Beard Feared, Sheared

There are two kinds of people in this world that go around beardless--boys and women--and I am neither one."- - Greek saying

A woman with a beard looks like a man. A man without a beard looks like a woman. - Afghan saying

Please set aside notions of a carnivalesque bearded woman, for this is not a piece on female facial hair and its removal. But it is about beards, and how my preference for seeing my husband with one has been anything but a private matter.

My good friend S and I were talking about when she first met her now husband on a set-up. I asked if she liked him immediately and she said quite honestly, "No, not exactly. But there's a lot you can do for guys. I had him color the gray parts of his hair and had him grow facial hair so that the engagement pictures turned out the way I wanted them too." Another friend and I had talked in general terms about guys we knew and their post-wedding makeovers. This friend would cite various male acquaintances of ours whose makeovers included more post-nuptial 'groomliness' -- attention to wardrobe, hair and overall style. Eschewing for now the obviously more important virtues like the cultivation of patience, compromise and sacrifice that occur afterwards in (good) marriages, the idea of a subtle male makeover was normalized for me. And while certainly not the hallmark of trend and style, friends have labeled me an aesthete, so just like my husband casually categorizes people in terms of the indie-bands they like, I tend to describe people based on their predilections for/against high-waisted pants and the circumference of their cuffs, for example. And so I had no misgivings about asking my then-fiance to grow a beard so I could see what he looked like. It turned out I liked what I saw. The beard added depth to his face. It added masculinity. And the simple fact of the matter was, I liked it.

The matter, however, has not been simple. While my husband shrugged off my aesthetic preference as an excuse for him to stop shaving, hordes of other people in this Pakistani society (where advice giving is nearly a national pastime) had daily comments to make, especially as the wedding became imminent. While many at his law firm had grown used to his periodic unshavenliness, all were expecting him to shave, especially for me. 'Doesn't Summer hate your beard?' was the most common of the cliched comments, based on the very Pakistani assumption that girls prefer their men clean-shaven and pretty, looking the model of English gentlemen. He would reply that Summer in fact, requested the beard, and that, apparently, prompted more incredulous looks and comments, my preferences apparently (but not for the first time) challenging clean-cut categories about how aesthetics dictate class and education. Perhaps the biggest cliche since 'Anyone but Bush' that I've encountered has been hearing people tell him 'Your beard makes you look like a [insert Taliban, mullah, religious fundamentalist (itself a tired and trite term)].'

So deeply entrenched were the equations of beard = Taliban that even my once eager-to-accommodate fiance started to lament his beard. And while one can perhaps excuse elder uncles and senior family men for their adherence to old-world British notions of 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' as remnants of their desperately trying to fit in a post-colonial society, what surprised me were the reactions of some of his friends -- young Pakistani men who would take him aside and say, 'Hey man, I bet you can't wait to shave that beard and go back to normal.' All of these friends went to college in America, and some even went to prep schools. Perhaps the onus of trying to fit in gave way to attitudes about shaving and beards.

And so, the night before the wedding, where I had fallen spell to the bridal concern for how my own wedding pictures would turn out, I found myself on the phone with my soon-to-be husband, who was relaying how his uncles had repeatedly said 'So, you're going to shave tomorrow, right?' and was seriously considering giving in to the peer pressure. It took every ounce of my newly-cultivated balance of feminine insistence and casual I-don't-really-care-it's-your-life to guarantee the beard's attendance at our wedding.

And yet... the problem continued. At every destination on our East Asia honeymoon, people asked if we were Arab. While that pleased my Arab-o-phile tendencies, my husband became increasingly irritated for not being seen as a Pakistani. 'Maybe it's because of me,' I would tell him. As they Arabs say, the more time you spend with the Arabs, the more you resemble them (fine by me -- I spent a lot of time in Lebanon). But no, it was blamed on the beard. This was only exacerbated in Bangkok, where tribes of Arabs shifted between trips to the malls and hanging out in the InterContinental hotel lobby. One night an unfortunate beard trimming experiment led to a hole in the famous beard, prompting him to shave the rest of it off. And I returned to find I had a new husband.

It is said that babies and toddlers have a hard time dealing with fathers and close male relatives who suddenly shave. Apparently they don't recognize their fathers after shaving, and the sudden appearance of an unrecognizeable male can be quite traumatic for these young ones. A few parenting websites recommend that fathers shave in front of their babies and children, so that they can see the process of hair removal, thereby alleviating some of the trauma. And while definitely not a baby, I can personally attest to the trauma of instant beard removal. There's an old joke that says 'Men marry one woman and wake up next to another.' Well that's how I felt. In fact, I felt like I was cheating on my husband, because this soft-faced man even smelled different without the scruff. The beard's regrowth was not even discussed -- my husband hasn't touched a razor since. What was discussed were scenarios in which the beard might disappear again. My husband's most vehement insistence was of the instance when he'd travel to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad for his visa application to accompany me back home to California. "Having a beard will severely harm my chances of getting a U.S. visa," he told me solemnly. "Everyone just associates beards with religion, and if you want me to come with you, I'll have to shave it off."

