On Shaving

I don’t use a straight razor, by the way.  I don’t want to slit my own throat accidentally, after all!  I do use mug soap and a brush, though.  In any case, this post is a departure from my usual topics; but then again, variety is the spice of life.

As is the case with most young men, I found the advent of facial hair an exciting time.  My parents had bought me a shaving kit, without comment, around Christmas my freshman year of high school, or maybe for my birthday that year (which would have been the summer between freshman and sophomore year); I don’t remember clearly.  I allowed it to sit for a few months.  After all, I didn’t know what the threshold was for starting to shave (how fuzzy does the peach fuzz have to be?), and this was one of many things that Dad seemed to feel no need to discuss.  I was a first child, and Mom and Dad had me relatively late (for those days); and in retrospect, I think they often assumed that kids would “just naturally” do the various developmental things at the appropriate age.  Thus, shaving did not need to be discussed.

Be that as it may, I eventually caved in some time during my sophomore year, and shaved the fuzz off.  It was rather anticlimactic, really–not much effort at all.  I did leave the “mustache”–scare quotes intentional–intact, though, and kept it there for the rest of the year.  Alas, every young man has to go through his “pencil-thin mustache” stage, I guess.

I lost the mustache my junior year–I could see it wasn’t working for me.  For the rest of high school, I was clean-shaven except for my sideburns, which varied in length (according to my whim) from chastely short whiskers that didn’t reach my earlobe to massive Elvis-style mutton-chop sideburns so wide that if I leaned my head in my hand, I couldn’t feel smooth skin.

During college (early to mid-eighties) I oscillated back and forth between clean-shaven and wearing a full beard.  I’d grow a beard for two or three months, then shave it off (at that time I knew not of beard clippers, so I mean literally shaving it off.  Not a fun process), then repeat the process after a few months.  During the clean-shaven phases, I didn’t necessarily shave daily.  This was, after all, the age of the eternally scruffy Don Johnson on Miami Vice.  I tried a mustache for awhile, but still didn’t like it, though by now it was no longer pencil-thin.

Throughout my late twenties up to my mid-thirties–from the late 80’s to about the turn of the century–I mostly had some kind of facial hair or other.  I experimented around with goatees, right before they became common and popular.  It wasn’t a bad look for me; but I’m a bit overweight, with a tendency towards a double chin.  A goatee magnifies that effect.  Thus, I eventually abandoned it.  My observation over the years of men more obese than myself has tended to confirm me in the opinion that overweight men in general ought not to wear goatees.  YMMV, of course.  In any case, I did a handlebar (or horseshoe–I’ve heard both terms) mustache for awhile.  Looking at pictures of myself from that time, I have to wonder what, exactly, I was thinking.  I eventually settled on a full beard, which I wore fairly consistently from about 1995 until 1999.  I met my wife when I was bearded, and she didn’t see me clean-shaven for a year or two after we’d met.  I shaved the beard off for my wedding in 2000.  By and large, since then, I’ve maintained a clean-shaven look.

Part of it is my natural contrariness.  I tend to do the opposite of what’s in fashion.  I was goateed, mustached, and bearded at times those weren’t the most popular looks.  With beards becoming ascendant over the last decade or so, I’ve had more motivation to maintain a beardless appearance.  That said, doing the opposite of fashion is still being influenced by fashion.  Really, one should do what one thinks is best for one’s given case.  I have grown a beard a couple of times in the last three years for No-Shave November.  My beard, which I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years at that time, was now almost half-white (the hair on my head is graying, but much more subtly).  Actually, it didn’t look bad–it was a much better look for me than I’d thought it would be.  Still, it also brought back to mind all the work of beard maintenance which is necessary for any man who doesn’t want to go for the ZZ Top look–i.e. periodic trimming with beard clippers, brushing (necessary for one such as I who has a very curly and wiry beard), and suchlike.  On the one hand, it’s nice not having to shave when you get up in the morning.  On the other, when you do need to do beard maintenance, it’s a bit more labor-intensive than a simple shave.  Eventually, I decided to go back to clean-shaven, and haven’t done No-Shave November this past year.  Partly this is because it saves me the problem of beard maintenance; and partly because I do think that for me at this point in my life, clean-shaven is the best look for me (my wife tends to agree).

Now, though, I face the other problem–laziness.  During the working year (I teach), I have to shave in the morning.  When I was younger, I could skip a day shaving (or very rarely, two) and get away with it.  The stubble was very subtle, and I could go to work without looking slovenly.  By now, though, with the inevitable loss of the skin tone of youth, the coarsening of my hair, and the general vicissitudes of aging, I can’t really go even a day without shaving without coming up to the proper standards of appearance–at least, my personal standards.  The problem is that in the off-season, when I’m not teaching, such as in the summer or on weekends–my natural tendency is to slack and go two or three days between shavings.  My wife insists I don’t look that bad; but as I said, I don’t meet my own standards.  Since earlier this spring, I’ve decided to make a push to shave every day, whether I’m working or not.  I’m not quite there yet; but I haven’t gone more than two days without shaving for the last three months or so.

So what?

