Form, function and authenticity – an essay on facial hair

GraveyardFallsHeadShotWhen I’m in the right frame of mind, Internet trolls are an endless source of amusement. Unfortunately, that isn’t often and the rest of the time they just make me fear for the future of the human race. I practice what I believe is a pretty tolerant position regarding comments on my online writing and try to leave everything up that isn’t outright spam. I can take some criticism. In fact, since I don’t plan to have to independently recreate all the wisdom that came before me, I more or less depend on criticism to fuel personal growth.

But there’s criticism and then there’s batshit crazy.  I’ll delete a batshit crazy comment in a heartbeat.

What I need to remember to do though is to let them sit in moderation a day or so before deleting them.  Case in point, one I deleted a few weeks back that I eventually came to believe was actually a teaching moment in disguise. I don’t have the original text anymore so I’ll paraphrase.

What’s with the mustache? Do you actually think people don’t know you color it? It’s like a bad rug. You know the person is wearing a toupee and it’s almost impossible to not stare at it.  You aren’t fooling anybody with that thing.

Huh? This was totally off topic for the post on which it appeared so I deleted it forthwith.  But then I got to wondering from what perspective did this comment originate? The person clearly thinks my mustache attributes are influenced by some desire to conform or otherwise in consideration of what other people think. As with many other occasions in my life, this person is judging me based on a mistaken belief about my motives and intent.

This is bad on so many levels. We are often judged more by our intent than the actions themselves, so to have someone so completely misunderstand my intent is dangerous in its own right.  That I’m autistic compounds the problem. Because I assume a high probability of error in interpreting other people’s non-verbals and intent, these are not factors in which I place much confidence. So where I tend to give the benefit of the doubt, my commenter confidently judges me based only on my appearance. Of course, it isn’t fun to realize someone thinks that you are superficial, narcissistic and naive. I may in fact be all of those things, but definitely not in the way this person believes.

So here’s the scoop. I’m all about function over form. I drove Hyundai cars well after I could afford a more prestigious brand. I do not now own Hyundais, but only because my current vehicles provide functionality that Hyundai cars do not. My truck can easily haul a trailer with my motorcycle, the lawn tractor, cut logs to the recycle center, or yards of mulch. My wife’s car has some sophisticated electronics such as blind-spot alarms and a giant rear-view camera display for backing up. We really like those things now that she is a frequent visitor at the elementary school because kids have a tendency to appear near the car without warning. Hyundai didn’t have these features when we bought the car. For all I know, they still don’t.

Same thing goes for fashion. My only jewelry is a medical alert necklace and a watch. Once while working in Chicago in winter I had to traverse several blocks of snowy sidewalk between the train and the office. By the time I arrived at work, my khaki slacks were black to about 8 inches up from the cuff and my dress shoes were ruined.  As soon as I got home, I bought some boots that would take a shine and some mink oil, and 5 pair of black jeans. I kept the button-up shirts. Nowadays, that’s all I wear. At work, at home, whatever. Same outfit. For special occasions I’ll iron the shirt.

The main exception to my reverence for function is asymmetry. Even when the asymmetry has no impact whatsoever on function, I find it disturbing. For example, a computer monitor with controls on the side bugs me. My laptop screen and monitors in my home office are all symmetrical. If they were not, it would be a major distraction from my work. In some cases I’d even sacrifice some function for sake of symmetry. It bugs me that the doors of my side-by-side refrigerator/freezer are different widths, even though this results in the right proportions of storage capacity. I don’t spend much time in the kitchen and when I’m there I try not to look at the fridge.

I even obsess over things whose only function is their form. The hedge in front of my house is only there for looks. It doesn’t provide shade, make the walk safer or control erosion. It exists only because it makes the house look better. But, by golly, it has to be trimmed to within an inch of level on top and plumb on the sides. The one accommodation I make to function is that there’s a small gap that I maintain in the hedge so you can walk through rather than around it if you need to get to the West side of the house. I rather like that gap. In my eyes it redeems the otherwise purely ornamental hedge.

Given my repulsion to asymmetry, you can imagine my horror when a bully’s assault in high school split my left upper lip. Although the surgeon tried to match up the edges, the line of the lip traces a jagged edge and the underlying scar tissue makes the whole lip a bit fatter on that side so it looks like I’m sneering all the time. There are many ways in which that attack and the aftermath were traumatic. By far the worst was the jarring realization every morning that the asymmetrical face staring out from my mirror was my own.

Eventually I realized that I could at least cover it up with a mustache. At 17 I was able to grow a halfway decent ‘stache but then I shaved it off while working at Publix grocery store due to their “no facial hair” policy. I didn’t hold onto jobs long back then and soon I was able to grow the mustache back. I have worn it continuously for over 30 years. My original style was a standard over-the-lip mustache that was just long enough to cover the scar line and just wide enough to match my mouth. For a long time, this was good enough.

Over the years I came to terms with the attack and had, for the most part, put it behind me. But the mustache was a constant reminder. It represented a way in which the assault had defined me. In my typical fashion, I grew just enough of a mustache to serve its functional purpose. The problem was that its purpose was to be a shield for me to hide behind. It was a lingering victory for my attacker but to shave it off would be worse. I bore it like an albatross around my neck for another year, feeling sorry for myself the whole time.

