The National Beard and Moustache Championships highlights the deeper trend of facial hair camaraderie.
Coarse white hair peeks out of his nostrils, separates into two zestful puffs of fur on his upper lip, and cascades down his jowls to form a waterfall of whiskers. Ed Endsley has been wearing a beard for two-thirds of his life—nearly 45 years. He is part of a thriving international community of facial hair enthusiasts who are giving up the razor and getting ready to compete for the best tresses.
No one knows the exact recipe for a winner. It can be furry and fluffy, or bristly and stringy. Proud beard growers might coat them in waxes, curl them, or even mold them into unusual shapes, such as spikes or windmills. The first-ever Beard Team USA National Beard and Moustache Championships has men across the country plotting their strategy to wow the audience in Bend, Oregon, on June 5. There, they will compete for $5,000 in prizes and most importantly, bragging rights as the national champion. Most of the competitors, including Endsley, are members of beard and mustache societies, a growing subculture that is fixated on facial hair.
While many people today might think that individuals like Endsley are eccentric, American culture once applauded the growth of facial hair. Prominent figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman sported bushy chins and sideburns in the mid-1800s. But today, it is rare to find men in positions of high-esteem who have five o’ clock shadows, let alone soul patches. Facial hair enthusiasts speculate that the multi-billion dollar shaving industry has something to do with that. According to marketing research firm Experian Simmons, the male grooming products industry was valued at $19.7 billion worldwide in 2009 and is expected to reach nearly $28 billion by 2014.
Despite the allure of advertisements, not all male consumers succumb to the shaving sales pitch. In fact, the national championships reveal a deep and growing trend. A rampant ardor for facial hair is taking hold in America as men form their own societies in which they can celebrate their whiskers instead of shave them. Part of these groups’ obsessions have to do with self-acceptance and the refusal to subscribe to societal beauty standards. But other motives are more lighthearted: to have fun and bond with people who have similar interests.
Endsley, who lost his first job at age 17 because he refused to cut his hair, cites the Grateful Dead as an early influence on his facial hair. “This was a statement of becoming,” he says, drawing out the last word for effect. He speaks fondly of the first time he noticed something growing on his upper lip at age 13. He decided to shave his stubble like all of the other boys, until one year, something miraculous happened. “The sideburns really started to grow down and they finally kind of grew together in the middle and things became a beard,” Endsley explains as his blue eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. Today, a wiry mass of white hair streams down his cheeks and off his chin, reaching halfway down his torso.
Endsley sets himself apart from the average man who trims and sculpts his beard. “I suspect that these people spend more time fiddling with their facial hair than they take shaving or tying a tie . . . or any of these other things that they do for cultural conventions,” he says seriously. When people inquire about the mass of hair hanging from Endsley’s chin, he simply tells them, “This is what happens if a man doesn’t shave.”
Endsley is a member of the Central Oregon Moustache and Beard Society (COMBS), which is the Bend regional chapter of Beard Team USA (BTUSA). Aside from organizing the National Championships, BTUSA represents the United States at the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held twice a year in various locations. BTUSA asserts it “promotes the worldwide appreciation of facial hair . . . and opposes discrimination against the bearded, mustached, sideburned, or goateed.”
Friendship and community are some of the motives that Peter Aune, founder and president of COMBS, cites for organizing the group in January. Twice a month, the society’s 12 committed members, ranging in age from 21 to 65, meet at local pubs to drink beer, share stories, and of course, admire each other’s facial hair. At the heart of COMBS is camaraderie and a sense of brotherhood rooted in the shared experiences they have as bearded and mustached people. However, Aune points out that with the National Championships drawing near, competition is also a component of the society. “We don’t talk about the competition too much because we will be competing against each other. We all have a plan that we are not sharing,” he explains. Wearing a thick gray beard and circular wire-rimmed glasses, Aune slightly resembles Santa Claus. Getting serious, he shares a story about the last time he shaved his beard and the trauma it caused his daughter, who burst into tears at the sight of his barren chin.
Just as there are male beard enthusiasts, there are also female ones. Marcy Monte, Aune’s fiancé, is one of them. She recalls pleasant memories of sitting on her great-uncle’s lap as a little girl and tugging on his long beard. “Women seem to be black or white about beards. Either you like ’em or you don’t,” she says matter-of-factly. Lucky for Aune, Monte only dates men with beards. “I’m a beard girl,” she proclaims proudly. And she can’t wait to watch Aune compete in June. “I’m totally in support of it,” she says. “I wouldn’t miss it!”
Someone might wonder, aside from the families and friends of the competitors, who in the world wants to watch a bunch of furry men strut across a stage? For Will Backe, an Oregon State University PhD student, the mere oddity of the competition is enough to inspire him to drive roughly two hours to sit in the audience at the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend. “I wish I had the gift of growing ridiculous facial hair,” Backe says with a laugh. However, he’s selling himself short because he not only sports a Dali-style mustache with upward-curving pointed ends, but he also once donned a “wild and bushy” beard that he claims could scare people away. “I’ve noticed people leave you alone more often,” Backe says about the difference having a beard makes, remembering a time when Mormon missionaries clearly avoided him and instead, talked to the person standing next to him at a bus stop.
