge containing two cans of Diet Coke and, off to one side, a small couch. I took a seat. My legs bounced and a lump crept into my throat. Suddenly I realized this competition mattered a lot more to me than I’d cared to admit.

Full disclosure: when I heard about the competition, I was already growing out my beard for a month, for no other reason than to intentionally alter my physical appearance. Feeling lost as I finished graduate school with no immediate job prospects, I wanted to retreat inside myself. The beard competition gave me an excuse to grow my beard as long as I possibly could to, as MJ said, “see how it changed me.”

Over the summer, with no real direction in my life, I found it hard to wake up in the morning and even harder to fall asleep at night. The prospect of starting a new day gave me anxiety. I was dissatisfied with who I was. I spurned potential relationships, wrote very little and wandered around the city feeling lost. I just wanted to look in the mirror and not have to see whoever I was.

Across from me in the dressing room, a man stared intently into one of the mirrors and primped his long, wavy beard. More competitors wandered in. A man with a red beard and a bandage wrapped around his head like Vincent Van Gogh carried a portable easel and began sketching people in the room. His first subject was a man with an auburn moustache shooting out from each side of his upper lip in two thin vertical loops. “I spend about an hour,” he said. “Twenty-five minutes per side.” To my left, I overheard a hopeful competitor recount his finishes in smaller competitions around the country. “Two firsts and a third!” he boasted.

After 15 minutes I started to worry that I had missed my category. I couldn’t tell if these were these all Verdis because not all of the moustaches were waxed and only some of them were curled. Across the room a guy swigged from a flask. I heard a man dressed like a Civil War soldier fretting that he was in the wrong category. Van Gogh kept sketching.

Then, as if on cue, I heard a cheerful greeting: “Hello gents!” It was Pablo, which meant I was in the right place. Pablo started talking with the guy who was afraid he was in the wrong category. I couldn’t hear what Pablo was saying, but the panicked competitor’s twisted face began to soften.

I tried not to fiddle with my moustache. “Verdi never curled it,” Pablo told the competitors in the room. He directed his focus back to his own moustache and asked the person next to him, “Does this look symmetrical?”

A blonde woman with a clipboard began assigning numbers to each of the Verdi competitors. “#9,” she called out. “Hal Sundt.” At #10, “Pablo Thaler.” Pablo and I would be judged side by side on stage.

Pablo wandered over to the couch. “You’ve definitely been getting pointers,” he said. “Because your moustache is getting better by the hour!” All of the Verdi competitors were called to line up backstage. “I hope you win,” Pablo said. “Actually, I hope you come in second.” Over the last day and a half, Pablo insisted he had entered this competition for fun, to be part of the community. But when the stage director called out, “Gentlemen, can I have your attention?” Pablo’s tone shifted. As we moved closer to the stage, standing behind the tall, thick, black curtains leading out to the judges, Pablo told me candidly, raising his voice like a boyish confession, “Now that my family’s here, I kind of hope I win!” For the first time, Pablo asked me for advice. “Should I take off the hat?” I suggested he remove it as he bows to the judges.

The emcee announced, “#9 Hal Sundt.” The stage lights made me squint as I walked on stage. I could hear my friends and my mom cheering from their seats. Once I reached the edge of the stage I took a short, awkward bow toward the judges’ table and quickly fell back in line. Pablo was more comfortable in the spotlight. He took his time walking out. At the edge of the stage, he removed his hat and gave the judges a patient, swooping bow.

The judging process was less invasive than I’d expected: none of the judges ran their fingers through my beard or asked me any questions. But one of the judges motioned for Pablo to come close and complemented his shoes. This had to be a good sign. The crowd started chanting out numbers as we waited for the judges’ scores. Pablo pointed to his family in the crowd.

We’d probably been on stage for at least five minutes, an interminable time to be looked at, before I turned around and peered up at the screen where the scores must have just been posted. As I scrolled down the list of those who placed, I did a double-take.

“Pablo!” I screamed, grabbing his shoulder, “Pablo, you got second!”

For a moment, Pablo froze, as though he didn't believe me. He looked up at the screen. “Pablo!” I cheered. His boyish smile returned and he hugged me on stage. While the rest of the Verdi category was ushered offstage, Pablo and the first and third-place finishers stayed behind to receive their medals. I lingered to watch the World Beard Champion carefully drape the second-place medal over Pablo’s head and around his beard.

