February 2, 2010

Lack of Facial Follicles a Troubling Trend

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On Thursday, Ben Bernanke was confirmed for a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. While we’ve all got our own feelings about this event — some consider Bernanke the poster boy of fat-cat capitalism, others our savior in the financial apocalypse — one side of the story has been missed in the media: the man’s facial hair.

In a political climate bereft of even the faintest hint of a whisker, Bernanke has stood tall and refused to shave his manly mane. Perhaps a vestige of his professorial career (the university is one of the last redoubts of facial hair tolerance), our Fed boss’s whitened beard shines as a symbol of wisdom, grace and fairness. We see his growth and we think: “Here’s a staid, serious man who will guide us in our time of crisis.” Whether Bernanke actually embodies any of these values is a peripheral concern: In a climate where image is everything, he’s managed to pass himself off as the sage old geezer.

Which is the one of the reasons why I’m so confused by the lack of facial hair in our society at large. Since at least the 1920s, beards, mustaches and even good old mutton chops have been strictly taboo for our political and business elite, and those rare few who defy grooming norms are labeled “eccentric” or “quirky.” In just one example of the culture of fear oppressing our bearded compatriots, Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) shaved his beautiful mane upon being nominated as Obama’s Commerce Secretary. The President-elect condescendingly bemoaned the loss of his “western, rugged look” at a press conference, and a couple of months later, Richardson withdrew his nomination — coincidence? Or perhaps the stress of masquerading as a clean-shaver was just too much for Old Bill?

For me, beards have always been associated with testosterone, Santa and Biblical prophecy. But with the likes of Osama bin Laden and Joaquin Phoenix running around (an excess of facial hair, it seems, is a sure sign of a celebrity gone crazy), the natural muffler has been getting a bad name. Anyone who wants to smack of seriousness and propriety — politicians, soldiers, Hotelies — is quick to eliminate any hint of hair below the nose, and commercials gushing over a razor’s ability to eliminate every last whisker bombard our airwaves. Whence this hostility? What happened to virility?

Spending time amongst our beautifully bearded student body may blind us to the scope of this problem. Until the age of about 25, facial hair is still considered “neat” in a thrift-store chic kind of way, and, despite those Statlerites who are either a) afraid of getting whiskers in their demi-glaze, or b) all trying to look like Tom Colicchio (another erstwhile beard-er), some lovin’ on your lip is more than acceptable on the Hill. But step out of our bubble, and a fuzzy face means a lot more than clogged drains and moustache rides.

There are millions among us whose faces never see more than a five o’clock shadow, whose would-be chin-bushes perish in the sink each morning. Such is the cost of peer pressure and the tacit prohibition against scruff: With facial hair associated with hippies, religious fanaticism and captivity (think Saddam Hussein in his hole, or Leonardo in The Man in the Iron Mask), the naked cheek has taken over. With such widespread repression, we miss the delights of creative grooming, thoughtful stroking and mournful tearing. We lose the varieties of expression permitted by the gamut between the Fu Manchu and the French Fork. We lose an essential aspect of our human condition.

And so I issue a call to the beardless masses: Free your follicles. Emancipate your moustache. Unbridle your beard. You’ll be sticking it to the man and looking great at the same time. Show all those people who said that only the clean-shaven can make it, that the spirit of Moses, Zeus and Tom Selleck lives on, and that we will not be intimidated.

Ted Hamilton, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the Sun’s Arts and Entertainment Editors. He may be reached at thamilton@cornellsun.com. Brain in a Vat appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ted Hamilton