The Perks And Downsides Of Being A Sorta Muscley Dude With A Beard
I’ve never been a big Halloweeney, dressing up kind of person, but something had been itching at me recently to give it a shot. Thing is, as a sorta muscley white dude, my available pop-culture references are severely limited to “almost everything, forever.” Hell, as a sorta muscley white dude, I could choose to limit myself to “superhero film characters played by an actor named Chris” and still have too many options to choose from. But add a shaved head and the assumption that I don’t want to cosplay as any flavor of nazi or white supremacist, the immediately recognizable options do actually limit a bit. (And I’d already done Agent 47 a couple years back.) (And Walter White too.)
Who in the pop culture lexicon could I be? Professor H(GH)? Jean-Luc Picthingsupandputthemdown? Maybe branch out beyond characters played by some iteration of Jackedtric Stewart? Right about when I hit the bottom of the Random Bald White Guy In A Suit (Who Might Be Lex Luthor Or Maybe Kingpin Or Possibly Jesse Ventura) barrel, I started realizing that my knowledge of the modern pop culture iconography landscape didn’t really have a ton of characters that suited what I was looking to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really need to be a character that was muscley or bald, but my thinking was that if I was going to put the effort in to dress up, I wanted to do it right. And since it’s something I’m not particularly comfortable with, I saw value in using it as a chance to show off the physical progress I’ve made over the past year. Forced discomfort, and all. And just as I was wondering whether I’d need to delve into wigs, by complete coincidence, the God of War marketing machine spun up.
Old Man Kratos. Perfect: work out; grow beard; build or find axe; done. Beth was even excited about making the costume. It was all coming together. But a funny thing happened on the way to Norse Mythology…
Let’s start by asking “What do you think of when you see a sorta muscley white dude with a shaved head and a beard?” Maybe it’s “Biker.” Maybe it’s “Nazi.” Maybe it’s “Punk” or “Hipster” or “Portland Brewmaster.” Over the past few months, I’ve heard all these and more. But the thing that’s really caught me off-guard is how differently people treat me today with a shaved head and a beard, versus my personal default of a shaved head and stubble.
It’s an interesting thing shifting your appearance. I think we all get used to how other people - friends and strangers - see and interact with us. There is a baseline expectations and set of experiences for our day-to-day interpersonal interactions. We get used to a small subset of interactions, and those become the script through which our lives generally filter. We all know the questions or comments we hear most frequently. Common refrains, common questions, common responses. It’s a pattern, and we mostly get used to the sequences - whether or not we like and appreciate them.
But make a big shift like cutting your hair short (or off) or growing a beard, and suddenly a whole new set of experiences become part of your day-to-day interactions. Other people’s personal expectations of you shift drastically, and quickly - certainly more quickly than you’re able to do so for yourself. And all of a sudden your daily interactions get very different and very far away from what you’re used to.
By far the biggest, and often times the most disturbing, shift has been how many random strangers, or acquaintances, or boyfriends of my friends now see me as a confidant for their less-than-kosher bro-talk. Everything from the joking-but-not-actually-joking sexist comments, to their ideas of what a “real man” is/should be/does and why anything less is “unmanly,” to the occasional quiet confession of “the Me Too movement is getting out of hand, amiright?” gets tossed my way with a knowing wink, a subtle nod, and the expectation that they’re going to find an ally in the guy who looks like he can deadlift their family.
Spoiler alert: they’re not, and I can.
And the worst part is that two months into the beard, I can start to see it coming. There’s a look in their eye as they walk over that says “finally, someone I can talk to.” Sorry bro - this ain’t the droid you’re looking for.
While I’ve become a perceived safe space for assholes, the other side of the spectrum is that there’s a visible shift in the way I’m seen and treated by some minority groups. Every woman in a hijab looks at me like I’m dangerous. I’ve had Latinxs give me cautious glances and a wide berth when we’re approaching each other alone at night. In an elevator, I watched a Sikh man turn his body sideways so that I wouldn’t be behind him in his blind spot.
Now I’ve always had the male version of Resting Bitch Face, which I call Resting Fight Me Bro Face; and it was only accentuated once I started lifting weights. More than once I’ve been asked why I was “staring someone down” when I was just listening intently. I’m often asked what I’m pissed about. It’s a thing, and I’m used to some aspects of it. So in some ways this isn’t entirely new territory for me. But the suddenness of the shift from normal RFMBF to “possible threat” took me completely off-guard. It was a matter of weeks between my expected normal and this new day-to-day experience.
