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Is This Really the Best a Man Can Get?

A teacher argues for the expansion of No-shave November.\n

An untrimmed mustache is a despicable thing. I know this because I am an American, and because it's the rules. Mostly these are the unspoken, unwritten rules of culture that everyone grows into, but sometimes they are right there in black and white.

The start of each new high school year brings a review of institutional rules, and beneath the grumbling malcontent this engenders, lie larger questions of values and culture that are rarely, if ever, addressed. And for reasons that are never clearly expressed, students are expected to unquestioningly comply with a number of broader cultural expectations—restrictions on facial hair among them.

I, on the other hand, am the art teacher. I do not like pat, one-size-fits-no-one answers to questions. So, I will take a moment to talk about facial hair. But before I do, I must admit that since the school where I teach is a private school, they have perhaps a little more leeway with the rules than do their public school brethren—and in my experience, they tend to use that leeway to allow students a bit more facial-hair self-expression than is perhaps typical. Nonetheless, “rules is rules,” and there comes a point when even at my school, the hammer gets dropped on students brazen enough to sport a pair of lightning bolt sideburns.

As a college preparatory school, we are theoretically attempting to prepare students to move into the professional world, a world that by and large thinks creatively-sculpted facial hair is something better left to the denizens of television shows and community college. It would be valid, I think, to question if this particular cultural bias is quite as relevant as it once was, but I would like to go a layer deeper and ask why we feel it necessary to scrape and shape our facial hair at all. And—despite what billions of advertising dollars have been spent to make us believe—the natural state of most faces (at least in my particular racial and cultural milieu) is to be gloriously bearded.

That is not what bothers me, though. People are welcome to do whatever weird and wooly things they want. What bothers me is that because of all this face-scraping, Americans throw away around a billion disposable razors a year. That is a lot of plastic and aluminum being dumped on and into the earth and oceans that sustain us. It is also depressingly ridiculous, given that there are sharpeners available (it’s even possible, I have recently discovered, to sharpen a safety razor on your arm hair) and that—let’s face it—straight-edged razor shaving is a dead sexy, manly skill to have.

I know that men’s faces are not entirely to blame for all that, but I cannot help but feel that it might be a good place to start fighting back against the marketing machine that demands consumer-conformity to some artificially fabricated smooth-faced ideal. You know, make them find some other unnecessary product to trick us into buying—maybe one that does not end up filling the crops of seagulls with tiny bits of sharpened aluminum. Is high school the appropriate place to begin this sort of fight? I do not know.

It is unlikely that I will be persuaded to stop slicing away at my face any time soon. I am guessing that the weight of culture and long-borne insecurities press down on me far too strongly for a drastic change like that. Plus, I love my job.

For our teens, though, there is still hope. It’s a new generation, a generation unwilling to blindly accept the market-driven traditions of its forebears. Perhaps if we were willing to stop enforcing our problems on our youth, they would find the space and freedom to start helping us fix them.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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