To be fair, I could have been watching “Star Trek” reruns when the announcement was made, or maybe the e-mail just got caught in my spam filter. However I missed it, one thing is certain: Sometime in the last few years, shaving went from being a gentlemanly practice to an optional affectation of style.
Not for women, of course. In fact, they may be going rather alarmingly in the other direction. No, I’m talking about the norms of manly appearance. The idealized male now sports a multi-day growth of facial hair that is apparently suitable for all occasions, from rugby games to baptisms.
How this staggering realignment of grooming came about is a deep question. Facial shadows used to be an indicator of a night badly spent or a harrowing stretch of work or hardship. For farmers, wearing a week’s worth of whiskers seemed to hint we had been working so hard for the last several days that we could not find 10 minutes to run an electric razor over our mug. It was little more than silent, hirsute bragging about our intense efforts.
A man’s man. But it runs counter to my upbringing. Having grown up with a father who always shaved before going to town for any reason, the idea of appearing in public with facial hair evokes fears of a lower credit rating or, worse still, rumors of untoward conduct. The horror!
Besides, in my formative years, the mystique of shaving was utterly fascinating to me. I would stand beside my father as he abraded his skin with a hot and undoubtedly dull Remington, waiting for the big payoff: aftershave.
When Dad anesthetized his now tender face with 280-proof Old Spice, he would ritually sprinkle a few drops onto my open hands so I could set my own cheeks afire. No matter how aromatic the lotion, it barely masked the musk of eight-year-old boy. But it was worth a try. People could tell my Dad and I were related by scent alone.
Indeed, the rituals of shaving became deeply ingrained into my idea of what masculinity was all about—along with spitting and a reluctance to apologize.
So much so that after waiting impatiently for the proof of my Y chromosome to sprout on my face, I entered into the ceremonies and customs appertaining thereto with an acolyte’s devotion.
Taking a clue from my father, I began with an electric razor. It was the 20th century, after all—to not use elect-ricity seemed somehow unpatriotic to me.
This came to an abrupt halt during my naval career. Sharing a stateroom the size of a modest coat closet with three other junior officers soon revealed that the buzz of my razor was not helpful to my fellow shipmates whose schedules were offset 18 hours from mine.
But switching to cold steel was not easy. Since propellants in foamy aerosol shaving creams pollute the atmosphere of a submarine, the common onboard practice is to use a brush and soap reminiscent of the Barber of Seville. My early days of shaving as a result were formed in a martial atmosphere of regulated facial hair (none allowed) and antiquated practice.
How do they do it? Flash-forward to 2010. Pouting in clothing ads and prominently featured in TV dramas are hunks who apparently stand about ¼" too far from the cutting edge of their razor. Which raises an operational question: How do you arrive at this New Ideal Look on a daily basis? I mean, a three-day beard only appears on the third day, so do these dudes socialize only 33% of the time or do they have a special adapter on their shaver to prevent their accidentally becoming clean-shaven?
That seems like even more work than scraping one’s whiskers off daily. Not to mention in this time of unemployment how many people in the shaving industry (shaving cream developers, Band-Aid salesmen, the Norelco Santa) are being laid off because these New Ideal men are so lazy. And my experience is that while women may gaze longingly at guys with stubble, the reaction reverses at closer quarters.
Of course, maybe I’m just sore because I have never been able to support facial foliage. That’s a fair assertion. But in support of my position, my entire farm career has been one close shave after another.
John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Visit www.agweb.com for station listings. To view past columns, visit www.farmjournal.com or www.johnwphipps.com.