Opinion: Facial Hair Rorschach Test

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This column originally appeared in Issue 55 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers can access more content like this through our digital archive.

By Mike Ferrentino

Our US contributor muses the ratio of friendly waves to facial hair. And uncovers stunning results.

beard shaving
Please clean the sink.

This column could have easily also been titled ‘WeirdBeard’, but since I’m following a tangent that I started thinking about when the last Blame The Dog [A regular magazine column in days of yore – Ed] was writ, it is more of a loose social experiment based on how strangers react at first glance to a certain appearance than it is a rant about beards. Hence the Rorschach reference. I just love that word – Rorschach. Can’t really say it enough. Rorschach, Rorschach, Rorschach. It never gets old.

Anyway, following the greeting conundrum I found myself in last issue, I decided to start greeting everybody when I rode. Didn’t matter who – dog walker, fellow cyclist, recumbent rider, stumbling drunk, harried car-bound commuter — if I was on my bike and passing someone, or encountering a person coming the other way, a greeting would be offered. Small wave, nod of head, smile. This way, I figured, I would be able to get a good enough cross section of ‘greetees’ to accumulate some sort of sample pool, because for some perverted reason I love informal studies of social habits. Probably should have gone into anthropology instead of working at a bike shop.

Shaving the clown

It just so happened that during this time, being winter and all, I decided to grow a beard. This sort of thing happens every few years. Due to the fact that I can’t grow hair on the top of my head anymore, the only fun I can have with the stuff (speaking strictly in terms of public acceptability here) is by growing beards and shaving them off again. I blame my mother’s father and the lottery of genetic inheritance. My temples started getting taller in my early twenties, and then the top of my head began getting shiny as I entered my thirties. I finally threw in the towel about six years ago when the only hairstyle I seemed able to cultivate anymore was the not-so-popular with anyone ‘traditional clown circumference’ look, at which point I decided to extend the facial shaving regimen to include the rest of my head.

I’d pay good money for some miracle baldness in those freakish places where hair really doesn’t have any reason to grow

I gave up lamenting my inability to have fun with hair on my head a long time ago, and tried to assess some sort of compensatory joy from the fact that I have always had the fortunate ability to grow a luxuriant beard in pretty short order. To say nothing of the bumper crops of hair sprouting from the non-baldness affected regions – back, eyebrows, ears and nose. I’d pay good money for some miracle baldness in those freakish places where hair really doesn’t have any reason to grow. So it goes. Be happy with life’s small gifts and bear the rest of it with your best attempt at grace. Or, failing that, a sense of humour. I can grow a mean beard, and if it’s a race, I can grow the damn thing pretty quick.

So, there I was, a 45-year old man on a bicycle, who most of the time looks like a short angry German, waving to everyone I saw. When rocking the clean-cut look, I found that I could count on a 50/50 response to the waves of greeting. The success of response seemed to depend, more or less, on how hard I was pedaling. See, when I pedal hard I turn reddish, and there’s this vein on my temple hat begins to throb in a visual and disconcerting manner. And my glasses fog up a bit. And I sweat. Suffice to say, a squat, sweating, angry German looking man, with a vein pulsing visibly on his temple, doesn’t elicit as favorable response to a wave hello as does a less angry and puffed up version of roughly the same person. Still, about half the people I waved to waved back. Or extended some kind of reciprocal greeting. I did not try, at any point of the angry German-looking phase of this experiment, engaging in a stiff-arm salute nor did I scream ‘Sieg Heil,’ both of which technically may qualify as greetings. Some things are best left well alone.

Stubbly melons…

Then the chin scruff took hold. With about five days stubble adorning the melon (except the parts where hair doesn’t grow anymore), I began to notice a subtle shift in people’s reactions to me as I pedaled to work. The fuzz softened me, to outward appearances. It made me look less like an angry German and more like some decent citizen who was probably a bit hard up for money. Why else would he be riding a bicycle to work, evidently unable to afford razor blades? (Incidentally, razor blades might as well be made out of gold. Not sure what they charge in the UK, but over here a pack of eight Gillette Mach 3 Turbo blades – which for the die-hard blade shaver are the ne plus ultra of razor blades – costs $24. Sweet Jesus. That’s three bucks a blade! No wonder I decided to stop shaving…) As such, the ratio of waves returned began to creep upward.

By the time two weeks had elapsed, there was a rusty lumberjack-ish pelt covering the lower half of my face, and the world was my friend. Not only was my chin muffled from the slight winter chill (this is coastal California after all. A ‘hard’ winter here is defined by whether or not there was enough frost to kill the banana tree in the front yard), but the waves of greeting offered/greetings returned rate was now up around 80%. Amazing stuff. And this just a few years after the American psyche had headlong plunged into the head-up-ass fearmongered rhetoric of ‘beard equals Islamic fundamentalist equals national security threat.’ This positive reception may have had something to do with the current hipster trend toward cultivating facial hair and documenting the process via Facebook, but it might have more directly been because I looked, in the words of my girlfriend’s teenage son, ‘like a happy little elf.’

A happy little elf

Being called a little elf by the girlfriend’s son notwithstanding, it was getting toward time for the beard to go. A month and a half in, and the thing was a daily itching hell. While I am capable of growing a healthy beard, my skin hates me for it, and goes into some kind of sebaceous rebellion. The longest I have ever managed to keep any beard has been six months, at the end of which I had been reduced to a jittery wreck, waking up in the middle of the night scratching my face, absently examining flakes of skin during meetings, and prone to unprovoked bouts of weeping. After a few months, my beard begins to feel about how I imagine the traditional hair shirt must feel to any good old-fashioned religious penitent. So, much as my daily ride was becoming a genuine love-fest, the clippers came out.

The beard was lopped off one night last week, and the next morning I rode to work with my chin cleanly cleaving the breeze again, with the sole facial adornment being a mustache. Not just any mustache, since there is an entire thesaurus of mustaches out there in the world, but a thick, healthy, ambiguously homoerotic Horseshoe mustache. Not to be confused with a Fu-Manchu, the Horseshoe is usually only seen in metal bands, or on gay bartenders, or in rare instances some combination of both. Case in point, former Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s current look. Combine a bald head with a Horseshoe, and the die is pretty well cast. You WILL look creepy. And I did, and I do.

Steve Makin beard
A Happy Little Elf

The effect was instantaneous and dramatic. That morning, riding to work, only one person waved to me. And that was a good friend, who still had to do a double take to recognize me. Several of the usual wave-ees, who had regularly been waving back to me on the morning route, not only did not wave back but actually went to the trouble of averting their gaze elsewhere. A lady stopped next to me at one traffic light rolled her car window up, and a small child at another began to cry. A heavily tattooed man on a Harley Davidson with forearms about the size of my thighs asked me if I wanted to get my ass kicked when I nodded his way at a four-way intersection.

Who knew? I sure didn’t. If anyone was left wondering after this column last issue about how best to ride in silence, to avoid the unwanted attention of others, to have the world quietly to oneself without interruption, how to avoid the whole rigamarole of adequate, situation correct greetings and responses, I have news for you: Grow a ‘tache. Your life will be transformed.

Who the hell is Mike Ferrentino?
Mike Ferrentino is a long time mountain bike writer, bike shop rat and social hermit. He can wax eloquently on loose ball vs caged bearings, or PJ O’Rourke vs Hunter S Thompson, but mainly he prefers not to. He lives in Santa Cruz with people he likes and some old bits of motorbikes.

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