If you’ve ever seen my author photo, then you’ve also seen a 22 year old* with a very dashing moustache and beard combo. I started sporting facial hair right after I graduated for high school, and I’ve had some kind of facial hair for the majority of the last eight years. The facial hair started out as an unshaven mess, but it’s gotten more kempt over time. I learned to shape it a bit, and I eventually fell into a style that I thought gave a little bit more angularity to my otherwise somewhat-round face. It was a little uneven sometimes, and had this odd curl that could never quite be tamed, but I looked forward to going on the internet and learning all kinds of moustache lore and eventually making the whole thing really work.
But then, just two days ago, I had a beard-related epiphany. I was driving south on 880 and I caught a glance of my facial hair in the rearview mirror and thought, “You know…in America, you never see facial hair on anyone who’s wealthy, powerful, or successful.”
I liked the look of my facial hair (I had dreams of someday looking like Salvador Dali or Freddie Mercury), but I’d never considered the social signalling that my facial hair was doing. I realized that, depending on the context and viewer, facial hair gives off one of three messages. The wearer is either: A) consciously or unconsciously claiming membership in a working-class or otherwise marginalized social group; B) too unsophisticated to understand that beards are actually a class marker; or C) too lazy to shave.
Every single person who saw my beard had to instantaneously throw me into one of these three groups. Early in my beard-carrying days, most onlookers probably (and correctly) pegged me as part of group B. Then, a few years ago (as it became clear that I was devoting some effort to shaving the rest of my face), I drifted into group B. And now that I’d had my epiphany, I was part of group A.
After I realized that successful (or, rather, upper-class) people in America don’t wear beards, I could only continue to wear a beard as a kind of political act. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aping the styles of minority and/or working class people (also, moustaches are part of my Indian heritage). But in my life, I’ve generally found more success by adopting upper-class habits. To me, the signaling benefits of stylistic nonconformity (the possibility of attracting certain sorts of people) don’t outweigh the negatives (the possibility that rich and powerful people [or their representatives, such as cops] will hassle or refuse to help you). Furthermore, stylistic nonconformity is a pretty big burden. If you fail in an attempt to be original and aesthetically pleasing, then you lose most of its signaling benefits while retaining all of the negatives. If I was being honest, I’d have to say that my beard (when not waxed up as in my author photo) was certainly not in the top tier of hipsterish Bay Area moustache/beard combos.
So I came home and shaved the damn thing off.
On a sidenote, this was a tremendously pleasing epiphany. One burst of inspiration solved an issue I’d been struggling with for eight years! In this, it stands in contrast to the uselessness and impracticality of most epiphanies. Most epiphanies are, like, looking up at the night sky and realizing how tiny and insignificant we are and how little our problems really matter. And, umm, that’s nice and all, but when you wake up the next day, you’ve still got yo problems! Wordless epiphanies become useless as soon as that feeling of understanding starts to fade. That’s why I much prefer a good practical epiphany about moustaches. If could have a moustache-level epiphany every few months, my life would be golden.
*yes, my author photo is 4 years younger than me–I guarantee you that 90% of authors use photos significantly understate their age.