There is recent research that people who brush their teeth regularly–aside from having whiter smiles and better breath–have better outcomes with heart disease.  There is debate about why this is–the best idea is that it has to do with reducing the inflammation of periodontal disease, which inflammation has more wide-ranging effects.  There are also suggestions, however, that part of the effect is because people who brush regularly are more attentive to their health overall.  I think this latter, while perhaps not the primary reason, is nevertheless a significant factor.  Shaving more regularly is, unsurprisingly, better for your skin.  Interestingly, though, there is also some evidence of a correlation between less frequent shaving and risk of stroke.  Yikes!  Now in fairness, this is probably not because of the shaving (or lack thereof) itself.  There are other confounding factors (e.g. men who shave less frequently are more likely to smoke, which I found to be weird), and even after controlling for those factors, the cause is probably hormonal, not as a result of shaving.  That is, shaving more doesn’t protect you from strokes; rather, the fact that you have to shave more to begin with is indicative of higher testosterone levels, which seem to be correlated with lower stroke risk.  Thus, I doubt that my shaving regimen has any direct effect in such dramatic areas.  Still, I suspect, as with the tooth brushing, that the mere fact of regular maintenance is a partial factor in better outcomes.

People who are depressed or ill often take less care of themselves.  They allow their appearance and health to languish.  I suspect there is a reverse correlation, as well.  If you take less concern for your appearance or your desk or your house, you subtly begin to care less about these things; and your mental and physical health suffers.  When I was young, I always dressed for comfort.  This meant cutoff denim shorts, a plain white T-shirt, and sandals in warm weather, and jeans, a long-sleeve shirt (sweatshirt, flannel shirt, whatever), and tennis shoes in cold weather.  As I sit here typing this right now, I have on khaki shorts (weather-appropriate, but a slight step up from cutoff denim shorts), tennis shoes with socks, and a button-up sport shirt.  And I shaved today.  And brushed my teeth!  In short, over time, I have come to agree, at least partially, with Billy Crystal’s aphorism, “It is better to look good than to feel good!”

Now I don’t literally believe that, of course.  I’d rather feel vigorous, healthy, and full of energy, while looking like a street person, than suffer from cancer while nevertheless looking, once more in Billy Crystal’s words, “Mahvelous!”  What I do think is that there is an interaction between how you look and how you feel.  If you feel good, you’ll naturally tend to look good.  No surprises there.  I think that it works at least a little bit the other way, too.  If you put more effort into basic maintenance–basic, not primping and preening–then, everything else being equal, you’ll tend to feel better, too.  I think partly this is because of Aristotelian virtue ethics.  The idea with virtue ethics is not to follow rules (“Thou shalt not….”).  Rather, one takes basic virtues (particularly the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice) and practices them.  It’s essentially the same idea as working out in a gym.  I may not have good bicep strength–therefore, I do exercises designed to improve my biceps (e.g. curls).  Eventually, if I keep at it, I’ll have much stronger biceps.  Likewise, I may be weak in temperance (not too much or too little of anything), for example.  That’s OK–I put it into practice.  It may be hard at first to deny myself a second helping at dinner, or to drink more water even though I don’t happen to be thirsty.  Just as my weak bicep gradually strengthens with weight training, though, my weak temperance improves with the performance of temperate acts.  Just as weight training, even if it’s hard at first, makes me stronger, so exercising virtue, even if it’s hard at first, strengthens me in the virtues.  Virtue ethics is admittedly not the most popular school of ethics these days.  That’s probably for the same reason that the gyms don’t have more patrons than they do.  Both weight training and virtue ethics require effort, often seem to be dull and unrewarding, and act slowly.  Not things that Americans like!  Still, I think that the best ethical system of all is virtue ethics.  Why I think that’s so is a topic for a future post.  Suffice it to say here that in my mind it is far superior to the alternatives.

As with most things in life, you have to start with baby steps.  You don’t suddenly start going to the gym eight hours a day, after all, even if you have that much time on your hands.  You build up, bit by bit.  Virtue is the same way.  You don’t become a moral hero overnight.  You start where you’re at, which usually means little things.  And that’s OK.  There are lots of things I’m working on in my life right now, and many bigger fish to fry than my beard, or lack thereof.  Some of the big things, though, are only partially within my control.  Others are very long-term projects that can seem overwhelming.  One thing I can do, though, is maintain my appearance, such as shaving on days–like today–that I don’t really have to.  It’s not much, but it’s a start; and developing good habits in one area can sometimes transfer to other areas.  “He who is faithful in small things is faithful in great things.” (Luke 16:10)  Thus, shaving more regularly will perhaps make me fell at least a little better, physically; and it may help me gradually to develop better habits in more important areas, as well.

I should point out, by the way, that it’s in my own personal context that shaving regularly is a manifestation of taking control of my life.  If I had decided to remain bearded, that would have meant a commitment to more thorough and regular maintenance of my beard.  It’s not a bearded vs. clean-shaven thing.  It’s a being committed to whatever you’re doing thing–something we should all strive for in our particular contexts, I think.

So, good grooming as the gateway to virtue.  Maybe Billy Crystal was right, after all!


Posted on 19/06/2018, in psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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