How to keep mustache in shape. The Rise of the Quarantine Beard, The New Yorker

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidance for those with beards and twirly mustaches. A C.D.C. chart illustrating thirty-three styles of facial hair and their respective fit with a respirator mask incited a small controversy in February, over fears that the C.D.C. was directing people to shave in order to ward off the coronavirus. But the chart approved an array of raffish handlebars and Zorros and side whiskers, and it came from the days of pre-pandemic public-health policy, part of a 2017 blog targeting No-Shave November aspirants who wore masks for workplace safety. The C.D.C. now suggests that everyone wear some cloth face covering where social distancing is difficult. Short-supplied N95-type masks should still be saved for those at greatest risk of or from exposure, but the details of the infographic may be newly relevant for those who do use such respirators: a chevron mustache is great, the chin curtain a no; and, for a villain or a horseshoe, “careful not to cross the seal.” Are mustaches back in style.

The national public-health institution has had, so far, nothing direct to say about the proliferation of quarantine beards. In the latest installment of The New Yorker’s “Annals of Obsession” video series, above, Michael (MJ) Johnson, who has competed in, won, and now co-owns the National Beard and Moustache Championships, describes his sleepless night after he heard rumors of mandated shaving. “I was thinking, What are the circumstances I would have to be in where I would shave completely?”

Johnson hasn’t shaved completely since 2008; when he discovered the world of competitive bearding, in 2009, he hoped to participate in the natural-mustache category. “But then I let the sideburns grow, and the sideburns were actually better than my mustache.” After realizing that he might improve his competitive-bearding chances by, essentially, branding—an idea he picked up from Shepard Fairey —he began grooming his oversized sideburns into steely wings, which make eye-popping ascents from each cheek.

Johnson is animated about online campaigns around facial-hair growth in lockdown, including Jim Carrey ’s #letsgrowtogether. (Carrey has gone quiet regarding his beard status since April 4th, or Day 13, but one can follow the progress of Blake Shelton’s mullet.) As Nathan Heller wrote, in 2015, of the shocking new bearded style then sported by David Letterman, and now by an untold number of the housebound, “It is not a bohemian power beard, as worn by ZZ Top or The New Yorker’s own Richard Brody, and it also shouldn’t be confused with the beard of disaffection, à la Ted Kaczynski, or James Mason during his cross period. Rather than saying, ‘I have given up on the world,’ the achievement beard declares, ‘I am away, but not gone.’ ”

Beautiful mustache

Quarantined beards may function as a social-media signifier of a somewhat opaque, and perhaps itchy, form of solidarity, but they have a far-reaching social history, covered, in part, in these pages. The first kiss captured on film, by Thomas Edison, an eighteen-second hit from 1896, cannot proceed until a mustache is unfurled. Many notable revolutionaries are associated with equally notable facial hair—from Emiliano Zapata and Karl Marx to Fidel Castro, whose beard was so iconic that the C.I.A. wanted to remove it, via thallium salts in his shoes. Some studies report a positive correlation between mustaches and perceptions of efficiency, creativity, and rigor in the American workplace, though results may be skewed: at least one was conducted in the immediate aftermath of Tom Selleck’s run on “Magnum, P.I.”

Feelings about facial hair are constantly shifting—for every Donald Glover or Dennis Hopper, there are associations with the alt-right, or reports that people find the bearded unsexy and untrustworthy. Keith Flett, the spokesperson of the Beard Liberation Front, calls the stereotypes and discrimination “beardism”—or outright pogonophobia. A “Marxist trade unionist & beard campaigner,” per his Twitter page, Flett views beardism in the workplace as a form of respectability politics, constraining the lives of “anyone who does not conform to the stereotype of a young, single white man in a suit.” American politicians, it is thought, suffer at the ballot box for their facial hair, while Sikhs and other religious minorities face violence for their visibility. Jeremy Corbyn, the eight-time winner of the U.K.’s Parliamentary Beard of the Year, is, to his critics, according to the BBC, “almost a caricature of the archetypal ‘bearded leftie.’ ” However, Flett, whose organization dispenses the annual honor, told the Independent, after Corbyn’s sixth win, that the award would have easily gone to the hereditary peer Lord Hylton, who wears a broad, corn-silky billy-goat scrim, if the octogenarian and his fellows in the House of Lords “knew anything about how to vote.” (Flett reports Russian interference in the 2018 contest.)

Under lockdown, some are becoming mustachioed for the first time. Alex Smith, a Brooklyn resident who started taking testosterone a few months before the primary election was postponed in New York, has been nurturing peach fuzz on their upper lip, and at least one rogue beard hair. “I can’t tell if it’s new or if I’ve just been looking harder lately,” Smith told me, but “I can’t wait to see where they go.” In the privacy of my home-quarantine, I’ve begun applying a flat little Jeremy Irons mustache (what the C.D.C. might call the lampshade) with the burnt end of a cedar stick, worn under a mask during occasional walks nowhere and back, and, increasingly, on Zooms both professional and personal. It has been one rail-thin consolation, amid unthinkable catastrophe, for friends to smile on a pixelated new ash mustache.

Sideburn styles

If, after all this, you’re still moved to grow, together with Jim Carrey, or to elaborate ends with Johnson, the C.D.C. blog of 2017 has a few more tips for you. Rather than forming the most fulsome beard possible, “channel your inner Frank Zappa, Rhett Butler, or Zorro,” all of whom could easily achieve a tight N95 seal. Zorro, who, through the lensing of Hollywood, used his rapier to fight for the defrauded, the working class, and the oppressed, may not be a bad model during a pandemic marked by gross inequities. But, for this fight, the mask goes over the mustache.

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