When I decided on a whim to start growing a beard for the first time in more than 20 years, I figured that I'd learn how to tolerate itchy skin and heighten my resemblance to Benny from ABBA. Instead, I discovered that some people are intolerant, unimaginative and scared of facial hair for stupid reasons.
My facial hair: a brief history
I've been shaving more or less regularly since I was 16. During that time, while I've often slacked off for a few days, I've never actually tried to grow a beard. The one exception was for six weeks when I travelled to Europe to visit family as a 17-year old, and simply couldn't be bothered with shaving. (I also took up eating a whole block of chocolate for breakfast every day; I'm not going to pretend it was the healthiest or most disciplined phase of my life.) The whiskery result, as you can see below, was not impressive.
Full-blown beards were not in fashion in the 1980s, though there was a trend for designer stubble (think Miami Vice or George Michael). I knew I didn't have the patience or the cheekbones to pull that look off, so staying clean-shaven was an easy habit to get into, and one that stuck with me for the next two decades. Weekends would often be a battle between "I want to be lazy and shave" and "this stubble is itchy". The latter invariably won by Monday.
Genetically, the odds were in my favour if I did decide to go the face furniture route. My father has sported some particularly impressive beards during his life (check the photo at the right), while my brother Alex regularly alternates between beard and no beard.
But it was only a month or so ago, after hitting the fifth day of not shaving because of general over-activity in the mornings, that I though "stuff this". This was no big grand plan, beyond enjoying the prospect of people being surprised and not recognising me. I just thought I'd see how long I could not shave and whether it looked and felt OK.
After 10 days or so, the extreme itchiness stopped. It was also around that point that it become clear to everyone that I really was growing a beard, and I started getting compliments. On the whole, most people seem to be in favour, which was pleasing to my ego. But amongst those who weren't — or who didn't know me to recognise that there was difference — a less pleasing trend soon emerged.
"Don't go to the city. People will think you're a rioter."
Yes, a taxi driver actually said that to me last Monday. It was a half-joking comment, but it was one I've heard variations on several times over the past few weeks. There's a clear and stupid trend here: if you have a relatively full beard (not a goatee or another hipster variant), then quite a lot of people will consider it acceptable to make jokes about how you must be a Muslim. Worse, quite a lot of those will also figure that it's OK to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists/rioters/troublemakers, and that as such it's a look to be avoided.
This is depressing for two reasons. First and foremost, it underlines that there's still a judgemental and ignorant streak about the Muslim community that's not even remotely pretending to hide below the surface in Australian society. Facial hair alone becomes an excuse to make a disparaging and over-generalised comment about someone's religion. I don't think any of these "jokers" are assuming I'm actually a Muslim. What they are assuming is that I'll happily go along with the disparaging comments that follow. I won't.
The second reason it's depressing is that it suggests that despite living in an age where we can access information at the drop of a mobile phone, our world view is actually narrowing. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there were lots of potential reference points for bearded men. The most obvious meme was probably hippies, with the bearded look persisting amongst counter-cultural types throughout that period and being emulated by many musicians.
Sticking with the religious theme, a clear historical counterpoint was Jesus: you don't see a lot of Christian imagery suggesting the man was clean-shaven. Wizards would invariably be portrayed as bearded. (There's a smattering of grey in my beard, but no-one has tried to call me Gandalf, I might note.)
I could get branded as Grizzly Adams or a bear or Getafix or Harry Butler or a Nazarene carpenter or George Michael or or Rasputin or Crazy Dave from Plants Vs. Zombies. But I don't. I attract cheap anti-Muslim slurs. That's not going to make me shave my beard off, but it doesn't entirely fill me with hope for humanity.