Backe isn’t the first bearded fellow to frighten strangers. Historically, facial hair has been used by the British Army to appear more intimidating. Piers Brendan, author of How the Mustache Won an Empire, writes that the fashion “began during the Napoleonic Wars of 1799 to 1815 when some British officers began to emulate fighting Frenchmen, whose mustaches were said to be ‘appurtenances of terror.’” Back then, mustaches not only represented dominance and masculinity, but also virility. “Mustaches were clipped and trimmed until they curved like sabers and bristled like bayonets. Their ends were waxed and given a soldierly erection,” Brendan writes.
Today, men grow facial hair for a variety of reasons: from feeling lazy, to resisting male beauty standards, and attracting women.
Paul D. Roof, assistant professor of sociology at the Charleston Southern University in South Carolina, says his beard, which hangs haphazardly six inches below his shoulders, is a statement of defiance. Roof, who founded the Holy City Beard and Moustache Society, plans to compete in the National Championships in June. In his article “Beard Becomes You,” he writes, “The beard stands out in the crowded sea of Abercrombie & Fitch conformity that is America today. These are the individuals who have reclaimed their masculinity in a direct backlash against metrosexuality and the feminization of the modern man.” Although he asserts facial hair is a method by which men can express their masculinity, he says he sees “gender as a spectrum and something that should not be rigid.”
Due to social pressures to trim and remove facial hair, the majority of men don’t experience growing their facial hair anywhere near its maximum length. Dr. Gary Goldfadden, a dermatologist and founder of Cosmesis Skincare, says, “Today, 90 percent of all American males over the age of 15 shave their face . . . That means the average man will shave his face about 20,000 times between the ages of 15 and 75.”
The beard is a “symbol of defiance against 100 years of ‘corporate shaving’ dictating to men what facial hair is and means and who wears it,” Passion says. “It is an exceptionally relevant demonstration.”
Roof, who has been growing a beard for six consecutive years, tells his American Pop Culture students that facial hair is an example of “retro irony,” because people ‘glorify the past while the future dries up.’ He uses the comeback of 1980s fashion and music to deepen his point. “Why doesn’t this generation have their own trends?” he wonders. Roof sees the current facial hair movement as a revival of the “old-timey” styles of the 1880s when beards and mustaches were widely embraced. But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s simply the natural cycle of trends as they travel back and forth from mainstream to underground.
Indeed, for some, it is a short-lived trend, but for others it really is a lifestyle. Two-time World Beard Champion Jack Passion has made a career out of his 24-inch-long, carrot-red beard. At age 26, he recently published his first book called The Facial Hair Handbook: Every Man’s Guide to Growing & Grooming Great Facial Hair. Mention Passion’s name to BTUSA beard and mustache society members and they will talk about him as if he were a god. So it’s no surprise that Passion has been elected to host the national competition. “The best part about my beard is the positive energy it attracts. Cars honk, people yell and wave, and I take pictures with people every single day. And I love it,” he says.
Endsley also often gets a nod or a “Hey, dude! Cool!” from younger men. But for him, the reactions are decidedly split. Kids tend to stare in shock when he passes them on the street. “Around Christmastime, children get this wide-eyed look,” he says, chuckling at the fact that he sometimes gets mistaken for Santa Claus. On the other hand, adults sometimes look at him with “absolute disdain and anger” because, he assumes, they think he is a bum. “That’s really too bad because I’m a nice guy; I don’t bite,” he says.
Roof claims it is common for men with excessive facial hair to experience prejudice because they are breaking societal norms. Passion is aware of the stereotypes people have about facial hair and takes any chance he can get to debunk them. “It’s just plain untrue that beards aren’t clean. In fact, a beard is far cleaner than a face that’s shaved with a dirty blade, with open cuts and scrapes harboring bacteria,” he says.
And you won’t find any razors at the national competition where competitors will bring on the heat come June. Documentary filmmaker Laura J. Lukitsch filmed the 2004 BTUSA World Beard and Moustache Championships for her current project on gender and facial hair, called, Beard Club, The Documentary. She says she was surprised at how much the competition resembled a beauty pageant. “They spend hours grooming themselves,” she says, describing a bathroom scene packed with men waxing and blow-drying their hair, and helping each other make final adjustments to their costumes.
There are four different categories they can compete in: Best Mustache, Best Partial Beard, Best Full Beard, and Freestyle (anything goes). BTUSA is expecting roughly 5,000 people from all over the U.S. and beyond to attend.
It will be Endsley’s first competition and he’s not exactly sure what to expect. “I don’t do swimsuits,” he says, smiling. But fully clothed, Endsley says he’ll embrace being in the spotlight for a day. “I’m kind of looking forward to the parade across the stage. Am I an exhibitionist? Well, I may be that day.”