Growing a beard seemed to be a natural extension of my personality and my autism. I had always liked the way they looked on men and I admired many who sported facial hair: Hugo, Van Gogh, Tolstoy. It seemed that a beard was the aesthetic parlance of genius. Not that I believed my growing a similar facial configuration granted me equal status with these giants, but it certainly could not hurt. I never liked shaving, nor had I ever been especially fond of the shape or appearance of my clean shaven visage. My Aspergian aversion to certain tactile experiences led me to avoid shaving altogether. The feeling of a razor on my face never brought me any pleasure or any sense of cleanliness after the act. In fact my hirsute proclivities were reverse the normal male standard: I shaved my head down to bare stubble while I let my facial follicles have free reign. Here autism played its part as I did not wish to spend any time on personal hair maintenance; shaving as I mentioned was an unpleasant exercise and going out for a haircut at a barber or commercial hair-care chain was a something akin to torture for a man who would gladly go a month or longer without being touched or spoken to by a stranger.
The fact that my wife enjoyed the feeling and the look of my beard did not make my choice to abandon facial hair maintenance a romantic nuisance. If it also attracted more touching and glances from the woman of my dreams I was not about to complain. It came to my attention later that there was something of a fad emerging among the celebrity and the ironic set; a fetish for beards that verged on the obnoxious. Never before had I seen more popular faces covered in hair: Clooney, Hamm, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, even male runway models were sporting trendy facial coifs. All of this information about celebrity hair fashion came second-hand from my celebrity enamored better-half (I could not and still cannot tell a Snooki from a Snuggie) but still it seemed remarkable that I, a mere independent writer (and autistic to boot), had stumbled upon some sort of Jungian fashion (un?)consciousness. Suddenly my almost unconscious preference for facial hair had been thrust into the brave new world of millennial vogue. My face had become an unwilling party to a great cultural meme.
People would smile at me or gesture their approval at random moments in public. I would garner compliments from store clerks and gas station attendants and the not at all objectionable attention of attractive young women. More people sought my opinion, fewer people guessed that my age was less than it was (25 if you must know) and I was certainly not laughed or frowned at when I told my peers I was an artist and writer by trade. In fact my beard seemed to add an unearned but not unwelcome gravitas to almost every activity or utterance. On the other hand my lack of initiative in this one particular personal hygiene become overnight a conscious choice, a statement of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be seen. My own face had hijacked my social presence, the malleable mask I showed the community of fellow people I neither liked nor understood. I had in essence been usurped by the consequence of my own innate laziness, doped into a cultural avowal I neither cared nor particularly enjoyed.
But that same hygienic indolence that trapped in an alternating heaven and hell of social relevance also lead me continue on my path of beard cultivation. I was not going to shave off a piece of myself that I liked, but nor was I going to make a self-conscious statement with my beard. If through my inactivity I continued to garner attention, positive or otherwise, or praise so be it, but I was not going to give into the pressure to “style” or “maintain” the thing. People began to ask me if I was growing my beard for a certain “purpose”: was I trying to raise money for a cause, was I making a political statement, was I hiding a facial deformity? I would just smile and say “I hate shaving and I like the way I look with it”. Of course this never seemed to satisfy anyone, least of all my hipster friends who made their every choice a declaration of philosophic and artistic intent: alcohol (Pabst Blue ribbon), shirts (plaid and oversized) eyewear (black, plastic, and horn-rimmed) and music (anything other than what was preferred by the person they were talking to). It was all too much to take in. Was not even my own hair free from the zeitgeist?
So as I always did (and still do) when I was stymied by the un-surmountable wall of my own societal retardation, I retreated into the comforting embrace of history. My true companions and compatriots are dead men who made their impact and left the scene long before I was a thought in anyone’s mind. So many bearded men throughout history, so many periods of fashion and taste, so many in fact that the very idea of “fashion” and “taste” began to seem muddled and absurd to the point where I was just able to say: these were men, and some of them wore beards. Edward I, my favorite English King, sported one on occasion, as did his son and his after him. There was the noble Grecian model of manliness made flesh in the form of mythical Herakles and Theseus and in the all too real Spartan Kings and Athenian dictators, Pericles and Socrates and Plato and Democritus. A beard was not as much a fashion statement as a declaration of manhood. What this meant to me remained unclear but it did prove that there was no simple, facile explanation for follicle utilization. The inept (Edward II) the insane (Rasputin) and the inscrutable (Confucius). In an attempt to finally utilize my beard as a tool to massage my ego I searched for the historical figures who most closely resembled my own hair permutation. I settled upon Charles V, leader of the Holy Roman Empire, as my beard lookalike. In profile the resemblance was uncanny and I was made quite a bit happier about my beard afterwards.
But this of course did not start me on a path towards European conquest, and there was little or no relevance to this comparison in a modern world that had no clue who this dead Habsburg was or why he mattered. So there I was once more back to where I started; a man with an aversion to facial scraping and bare cheeks. I was no more or less transformed by my appearance than I had ever been. To this day I still have the beard and I hope to grow it longer. I want eventually to braid it or at least be able to twirl it around my finger maniacally but I have no other investment in it one way or the other. It says as much and as little about me as the color of my eyes or the size of my waistline (though I do find it interesting that the more hair on one’s face the more weight one seems to be able to sport before one is considered unattractively overweight…an interesting correlation if nothing else). My wife still loves it and my mother still hates it and my father still envies it quietly. Beyond that I leave it up to my incessantly anxious peers to sort out the meaning of it all.