This has has made me quite curious about the history of beards in a non-religious sense, especially about when and why clean shavenliness became 'normal.' A trip to Wikipedia has enlightened me. And although most of your internet connections are undoubtedly faster than mine, I shall recount the more interesting findings. The answer, it seems, lies with the Romans -- and later their metaphorical successors, Europe and corporate America.

According to Wikipedia:

Prior to the Romans the highest ranking Ancient Egyptians grew hair on their chins which was often dyed or hennaed (reddish brown) and sometimes plaited with interwoven gold thread. A metal false beard, or postiche, which was a sign of sovereignty, was worn by queens as well as kings... a fashion existing from about 3000 to 1580 BC.

Mesopotamian civilizations (Assyrian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Median and ancient Persian) devoted great care to oiling and dressing their beards, using tongs and curling irons to create elaborate ringlets and tiered patterrns. (note: perhaps the modern equivalent could include straightening irons?)

The Persians were fond of long beards. In Olearius' Travels, a King of Persia commands his steward's head to be cut off, and on its being brought to him, remarks, 'what a pity it was, that a man possessing such fine mustachios, should have been executed,' but he adds, 'Ah! it was your own fault.'

In ancient India, the beard was allowed to grow long, a symbol of dignity and of wisdom. The nations in the east generally treated their beards with great care and veneration, and the punishment for licentiousness and adultery was to have the beard of the offending parties publicly cut off. They had such a sacred regard for the preservation of their beards that a man might pledge it for the payment of a debt.

The ancient Greeks regarded the beard as a badge or a sign of virility which it was a disgrace to be without; and in the Homeric time it even had a sanctity as among the Jews, so that a common form of entreaty was to touch the beard of the person addressed. It was only shaven as a sign of mourning, though in this case it was instead often left untrimmed. A smooth face was regarded as a sign of effeminacy.

Around 299 BC, after a barber was brought to Rome, most Romans began shaving; being clean-shaven became a sign of being Roman and nor Greek.

And as the Romans are the metaphorical predecessors of the modern-day empire, so they seem to be in their dictation of aesthetic standards.

Beards and the Armed Forces

Again according to Wikipedia, following WW I beards fell out of vogue. One of the main theories for this was the use of chemical weapons that allegedly necessitated soliders to shave to ensure the proper sealing of gas masks. Another interesting fact is that WW I recruitment involved a major migration of men from rural to urban areas. 'The rural lives of some of these bearded men included the "Saturday Night Bath" as a reality rather than a humorism. The sudden concentration of recruits in crowded army induction centers brought with it disease, including head lice. Remedial action was taken by immediately shaving the faces and cutting the hair of all inductees upon their arrival.'

A close friend from Iraq once took out pictures from his younger days in Saddam's Iraq. This friend was a refugee in Syria, but having been part of the intellectual class in Baghdad and a respected journalist (writing under a nom de plume for safety), he was meticulously careful about appearing clean-shaven in Damascus, his attempt at appearing professional and moneyed -- and quite separate from the mass of Iraqis of all cultural cross-sections finding refuge in Syria. Given this impeccable grooming, I was surprised to see him in these pictures, mustachioed. He explained that while he had skipped Iraq's mandatory military service, he had to appear that he had served, and thus grew a mustache to look like he had just completed his service. "Those were some of the worst years of my life," he lamented, referring to the forced mustache, not the tyranny of the Iraqi military police. Interestingly, the new Iraqi armed forces (outfitted in American military fatigues) had some problems with shaving. So entrenched was the affiliation of army with mustache, that apparently the U.S. trainers had to discuss the 'virtues' of clean-shavenliness in the armed forces.

But coming back to WWI, the newly returned soldiers came back to a growing film industry in which the soldier's look was popularized on screen. And of course here it is... the mass marketing of Madison Avenue had the Gilette Safety Razor Company as its early client, thereby ensuring short hair and clean shaven faces for decades to come. And so beards became 'counterculture' -- suitable for beatniks, musicians and academics, but distinctly absent from government, politics, and reinforced by films, tv programs and of course advertisements. And now, especially in Pakistan, the aesthetic domain of the Taliban.

I recently saw an ABC Primetime segment in which an actress in a hijaab was the victim of (staged) discrimination in a bakery. The experiment was designed to gauge the level of customer consternation at anti-Muslim sentiment. Watching this with me, my husband said, "I wonder what would happen if that was not a sweet-faced woman, but a man with a dark beard. How would people react then?" Given that a landing on U.S. soil is expected to be imminent, perhaps we'll find out, or else I'll have to get used to my new husband, again.