That day I would be the only Minnesotan not to win gold, let alone place, in the National Championship. Pablo found me sitting in the audience later and told me one day it would be me up there getting a medal for my beard; I didn’t tell him that I planned to shave it off in less than 24 hours.

Later that night, as I walked back to my apartment in Manhattan, I felt a sense of calm. When I’d caught glimpses of myself in the mirror that day, I liked what I saw. A few blocks from my apartment, a bouncer outside of a bar with a black goatee made eye contact with me and started stroking his chin. He yelled, “Glorious!”

***

In the course of my research I became fascinated with a correspondence between an anonymous scientist and the editors of Nature magazine. Alone on an island, far away, this scientist took up a peculiar side project. His findings, published in January 1970 under the heading “Effects of Sexual Activity on Beard Growth in Man,” detailed how he first noticed that his beard grew less when he was alone on the island than when he was at home.

“[B]ut the day before I was due to leave the island it increased again,” he wrote, “to reach unusually high rates during the first day or two on the mainland.” From measuring his razor shavings each day, the scientist concluded not only that the “initial resumption of sexual activity produced a most marked increase in beard growth,” but also that the “increase in beard growth anticipated the resumption of sexual relationships.”

Some of Nature’s more avid readers questioned the scientist’s research. A month after the findings were published, in a letter to the editor, one reader asked if the scientist merely shaved “more carefully and more closely” knowing he was about to get lucky, adding cheekily, “Before accepting this interpretation of his findings … has he conducted the important control experiment of inviting his female accomplice(s) to the island with him?”

I wasn’t so much humored as oddly moved by the scientist’s curiosity. His reasons for compulsively shaving seemed as bizarre as those for aggressively growing a beard. Why was he really there, I wondered. Why did he have to be alone? I kept picturing him on that island, hunched over a tiny scale, gently tapping out his razor shavings.

***

How could I say goodbye to it?

Before the competition, I spoke sheepishly of growing my beard. When I received compliments on my beard, I was quick to deny them and say that I couldn’t wait to shave. But after the competition, I wasn’t so sure. My beard didn’t fix anything about myself—my problems didn’t magically disappear the more I grew out my beard—but the act of growing it gave me something to focus on besides feeling down. If I was going to grow a great big beard, I told myself that I needed to offset it by making sure the rest of my physical appearance remained presentable: I worked out consistently; every three weeks I got a haircut to keep the rest of my head clean while my beard grew untamed; I spent extra time in the shower running water through my beard and applying a light conditioner to it when I got out. My beard gave me something to take care of and gave me a reason to take care of myself.

I couldn’t bring myself to go clean-shaven and wavered for two weeks before I finally trimmed my beard. I did it on a whim on a Friday before I met up with friends for happy hour. It didn't go easy. I started with a pair of heavy-duty electric clippers on the highest setting, but they kept getting stuck. My beard was much longer and thicker than I realized. I had to use scissors to cut off large chunks around my chin before I could use the clippers effectively. The hair that once layered my cheeks in waves now fell to the sink.

The whole process took an hour. When it was over, I noticed everything my beard had hidden: how it made my narrow chin more square, how it drew attention away from my small mouth, how it offset my high forehead that I’d been teased about my whole life. A couple of days later, I took the clippers to my face again; there was a spot on the right side of my chin, along the jawline, that felt uneven. When I ran my fingers over that spot, the hairs jutted out against the grain of the rest of my facial hair, like a cowlick. I guided the clippers along my jawline, over and over. My irritated skin itched later that night.

I’d been maintaining this shorter beard for a few months when I got coffee with my mom. As she always does, she studied my face from across the table. I felt her focusing on my chin. She had not been a fan of my beard leading up to the competition; she thought I looked “freaky.” But now she said, “I think your beard is too short. It makes your face seem narrow. You should grow it out.”

When a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln was running for President, he received similar advice from an 11-year old girl named Grace Bedell, who wrote him a letter asking him to grow a beard. “[Y]ou would look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” Bedell wrote. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

There are many reasons why we do the things we do: because we can; because others tell us to; to change; to discover; to hide.

My face feels unfamiliar now. I still favor that spot on my chin, trying to trick myself into believing it’s even. It’s a game I never win. Maybe the next graze will smooth everything out I tell myself as I trace my hand from the top of my sideburns down my jawline. The hair still feels coarse, uneven, imperfect.


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