Fear the Beard

Justin Turner steps into the batter’s box and fusses with his gloves. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman has to tilt his head down to see them; the bird’s nest on his face would obscure his view otherwise. Turner’s stance is wide open. He’s practically facing the pitcher, as if acknowledging that he couldn’t see the pitch past his whiskers any other way.

Turner is not well-coiffed. On his chin he wears the exploded pelt of a golden lion tamarin killed with an unnecessarily large-caliber rifle. He looks like an orangutan that was bathed and tumble-dried without benefit of an anti-static-cling sheet. His beard is a kindergartener’s art assignment—a hand-outline Thanksgiving turkey shakily drawn in orange crayon.

The pitcher, Adam Wainright, leans in for the sign. He throws. Turner swings at one pitch, then another, then he takes a couple more. Finally, he sees something he likes and connects, gifting a fan in the left-field bleachers a souvenir. The beard wags as Turner trots around the basepaths, seemingly taunting the other team: You’re the Reds? I’m the Red. Remember me. It crosses home plate just ahead of the player to whom it is affixed.

Turner’s beard is not the menacing three-day growth Wainright sports to intimidate hitters on the days he pitches. Wainright’s stubble says, I might be crazy. Maybe I just crawled down from the hills and haven’t heard the war is over. Maybe I’ve been talking to myself too long and I don’t like people and now I’m gonna have to throw at you ‘cause you looked at me funny. By contrast, Turner’s beard is anything but anti-social. It is a fawning performance before an audience of Hollywood trendies. It is florid, garish, a crescendo at the end of the final coda of a Romantic symphony. You are supposed to applaud it. As with all stylistic affectations, it is slavishly conformist and self-referential.

It is also a sign of the times. Beards are in. Not the trimmed status symbol of the European academic (think Sigmund Freud), or the dangerous goatee (Vincent Price, evil Spock), or even a Musketeer’s Vandyke. No, today’s beard more closely resembles a tumbleweed blown by a parched Sonoran wind into the face of an unfortunate passerby.

The last time facial spurge was so in fashion—in the second half of the nineteenth century—it came to Europe on the haunted visages of British soldiers who grew their thatch to keep warm in the freezing winters of the Crimea. They were greeted as heroes back home, and their survival tactic became a fashion statement. Americans, always vacillating between reviling and admiring their European cousins, followed suit. Hirsuteness equated with virility, and—men being men—competition ensued. The most flamboyant styles had their own names: Dundreary whiskers (also called Piccadilly weepers), the chinstrap beard, mutton chops, walrus mustaches. Charles Dickens’s beard was called a “doorknocker,” although it looked more like a congealed lava flow. Alfred Lord Tennyson may or may not have had lips; who could tell? The less said about Union General Ambrose Burnside, the better.

Now here we are again. The current icon of men’s grooming standards is—brace yourself—Rutherford B. Hayes. Today’s trend, however, does not come to us courtesy of the Light Brigade, but rather as a result of the revenge of the nerds. Squishy young men who spend their days in dim rooms coding neglect their toilette to convince themselves that they resemble, however faintly, the medieval warriors they adopt as online avatars. In my high school these kids were social outcasts, but no more. They have built the world of the twenty-first century; the rest of us are just along for the ride. Their fluffiness is cool; their slovenliness now is high fashion.

Somewhere, the ghost of Karl Marx is laughing. It was he who said that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time farce. (Marx himself bore a dense thicket in which a Grimm protagonist might easily have gotten lost and stumbled upon a gingerbread house.) Styles once copied from real soldiers return as the emulation of dreamy LARPers.  

Alas, it is not for me. For one thing, there is no surer way to kill a trend than for the parents of trendsetters to adopt it. By the time American Presidents were wearing beards on the regular, young men were already returning to their safety razors. (The advent of chemical warfare in World War I was the last straw. A good seal on a gas mask required a shaved face.) Like Chester Alan Arthur, I have reached that stage in life where young people look at me and see the death of the cool. Their slang sounds ridiculous in my mouth; their clothes look preposterous on me. A beard will not help. To my children’s immense relief, I will act my age.

For another—well, let’s just say there is a difference between that blend of salt and pepper that makes one The Most Interesting Man in the World and the snowy aspect of Father Time. The former look is in my rear view mirror, and the latter is upon me. Grizzled is hot. Talmudic is not.

Ah, but in my day . . . the college me rocked the Jeremiah Johnson look, then a shaggy goatee worthy of the Dude. For several years, I sported a thick black mustache that had flight attendants addressing me in Spanish. I was young once, and furry.

It’s okay. The young aspire to be older, and the old wish to be young again. A young man preens because his whiskers make him look and feel adult. I look in the mirror and see a jawline unsoftened by middle-aged decline and excess comfort. Long miles on the road keep my shorn face lean and my features sharp. I’ll take that.  

Besides, now that Ted Cruz and J.D. Vance are on the bandwagon, we have probably seen peak beard. Voters may be impossibly stupid, but they have little patience for pandering frauds. A beard does not turn a Yale education into the school of hard knocks.

Fads turn on a dime, and this one will too. Best call your broker and buy Gillette.

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