Learning to Not-Hate My Pandemic BeardLatest
Illustration: Jim Cooke
In March, the week America first started taking coronavirus seriously, a 2017 CDC guide about pandemic-appropriate facial hair resurfaced. Initially, I brushed off the graphic, which advised shaving my beard because it could interfere with the proper fit of a face mask—at the time, we weren’t supposed to be wearing masks if we weren’t actually sick. Several months into the pandemic, masks are more or less mandated where I live in New York City. My homemade cloth mask will never have a medical-grade fit, but I have to fiddle with it to make it fit over my beard. The flyaways can make me look like I’m smuggling a kitten on my face, though at least the mask covers up the scraggly mess my beard’s become in isolation. I’ve wondered if it’s time to shave, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
I’m 38 years old, and I recently grew my first beard. As a trans man, I’ve spent the bulk of my nearly two decades on hormones not growing a beard. I was worried that whatever beard I could grow would make me look “too trans,” a symptom of internalized transphobia I thought I was over. I was scared off by too many men, both trans and cis, who grew beards before they were ready, who relished their mediocre fuzz with a confidence I didn’t want to find out I didn’t have. I didn’t want to wade back into the self-consciousness and bodily uncertainty I’d convinced myself I’d left behind with early transition; I didn’t want to remember there were still ways I didn’t feel good enough. A beard might make me look like I was trying to look like a man, I thought, and would somehow prove the claims of masquerading and inauthenticity that get thrown at trans people. That’s a lot of weight to hang on some shitty facial hair.
But after not shaving for a few weeks during the winter holidays, I realized I was at the perfect point to go for it. I debated for a while. I went through the Facebook photos of every guy I know, ungenerously obsessing over every scraggly cheek and chin strap. Meanwhile, since I didn’t shave while I was trying to decide if I should shave, my face made the decision for me. As my facial hair filled out and got longer, I fell into the fascinating masculinity of the beard internet. Surprisingly body-positive and un-bro-y blogs and YouTube videos told me I had to suffer through a few more months of patchy uncertainty before I knew if a beard was even possible, much less desirable, on my face.
I took the beard men’s advice. I walked around looking like an Etch-a-Sketch for a couple of months, torn between explaining “I’m growing a beard” whenever anyone looked at me and just ignoring it and hoping they would too. I took near-daily selfies of my chin and cheeks. I bought beard shampoo and beard oil—I’ve been bald for years, so it was fun to buy hair products again. I pored over pictures of bald, bearded celebrities like a teenager, sorting their looks into “works” and “doesn’t work” and wondering which side I’d end up falling on.
The virus has turned facial hair from the rare fun thing I get to do with my masculinity into another source of second-guessing I don’t need.
Shortly before lockdown, in preparation for a work trip that was ultimately canceled, I got my beard trimmed at a queer barbershop in my neighborhood. It was fun to get my hair cut by someone else again, and more moving than I expected to have it done by another queer person. It was the first time I’ve ever told a barber I’m trans, as I prodded the genderqueer stylist for an opinion on whether the beard was working, whether my chin would thicken up, whether I looked completely ridiculous. They were supportively evasive. “It’s your beard,” they insisted. “If it makes you happy, keep it. You’ll know if it’s right.”
At the time, I didn’t know if it was right, but it had its moments. It needed more time to look good, and I needed more time to decide if I wanted to be the man it suggested I was. But the coronavirus has added even more complications. We all keep getting told to stop touching our faces, but my beard has made touching my face one of my favorite hobbies. (What’s the point of having a beard if you can’t stroke it dramatically?) My mask still covers my nose and mouth, but I wonder if having a beard is irresponsible.
This past weekend, when it grew unwieldy enough that friends commented on it during blurry Zoom calls, I tried to trim it myself. The results weren’t great, and fumbling through grooming it brought up long-buried feelings of failing at being a man, far removed from the exciting camaraderie of the queer barbershop that might never reopen. The virus and its effects have turned having facial hair from the rare fun thing I get to do with my masculinity into another source of second-guessing I don’t need. The potential of it, which once felt exciting, can feel like one more uncertainty in a time that’s shaky enough. Sometimes I think about shaving it off and just trying to grow it again when this whole thing’s over, but that feels like promising myself one more possible pleasure I don’t know when I’ll be able to collect on.
Sometimes, when I freak out too much about the world these days, I break the problem into two categories. There’s the real problem of the virus, which we can’t solve yet. Then there’s the economic impact, which is in many ways optional: the people in power could solve it, but they probably won’t. I waver between taking a weird comfort in this—solutions exist!—and struggling to square my puppyish, hopeful view of human nature with the greed and cruelty on daily display. I try to convince myself the future won’t be as terrible as the present suggests it will. Sometimes something nice happens—I cook a good meal, or I read a good book—and I feel selfish for experiencing a shred of happiness when everything is so bad. Most days both the present and the future feel small and impossible.
But I have my stupid beard. At night, after a thorough shower, I sit on my couch and scrub my hands all over it in a petty, rebellious frenzy. I rub it with overpriced beard oil. I look at pictures of other men and force myself to wonder less if they feel anxious about their beards and more if their beards make them feel good in their bodies, the way mine does when I stop worrying about it so much. My beard’s a nice, if not embarrassing, thing I can enjoy without worrying it’s going to be taken away. It’s a scruffy reminder that, as a trans guy, I’ve chosen this body to express my gender through, at a time when what happens to our bodies can feel out of our control. It’s a silly reminder that things can get better, but also worse, but also better again, that there’s a good chance my body will still exist in the world a year from now, when I’ll need a body I can feel at home in to face whatever’s coming, along with any ounce of joy I can wring from it.