15 years ago, when I was 12 years old, my friends and I were obsessed with being able to grow mustaches. Strange, I know, but there was just something about having the capacity to readily sprout a dense tache that signified manhood and perhaps even freedom from the constraints that any young child faces. Being able to grow a mustache, in other words, meant being able to be an adult.
While I’ve since learned that my ability to produce facial hair — which I did indeed develop over the years — has literally nothing to do with my aptitude for being a responsible adult, there are many men out there who, no matter how old they become, cannot grow a single strand, and some are incredibly insecure about it.
“I wish I could grow a beard,” says 23 year old John (an alias for privacy). “I feel like it would help my baby-face situation a bunch. I actually bought a pair of non-corrective glasses to add a little bit more detail to my face, something I feel like I’m lacking without a beard. I actually like how I look in them, but I feel a bit awkward while wearing them, since I don’t actually need glasses.”
Some, of course, still hold out hope, even though their beard is but a small collection of several thin hairs. “As a 27-year-old, most dudes my age can grow a full beard,” says Zane DuMont. “Even though mine comes in straggly and patchy, I still like to let it grow. I let my face fuzz live in the hopes that one day it will magically fill out. I know it would please both my girlfriend and me to have a luscious Galifianakis beard, but only time will tell.”
As an East Asian man, my 28 year old colleague Eddie Kim counts himself lucky to be able to grow even a modest amount of stubble. “I’m privileged enough to rock some stubble on the regular, but I still don’t know what it means to have a real beard,” he says. “I get props for being able to have facial hair as an East Asian guy. But the last time I tried to grow a proper beard, it refused to get out of the awkward stage and I gave up. The problem is that, if an East Asian guy tries to grow a beard, it looks off and can instigate some pretty insulting comments from others.”
This is a common insecurity, particularly among Asian men, who are often lacking in the facial hair department — one small study found that the main reason Asian guys don’t grow beards is simply because, “I can’t grow one.” The uncertainty this brings about for these men is explored by Jian Deleon in a GQ article titled, “Why Asians Hate Movember,” where he pointedly writes:
“I tried out all sorts of urban legends in fruitless attempts to bolster my upper lipholstery. I shaved every day for a week because I heard my hair would grow back tenfold (and all I got was this gnarly case of razor burn). I applied Rogaine to my face, and it did nothing but burn (I wouldn’t wish that mistake on even my worst enemies). And while I’ve grown to accept my ’stache-less existence, Movember is an annual admonition that there’s a facial-haired hegemony that makes me and other men feel a bit marginalized.”
As for why some men are incapable of growing facial hair, like many other bodily functions, it really boils down to genetics. “Patchy beards are a natural variant,” explains dermatologist Anthony Rossi. “The way people’s beards grow is more genetically dispositioned to them.”
The big problem for the men in this position who want to grow a beard is that there’s really not much they can do to encourage growth. “There haven’t been any great studies showing that you can grow more of those patches,” Rossi says. “The hair density in all those areas are already predetermined and under a little bit of a different cycle than the hair cycle.” He does say that you could get a hair transplant, “But it would be a lot to have a full beard.”
Again, though, Rossi emphasizes the fact that your ability to grow a beard has nothing to do with who you are as a person — your unique facial features, hairless or otherwise, were simply set in stone by the time you were born. “It’s just a reminder of how different bodies are,” Kim says. “I also don’t have to deal with back and chest hair, so maybe the grass is always greener.”