This question comes my way at least once a day if I’m out in public for any length of time. It’s been that way ever since I hit about 8 inches or so. Sometimes people are just making conversation, commenting on my most obvious physical feature as a way of shooting the breeze. Other times it’s an entry point into having a broader conversation about bearding.
It’s been four years, coming up on five, of full natural growth for me. Prior to that I kept it trimmed close, cut in a cheek line, wore a very manicured handlebar moustache and waxed goatee and other various styles over the years. I’ve had a beard most of my life and even when I worked in the food industry I wore ‘chops or a ‘stache.
But when people ask, I usually reference the current growth and say “about four years” and that either seems like a really long time or a really short time to them depending upon their perspective. If I were being truly honest though, I might say “it’s taken me my whole damn life”.
What I mean is that it’s taken me this long to be okay with seeing where my natural growth will take me. Without obsessively trimming it to a certain length or worrying about the way it curls and whorls about my face, the way it splits down the middle following the natural cleft of my chin. It’s taken me this long to stop seeing it all as a contest, or a means of comparison. It’s taken me this long to stop caring if that suit-and-tie thinks I’m homeless or that little kid thinks I’m Santa Claus.
Inevitably “Hey man, how long did it take you to grow that beard?” turns in to a conversation about how the person asking wants to grow a beard but can’t, or how they wish they could grow theirs longer. Whether because it’s patchy, or because it itches, or because their job won’t let them, there is always something holding them back. And I tell them all; grow it if you can, grow it if it makes you happy. I let them know how a good beard oil can condition the skin and knock out that dryness and itchiness. I talk about how workplace standards are changing and how maybe one day his work will adopt a pro-beard policy, and that I hope they do.
Mostly I just do my best to understand, to acknowledge their interest while doing what I can to give them some perspective. As individuals, we are not defined by a single trait. I’m more than just my beard and so are you. Even when people approach me about my beard, and especially when they hone in on it, I’m happy to take that as an opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned along the way while also letting them know there’s a real person under all that beard.