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Shawn Vestal: Beardism: A lifestyle or the decline of culture?

I grew my first beard in college.

It was scruffy, I was scruffy, it was a scruffy time. Since then, there has almost always been some sort of hair on my face, even as the follicles up top were being vacated.

There was a period of simple scraggle, when everything was longer and less well-tended than it needed to be. In those days, the only real grooming involved a rusty pair of sewing scissors that I took to the shrub on an irregular basis. Then came the era of the Van Dyke – often mistakenly referred to as a goatee – when I sometimes let the goatish chin whiskers grow long. Compensating for a weak chin, probably. More recently, as my gray hair has overtaken the red and brown, I’ve reverted to a close, simple trim, with exceedingly little attention paid to the neck and upper borders.

I hate to shave. Does this constitute a lifestyle? Am I a beardsman? Or might this chronic unshavenness be the mark of something else, something more ominous: the decline and fall of the entire American culture?

This is what I’ve been wondering.

First, the lifestyle question. Like cocktails, or pickling, or “lifestyle hacks,” or nose-to-tail butchering, the beard revival has taken on a popular dimension that is sometimes cool and sometimes tiresomely precious. It’s an old trend at this point, and the evidence of it – the elaborate waxed moustaches, the carefully tended pioneer shrubbery, the massive chops of mutton – is less prominent here than in true hipster enclaves. But the Lilac City has a definite claim to a seat at the table of newfangled beardism.

A former Spokane resident named Eric Bandholz – a man with a spectacular and well-tended beard – is a leading figure in this movement. The company he and others started in 2013 in Spokane, Beardbrand, sells beard care stuff and has reached a certain level of fame. Bandholz appeared on the show “Shark Tank.”

Bandholz now lives in beardo heaven: Austin, Texas. But he continues to call out Spokane when he tells the story of his company. Let me just say that, as a fellow bearded Spokanite, I wish him well. I also wish, however, that he would turn it down a notch or two.

“Welcome to Urban Beardsman Magazine – a website dedicated to the urban beardsman and the bearded lifestyle,” begins the introductory Web page for Bandholz’s enterprise. “We are in the midst of a bearded renaissance and we want to give men the tools they need to feel confident about their style and their facial hair. … In this magazine you can expect to check out guides and tips on how to care for your beard, style inspiration from other beardsmen, and profiles and interviews of urban beardsmen.”

Bandholz and others formed the Spokane Beard & Mustache Foundation a couple of years back. Last month in Spokane there was an Epic Beard competition – “competitive bearding” – and the styles that the beard dandies displayed were elaborate and impressive.

It’s all in good fun. It’s grouchy of me to resist it. But every time I think of the notion of a “bearded lifestyle” – with beard oil and beard combs and beard soap and texture paste and beard softeners – I suffer the temptation to haul an urban beardsman to the ground and get out a rusty pair of sewing scissors.

But that wouldn’t be nice. Or legal. And the truth is, if beard worship is excessive, beard phobia is worse. Which brings us to the second part of the series of questions above: Is beardedness one of the many signs of social decay? Of our general going-to-hell-in-handbaskets?

George Nethercutt, the man who unseated Tom Foley, raised this specter a while back in a column for The Inlander. Nethercutt complained that the latest trends in men’s dress – “no ties, unshaven faces” – exhibit laziness, apathy and self-centeredness, a dangerous weakening of the fiber and decency of the country from the glory days when men wore suits and ties and sometimes even hats to baseball games. When men stop observing the cultural norms of the 1950s, Nethercutt suggests, the deterioration of the entire culture cannot be far behind.

“The sad part,” Nethercutt wrote, as if there could be just one sad part in the whole universe of sad parts that accompany the decline of the necktie, “is that dressing down can be a sign of disrespect for others that often signals personal apathy and irresponsibility.”

Good Lord. Reading that, I felt a kind of horror regarding my own curmudgeonly attitudes toward the beardos. Am I that guy – the one bemoaning “kids these days”? The one who can’t recognize the difference between a cultural practice (like wearing an absurd and expensive piece of cloth around your neck) and personal character?

A beard is a beard is a beard. It’s just hair. Shave it three times a day if you want to, or grow it out for years and wax it into octopus legs. If you find yourself tempted to make a big deal about it one way or another, ask yourself an important question: Who cares?

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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