My initial response was to be offended - weren’t they judging me unfairly? Shouldn’t I have the chance to at least show something of myself before someone decides I’m potentially dangerous to them? Wasn’t this just as bad as overt racism?
And then I realized: nope. There’s a reason they feel the caution they do, and it’s directly attributed to their own experiences with white men sporting shaved heads and beards. I may be the protagonist of my own story, but not everything is about me.
This fear response has nothing to do with who I am as a person. The person looking at me wasn’t looking at me through the lens of some dude who was probably thinking about video games and motorcycles, but through a pattern of personal experience and past threats. They were seeing all the times that some dude who bulked up like I did, and grew a beard like I did, and shaved his head like I did threatened them; and they were trying to make sure it didn’t happen again.
So they were scared of me.
That’s kind of shitty to read, and it’s kind of shitty to write. And don’t get me wrong - this isn’t a “woe is me” post - I get it. I can’t fault or blame anyone for having that reaction - their experience says I’ve got a higher likelihood of being a threat, and they’re being cautious in response. I’ve chosen to combat it by consciously smiling more, walking differently, and not furrowing my brow as much. Maybe I can make my face look closer to “Portland Brewer” than “alt-right shithead.”
I can’t figure out a good segue for this next part, so I’m gonna pull the big red handle and bring this train to a screeching halt so we can take a moment to address something right here: there’s a big difference between judgment based on superficial choices and judgment based on elements of someone’s person or background or culture. Skin tone and cultural traditions are different from personal sartorial and grooming choices. I choose to workout, shave my head, and grow a beard. That’s a lot different from being born black or brown, or following certain meaningful rituals or recommendations for religious reasons. My shaved head and beard aren’t an enduring aspect of my beliefs or being or personhood - they’re just something I chose to do because…well, just because, really. Because I got tired of dealing with my hair and bald spot. Because working out makes me feel better about myself. Because I want to cosplay a video game character. If I get tired of it, I can easily make a change and affect very little of who I am or my personal foundational beliefs.
So fundamentally, I don’t think there’s any connection between a woman in a hijab looking at me and thinking “possible threat” and a white woman in the suburbs calling the cops because a black man was present in her relative vicinity, or joking that a Middle Eastern man or woman is a terrorist, or even just assuming someone is an idiot because they don’t speak their second language as well as you do your first. Making snap judgments based on the way I choose to present myself externally is a whole fuck of a lot different than making snap judgments based on the way someone was born, or their cultural or religious beliefs. The connection between those ideas is as tenuous as the connection between astrology and actual science. Period. Full stop. Now start the train back up because we’re getting it back on track.
So with that said, I don’t want to make it sound all bad. For all the “you look like a trucker”s I’ve gotten, and for how much sneezes have now become a source of immediate anxiety (oh god, if I don’t find a napkin immediately my face is going to look like I just ate Slimer) I’ve had just as many people tell me that they like me in a beard. Or with a beard. Or however you actually say that. I’ve gotten “Damn - you should keep that” and “wow, that really compliments your smile” and a smattering of “keep it - it looks sexy”s as well. So apparently some people like it. (I’m still so-so on beard maintenance as a whole.)
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was sort of fun to see my face in a different light. I’ve grown accustomed to the way I look - we all do - and this has been an interesting experiment in breaking myself out of my own assumptions.
But without question, there’s one perk that beats all of them by a backroad mile.
A month ago we got a new cat. It wasn’t something we planned, it just sort of happened. One day we weren’t looking for a cat, and a week later there was a furry asshole living amongst us and sharing (or not sharing, as the case often is) our space. We’d accidentally adopted this cat on a whim the way other people accidentally get a second round of tequila shots or tell their hairdresser they’re ready to try bangs again: “Hey, this is a good idea, right? Well, we’ll find out soon because we’ve already committed to it.”
His name is Shepherd Book, Marquis of Brick House (or Book for short) and he is a fat, mouthy, grey cuddle bug who loves laying on and around us, while we idly scratch his chin or rub his (frankly enormous) tummy. He’s great, and I love him.
So the absolute best perk of a beard is this: Book has learned how to request chin scratches. He’ll lay in the crook of my arm, twist his body around, stretch his front paw out, extend his claws, and oh-so-gently pet my beard three times.
If this was all I got out of this beard, it would be totally worth it. Because every single time it happens, it’s so fucking cute I could cry.
Next week, we’ll get into trouble in South America.