Beard.

I spent several days last week stuck in a small photo studio with one other guy: our lighting contractor. He was at least a head taller than me, very outgoing, and carries a large presence into every room he enters. As the video guys from that area came through to check on our progress, he’d introduce me to the people I hadn’t met and often bring up my beard. Not knowing what to say, I usually just laughed and stroked it like a new and improved version of The Thinker. It gets a good response, and usually ends the discussion right there.

But on the last day of shooting, while walking back from a quick and early lunch, he lamented how he can’t grow a beard like mine because his facial hair comes in patchy, his skin gets itchy, and it becomes uncontrollable and wiry as it gains length. So, I started in on my typical spiel about how that’s normal, that even mine gets that way, and uttered the words that force this discussion to go off the rails without fail: find and use a product specifically made for beards. (I use a combination of a particular shampoo, beard oil, and variety of waxes and balms, depending on the day and how much control I need.)

His response, like everyone else I talk to, was the same: disappointment that my beard isn’t 100% natural.

He, like most, wants to believe that a “good” beard is about nothing more than the will to grow it, and possibly a genetic disposition towards facial hair… not patience, product, and styling. Other responses I get span responses like: it’s not a beard if you use product; try conditioner/shampoo like your head hair; or body wash works fine… it is, after all, more akin to body rather than head hair.

These suggestions are always tossed out by short beards or shaved faces, and it’s one of the main reasons why they won’t grow any longer. With their current methods it will itch, it will be wiry, and it will look unprofessional. I know, because that was me as recently as last year. The fact is, that just like curly hair needs different product than straight hair, beards need a different product than head hair. And no matter how incredible your genes, beards will always do better with a little help from specialized products.

But the root of the problem most men have with beard styling isn’t the need for a different or separate type of product, but that they need one in the first place.

There’s a sort of machismo mythology behind a man and his beard. A good beard signifies manliness; holder of wisdom and power, the beard is a signifier of his experience and years. In media we see that Gods, prophets, and kings have beards, and this serves to reinforce that narrative. A patchy beard, however, is a sign of immaturity, inexperience and possibly evil intentions; in this system, it’s better to have no beard than a bad one. And looking at styles of facial hair, we can see how mustaches, goatees, and sideburns all have slightly different meanings that fall closer to the bad/patchy side of beard mythology (eg: Villains have goatees, like evil Spock from Star Trek or Jafar from Aladdin. Creeps and dudes in 80's bands have mustaches).

These social narratives mean that trying to grow my facial hair as a young adult was a frustrating experience that ended with short, and sometimes dyed styles aimed at hiding the bad patches while bringing out the good. It was almost always geared towards sideburns and goatee, or a chinstrap beard, so I could avoid the area on my cheeks that still refuses to grow as well or quickly as the rest of my face.

If it hadn’t been for older friends that freely experimented with different types and styles of facial hair, and encouraged younger guys to join them, I may have never stopped shaving. Events like Mustache March and No Shave November gave us the excuse to try out a new look and see how our beards were changing as we grew. It was a freeing, fun, and safe experiment since everyone was doing it. We made a Facebook group, gave each other titles, and kept one-another from shaving before the month was up.

That’s what things like Movember should be about: acceptance and experimentation. Dudes tend to settle on a look and dig in their heels for fear of ridicule upon the slightest change. So, instead of teasing friends for trying out their personal brand of beard swag, encourage them to not give up before December; pass on the hard to accept knowledge of what healthy beard care involves; and enjoy another made-up holiday.

At least this one’s a bit fun and doesn’t involve fighting with your relatives.