Last week, my wife and I were at our friends house, playing with their 4-year-old daughter Abby. Not to brag or anything, but I consider myself one of Abby's favorite adults. When she's crying, I can make her stop. When she's pouting, I bring out a laugh. When I enter their house, she always runs up to hug me.
But the other night Abby was having none of it. When we arrived, she hid at the top of the stairs, and when she came down, she shot me a look so dirty, her parents had to reprimand her. Then, as I sat down, she came up and punched me in the foot. "What's wrong Abby?" I asked, trying to be playful. She stared back with fear, her energy focusing on my upper lip. "Is it my moustache?" I asked, "seriously?" She nodded a pouty little nod, tears clearly welling up in her eyes. Two weeks of facial hair, and already I was a monster in the eyes of children.
I have been growing this moustache, a budding Burt Reynolds number, for a good cause known as Movember. During the month of November, participating men grow a moustache, document it with photos, and solicit donations from friends and relatives in that moustache's honor, with the proceeds going towards prostate and testicular cancer research and awareness.
Movember began as a lark seven years ago, when 30 friends in Australia grew moustaches as a dare. Today, Movember takes place in 10 countries, and since beginning, over a million men have participated. Since the first of November this year, hundreds of thousands of men have been sporting hundreds of thousands of mustaches, raising tens of millions in the process.
Charity fundraisers are nothing new to me. In the past, I have taken part in ski races for hospitals, walks for breast cancer, and long distance bike rides for geriatric care. I've also sponsored countless friends in their own charitable feats, including my friend Sharon, who recently ran the New York City marathon, raising three thousand dollars for Alzheimer's research.
But after enduring several weeks of Movember, I can confidently state that these athletic fundraisers are a cake walk. Yes, riding 60 miles in a day can be physically taxing, but people who participate in runs are walks regularly do those same activities in their spare time. Aside from some sore muscles and a Sunday morning, these fundraisers require little personal sacrifice, and a few are so simple as to be laughable. A friend recently asked me to sponsor him on a three-mile walk for some cause, as if the distance my wife walks to work each day is some heroic feat.
By contrast, Movember brings to mind the self-flagellation of the early saints. Moustaches jumped the shark as a facial hair accessory close to two decades ago, along with the careers of the sex symbols they adorned. Men who have always sported moustaches (those over a certain age, state troopers, members of moustache friendly ethnic groups) have their look grandfathered in, but growing a new moustache is the sartorial equivalent a piano key necktie. It may fly in a few irony heavy fashion circles, but for the majority it's a non-starter.
For 30 days, Movember participants put themselves through the equivalent of puberty's awkward emergence, cultivating a shadow of peach fuzz into something respectable, all while going about their day-to-day lives. We deal with the surprisingly resilient itch, and find ourselves like humanoid whales, catching solid foodstuffs as we eat, as though they're krill. During November, Movember's men endure inappropriate jokes from friends and coworkers, daily protests from wives and girlfriends, suspicious looks from shopkeepers, and the tears of young children, like Abby. Many can't take the pressure, and shave off their mustaches before the month ends.
A moustache is inescapable; an albatross on the upper lip, and it presents a constant challenge to a man's confidence. That may be the most significant part of the Movember experience. Prostate and testicular cancers attack the most masculine parts of the body, and treatments for both often leave men impotent, incontinent, and sterile. Unlike breast cancer, which has become something that is almost celebrated (from pink merchandise to scarred survivor calendars), male cancer's effects are seldom discussed, and many men suffer in silence.
Though sporting a hideous mustache is in no way comparable to the physical pain and mental suffering men with these diseases endure, Movember still forces participants to challenge their manhood on a daily basis. Growing a moustache for men's cancer isn't as feel good an activity as running a marathon for a cure. It requires the willingness to put ego aside for a good cause, and to sacrifice one's self-image over the course of a month. That selflessness isn't just the mark of Movember, it was once the dividing line that separated the men from the boys, back from a time when a moustache did the same.