I may come to my good ideas slowly, but I do eventually get there. The solution I finally arrived at was to go beyond a functional scar-shield and grow an ornamental hedge on my face instead. It does still serve a function in that it covers up the scar, but it clearly has transcended its utilitarian roots and now fulfills a much greater purpose. Although it  defines me uniquely and more flamboyantly than the previous version, it no longer represents the assault. Instead it represents independence, dignity, confidence and triumph. It became as much a signature as…well…my actual signature.

Right up until the gray started to invade. Consistent with my function-over-form philosophy, I had always said that I would not color my hair. This was something I felt strongly about from a young age. Authenticity was one of the few things I came to value early and hair color struck me as grossly inauthentic. That was for superficial narcissists. (I was a lot more judgmental back then.) But all this thought and planning assumed that the gray would start at the temples and proceed with perfect symmetry outward from there.

Oh, if only that were the case. My gray started at my chest and then spread booth upward and down at the same time. Although this was surprising, it never occurred to me that it would not be symmetrical when it eventually crept out from under my sleeves and collar. This assumption proved distressingly false. The best I can determine, the strategy briefing by the Gray General went something like this:

OK troops, the neck and chin are under close observation. We’ll never survive a frontal assault. Instead, we’re gonna perform a flanking maneuver by creeping up the right cheek to establish a forward base. From there we sweep to the left and up, taking the enemy by surprise.

Which is all fine and dandy, except they neglected to account for the asymmetry. If having a jagged lip is bad, having a Fu Manchu with one black and one gray side is worse. Although the bare lip looks glaringly obvious to me, at least it isn’t noticeable from a distance. On the other hand after the gray started coming in, even blind people were telling me “hey, there’s a giant fuzzy caterpillar on one side of your face.”

So I color it. Not out of any intent to deceive anyone. Not, in fact, out of any consideration as to what anyone else may think of it. I color it for one simple reason: because if I didn’t I’d go insane.

To the person who left the comment, let me answer your questions. No, I do not think people can’t tell that it’s colored. In fact, before you left the comment I hadn’t given any thought whatsoever to what other people may or may not think about the color job, with the possible exception of the girl who cuts my hair. She asked for, and received an explanation, then I promptly forgot about it. As to who I think I’m fooling with the color, that’s an easy answer: me. Believe it or not, I actually know it isn’t my real color. I’m reminded of this every time I refresh it. But it is much easier for me to ignore the color than to ignore that the uncolored version is gray on one side. When the gray fills in evenly I may decide to stop. Or not. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. It’s too lopsided still to even consider stopping. In any case, coloring is the only workable solution. I won’t cut it back to the minimal mustache that just covers the scar for reasons explained above. Nor will I shave it off, as is also explained above.

The one exception I have considered is to raise money for an anti-bully charity. I would, for a decent amount of money donated, shave my head. That would expose a number of scars, including some from the assault that also split my lip. For a lot more money, I’d shave my mustache off as well, exposing the jagged and thickened lip. It would erase my signature look. It would reveal the underlying, and extremely distressing (to me, anyway), asymmetry of my face. It would cause me considerable emotional pain. But, in the context of an anti-bully campaign, it would also provide an opportunity for me to teach others about the life-long effects of violence and why stopping bullying is so important. The body bears the scars but the soul bears the wounds. If showing my scars and baring my soul helps just one child, it would be worth revisiting that pain. If the right opportunity presents, I might yet do this.

Until then, this is who I am. To the extent that I have a unique look or am considered cool, it isn’t something I cultivate. Not only do I not believe I’m fooling anyone, the truth is I don’t much care what anyone else thinks so long as I live up to my own principles. What you see is nothing more or less than the authentic, outward expression of my true self. But what you get is the expression of my character. One final thought for my erstwhile commenter: Judging me by my appearance rather than my character reveals a lot more about you than it does about me. That might be worth considering when leaving comments about someone on the Internet.

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2 Responses to Form, function and authenticity – an essay on facial hair

  1. Neil Casey says:

    Hey T.Rob, my beard has been removed once in about 30 years now… for a charity (cancer research). My colleagues at work raised about $2300, which was matched by the company so a total of $4600, just for me to shave beard and head. They had never seen me without it. The effect was so awful that my daughter refused to be seen in public with me until it grew back.

    So, despite it being almost entirely white, which makes me look older than my brother (he’s actually 5 years older), I keep the beard because I like to go out with my kids. And because without it, I don’t look like me any more.

    So, go with the look that makes your life work for you.

    Neil Casey.

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks for the support, Neil! As life goes on I keep having these experiences where it doesn’t match what I’d expected. As a kid I thought coloring hair was inauthentic and held people who did so in low esteem. At the time I still believed in the social hierarchy thing and needed to feel like I was better than somebody. But back then though I might have read into that person’s intent, I would not actually voiced that. So it isn’t just my coloring the mustache that surprised me, but that someone ascribing intent from that fact would put it to words! I’m just glad I have the blog to write and work these things out for myself, and for supportive friends to give me perspective, especially when I’m the one on the wrong side of the argument.

      If you know of anyone putting on an MQ event in Oz who needs a speaker, let me know. Only reason I haven’t been out your way up to now is IBM wouldn’t approve the travel and it would have cost me vacation. Nowadays my boss is good about approving travel and vacation isn’t an issue.

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