Credit Tribalium/iStockphoto Beard styles thin cheeks.
NOT since Walt Whitman edited The Brooklyn Daily Eagle has the borough’s beard-to-man ratio been this high.
Whether it’s the artisanal food movement, which has young men looking like turn-of-the-last-century farmers, or the heritage fashion look, which has them dressing like they’re on a deer hunt, the common signifier is a mountain-man beard. Soon men won’t be allowed into the Brooklyn Flea or on the L train without at least three days’ stubble.
So imagine my frustration in living in this land of urban Grizzly Adamses, unable to grow a beard. My beard envy isn’t new, but lately it’s become a full-fledged itch as I encounter bearded men everywhere from my backyard to the wider culture. Hollywood is full of designer stubble (see: Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal). The fashion world has embraced the hirsute look, too. Do designers think guys with beards have more fun (the male follicle version of blondes, perhaps)?
Tom Bull, a 22-year-old model, was on the cover of Ralph Lauren’s look book for the Purple Label this spring with a full chestnut thatch. Since growing the beard last January, Mr. Bull said he has booked more jobs and with higher-end labels like Armani and Brioni. “The money jobs come to you when you have the beard,” he said. “You look older.” That was certainly the case at the Ralph Lauren casting. “On the spot they said: ‘Yes, we love him for Purple Label. Don’t shave the beard.’ ”
Thankfully, there is no beard premium in journalism. Still, what if I want to switch professions and become a major-league relief pitcher? What if I had been born Amish? I would be cast out.
At 35, I can grow a decent goatee and mustache, both recent developments, but my cheeks are so prepubescent smooth, with nary a whisker pushing up, that a full beard is impossible. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I mentioned my frustration to Steven Wilson, who runs Beards.org, a Web site created to “increase awareness, appreciation and understanding of the beard.” He’s heard the story many times.
As Mr. Wilson explained to me in an e-mail, many men who suffer from this “terribly profound personal problem” are “extremely distressed” by their lack of beard-growing capability. They experience “pain and suffering” and “face ridicule” from their bearded friends. They can even be “intimidated by the sight of someone with a great beard.”
Wait a minute. Are we still talking about beards and not another symbol of male virility?
Styles beard thin cheeks
I have never felt tortured by my inability to grow a beard, and it hasn’t undermined my sense of manhood, either. (Until, maybe now.) For me it’s a style matter: I can’t rock fat sideburns like Neil Young circa 1972, or pair a suit with a greasy biker beard, as Joaquin Phoenix did to sublime effect a few years ago.
Back in my early 20s, I once contemplated seeking medical help to grow thicker fuzz. Seeing so many men with beards has me wondering again about a solution. Is there Rogaine for the beardless?
Dr. Kenneth Beer, a dermatologist in Palm Beach, Fla., said the medical options are limited. The reasons for poor facial-hair growth vary, he said, but can be because of a lack of sensitivity to testosterone, which turns soft vellus hairs into thicker terminal hairs during puberty. If testosterone levels are low, hormones can be prescribed. And men who have patchy beards because of a skin disease like alopecia areata can take medications.
“But if there’s no medical reason,” Dr. Beer said, “it’s just genetics.”
A second opinion from Dr. Joel M. Gelfand, an associate professor of dermatology and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, was no different. Medical researchers — or, for that matter, pharmaceutical companies looking for the next blockbuster drug — haven’t focused on products that grow facial hair, Dr. Gelfand said. (Drugs like Rogaine and Propecia grow hair on the top of the head, while Latisse works on eyelashes, but their effects on a man’s face have not been studied).
He also cautioned against testosterone injections for men with normal levels, saying it can cause hair loss on the scalp, severe acne that can leave permanent scars and liver problems that can be fatal.
On the infrequent occasions when Dr. Gelfand sees an otherwise healthy man who is dejected by his lack of facial hair, “I usually recommend no treatment,” he said.
I floated a last-ditch theory past Dr. Gelfand. My facial hair seems to have grown thicker in my 30s. Is it possible, I wondered, that I’ll continue to sprout whiskers and grow a beard later in life? Dr. Gelfand wasn’t optimistic. “Once you hit your 20s,” he said, “for most people that’s going to be the extent of their facial-hair growth.”
Dr. Gelfand also debunked the popular myth that shaving promotes hair growth. Hair grows in cycles — some are growing and some are resting — and shaving frequently, he said, “causes all the hairs to cycle together.” In other words, the hairs appear thicker but there aren’t more of them.
Not ready to let the dream die, I called up a man who knows about growing facial hair: Phil Olsen, captain of Beard Team USA, which competes in the World Beard and Mustache Championships. Did he know any secret tricks used by top competitors? He suggested a strategy endorsed by Jack Passion, the two-time world champion in the highly competitive “full beard natural” category, who adheres to a high-protein diet.
Mr. Olsen, who sports a lustrous one-footer, also said drinking beer might help. “All I can say is I’ve been to many beard competitions, both in the U.S. and Europe, and there’s a very high correlation between beard growing and beer drinking.”
NOT long ago, I commiserated over coffee with another beardless guy, a 28-year-old men’s wear designer named Renalde Jett. At a distance, Mr. Jett has what appears to be a robust full beard, until you zero in on the mustache area. It looks as if thin metal shavings have collected on his upper lip and are being held there by a very weak magnet. I had flashbacks to my high-school stoner ’stache.
“I never actually shave this,” Mr. Jett confessed. “I can’t. I’m afraid it’s not going to grow back.”
Mr. Jett also lives in Brooklyn, and like me has charted the rise of the beard from an outsider’s vantage. “It’s become acceptable that women find it attractive,” he said. “It’s like this sex symbol. So, yeah, I’m just missing out on that whole boat.”
I mentioned how a few years ago a girl I met told me straight out that she likes guys with beards. Even with a goatee, my days were numbered.
Mr. Jett nodded sympathetically. “She wanted the full beard.”
Styles beard cheeks thin
Soon our conversation turned into a therapy session for the follicly challenged, with Mr. Jett revealing that his father can grow a full beard any time he wants, and with me sharing how my oldest friend, Chris, grew all sorts of facial hair configurations when we roomed together.
“He’s teasing you,” Mr. Jett said. “That’s messed up.”
In support-group fashion, we bucked ourselves up. We’ll always look younger, I said. Less hassle with shaving, Mr. Jett pointed out. And neither Mr. Jett nor myself would have fallen prey to the so-called Hipster Grifter, the Brooklyn con woman who has a tattoo declaring her love for bearded men.
“I’ve adapted and learned to groom myself accordingly,” said Mr. Jett, keeping a stiff upper lip.
That’s what I’ve done, too. Growing a beard is just one of those things that didn’t happen, like becoming a professional ballplayer: a minor disappointment I’ve accepted.
Besides, if I’m going to lack hair, better that it’s on my face and not atop my head.