Content warning : physical dysphoria
About two years ago, I grew a beard. My wife asked me too! And I’ll humor her just about anything she asks, at least once. I was expecting a short experiment. I had grown a beard about 15 years ago, or at least, tried. I tried to do a goatee, and by the time it got a few inches long, well… The hair grew in several different shades, fine and fuzzy, and every which way. It basically looked like I had reached into a vacuum cleaner bag, pulled out a large dust bunny, and SLAP, glued that sucker to my face.
Much to my astonishment, my beard hair grew in nicely. My mustache hair grew faster, it always had, so I ended up shaving it a few times until the beard was thick enough. My face with just a mustache looks just enough like my father to freak me out in the mirror. See, when I look in a mirror, it takes me a moment to parse that that’s me. And anything that makes me look like someone else, well, my brain goes there first. The one and only time I tried growing JUST a mustache, I woke up a few days in, looked at myself in the mirror, and had a panic attack. (I also can’t watch the live action Jungle Book with Cary Elwes for that reason. He has my father’s exact mustache. )
But the beard grew nicely. I noticed that I had two TINY spots of white on my cheeks, which left me quite chuffed. I had always said that I wouldn’t have minded starting to go bald at 17 if I had also gone silver, but nope. I kept it trimmed, and it became a look that I enjoyed. None of that bushy ass hipster lumberjack thing. I don’t need to keep a snack in there. It took me about a month with the beard to start instantly recognizing myself in the mirror with the beard, which seemed, at the time, normal. It was a very pleasing thing, the morning I looked in the mirror and went, yup, that’s me. In retrospect, it was VERY pleasing, although I didn’t understand why at the time.
Picture below by the very talented Keyhole Photography
I’m going to back up a bit in my reminiscing here. I’ve always had a touch of body dysphoria. Specifically, there are times when my body feels too BIG. “Oh, that’s your brain’s way of telling you to lose some weight, fatty.” (Yes, I’ve had someone tell me this in response) No, fuck you, not like that. I mean… Watching Men In Black when it came out was the best thing I could reference. I feel sometimes like I’m piloting a meat suit. The “real” me is like, two foot tall, with spindly limbs, grasping nerves and tendons inside my body and pulling them to make me move. I have a bad sense of how much space I actually take in the universe, and bounce off walls, doorways, people. Because of that, I’ve always been extra careful and paying attention, and stay further away from things than I really need to.
The odd thing is, the times I feel the LEAST like that, are the times when I’m working out regularly. The bigger my body actually is, muscle wise, the more I feel like I “fit” in it. I’m just mentioning this to show that I have a minor understanding of this feeling of “This is not my beautiful body!? How did I get here!?”
ZOOM fast forward to today. My face has gotten ITCHY the last couple of months. I’ve got a bit of dandruff. I read that it is a good idea to give facial skin some time to air out now and then. Also, I’ve lost a LOT of weight since growing it. You can tell in pictures, even under the beard. I was kind of curious to see what my face looks like now. So today, my wife used the clippers and buzzed my face. (She insisted that if the beard was coming off, she was the one to do it!). She stopped halfway for a moment, and let me see it with just a goatee and mustache. Hilarious. I looked weird. But I still instantly recognized myself. She took the rest of it down. And I looked in the mirror. And… who the fuck is that? Oh, wait, it’s me. Hunh. It’ll probably take a month to start recognizing myself without the beard, but by then, it’ll have grown back, I though.
And that’s when it hit me. And I realized why I was so happy that day I looked in the mirror and instantly knew who I was. I never had before. I see myself in photos, clean shaven, and I’m more likely to recognize myself from the back, than the front. In fact, I HAVE looked at photos of myself in a group, and asked, who’s that dude? And people stare at me. “Uhh, that’s you Alex.” No, really, who… oh shit it is.
I don’t recognize my own face, without the hair. I never have. I never really thought about it, but… My own brain doesn’t see me as me, without at least a thin ruff of hair on my face. It’s… an interesting feeling. The cold on my cheeks, splashing water on my face. That’s weird. Looking in the mirror? It’s downright disorienting. I can’t wait for this to grow back.