In defense of beards and manliness

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Beard

Today I watched a video about the dangers of over masculine-izing our boys. 

It said the three most dangerous words you can tell a boy today are: “Be a man!”

The video is full of images of young boys and older men as backdrops for all the things we tell our boys.

“Grow a pair, man up, stop crying, grow some balls,” etc., etc.

It was emotional, and it got me going a little, but probably not in the way the makers of the video intended.

I don’t actually believe we’re over masculine-izing our boys. It’s quite the opposite, really.

As women have reached out and grabbed what is theirs, namely equality, or at least as much as they can get at this moment in history, the pendulum has swung away from men.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, I consider it quite natural. Life is not inherently balanced, but nature does balance over time.

There were once volcanoes and a pyroclastic cloud atmosphere that rendered earth unlivable for humans. But today we live on a lush planet with a balanced atmosphere.

As the pendulum swings in favor of women, men adapt to the environment around them. Today this is exacerbated by our Red Bull-fueled media.

There is nothing so desperate as the dying celebrity, and in its death throes, the media has become like white blood cells, intent only on attacking anything it considers foreign or weak.

This includes men, and by association, boys.

For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction, right? Someone important said that at some point in history, and it strikes me as true.

Feminism was bound to have an impact on men, or it wouldn’t be as successful as it has been.

You could call it collateral damage, but I call it life.

Just remember that whole equal and opposite reaction thing, because it’s one of those things that tends to come back and bite you in the ass, or perhaps your great, great, great grandchild’s posterior.

Back to boys.

I live in a world where I’m tasked with raising boys into men. There is no manual for that, and try as I might, I can’t really diagram my father’s strategy in a way that I can blueprint for my own children.

I don’t tell my boys to stop crying or to man up. I don’t tell them to grow a pair, because I believe that happens pretty naturally of its own accord.

But I do try to teach them about toughness. The kind of toughness that is born of experience. The kind of toughness that is born out of weakness.

My oldest makes crepes for the family a few times a year. In order to become a great crepe maker, you have to develop a certain toughness of the fingers, an imperviousness to heat. But it takes time and experience to develop the thick skin necessary to make perfect crepes, and it takes a lot of burns to develop that thick skin.

My middle boy does’t like to work hard for success, so teaching him about toughness is sometimes like waiting for the Colorado River to carve out the Grand Canyon.

Mental toughness is so much more difficult to teach, because to teach it, you have to have mastered it.

I recently started home brewing again after many years of not doing it.

When I brought home the strange equipment and ingredients, the kids were intrigued by it. “Dad, what does that thing do?” “Why do you put those green pellets in the water?” “Ooooh, that smells like warm cereal,” were all things I heard from them. But they were honest questions and critiques of a skilled trade. Brewing is just cooking, but it’s so much more than that too.

In an age of instant gratification and mobile download-it-and-get-it, watching beer ferment is an exercise in mental toughness. No, the kids can’t try it yet, but after watching the process, they are invested in it. And when it’s ready, they feel like they were part of the process. They understand it in a completely new light.

It’s my hope that this will make them understand things like alcohol and why it should be consumed responsibly. It’s the same reason I take them to watch a pig slaughter. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that meat is just a Saran-wrapped protein source in the cold section of the grocery store. To understand the process is to gain mental toughness. It is to attain true choice.

As my boys go through puberty, facial hair, among other body hair, has become a topic of conversation. A long time ago I decided to wear a beard. I decided to wear a beard, because I like wearing a beard. Because I wanted to see if I could grow a beard. Because I like beards.

It has gotten to the point that if I shave my beard, my family freaks out. It’s a fundamental change to their universe, and so I only trim it a bit these days for fear of shocking them too much.

It was with much chagrin that I read a New York Times article about beards today, an article that referred to beards as Brooklyn Beards. I know the NYT has a problem with being too New York centric, but this was ridiculous.

Like every other beard criticism today, the NYT article relegates beards to the domain of hipsters, revolutionaries and vagrants.

Conforming to a manscaped chin, it would seem, is the fashion of the day, while wearing a beard is for outsiders and American presidents from the 1800s.

But beards are another form of mental toughness. I want my boys to grow up feeling comfortable with their choices, whether those choices involve growing a beard because they want to, respecting alcohol, because they know how it’s made, respecting food and its origins and, perhaps above all else, experiencing empathy with others, no matter the choices they make.

I don’t need to berate them with phrases about their masculinity. But I won’t downplay it either. There is nothing wrong with mental toughness or physical strength. There is nothing wrong with being a man today, only we’re constantly asking ourselves what being a man today means.

Masculinity is not redefined generation to generation. At least it shouldn’t be. In a world that wants to homogenize everything to force it to get along, differences should be embraced and celebrated. And that includes differences in the sexes. Medicine may one day figure out how to re-engineer men to allow them to give birth, and technology can certainly prevent beard growth, but the true beauty in humans is most often be found in their differences.

Tim Akimoff

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