Deconstructing Moustache Praise
Every day, people comment on my huge, ridiculous moustache. Almost invariably, these comments take the form of praise. In (very) rough order of frequency, I most often hear:
- Is your moustache real?
- How long did that take?
- Well done!
- I wish I could grow a moustache like that.
- That is a respectable/legitimate moustache.
- Is it a lot of work?
The number one question, that of whether or not it is real, mostly illustrates the degree to which people have become inured to simulacra and artifice. My moustache is notably large and goofy, granted, but it's still rather disappointing that most people who are moved to comment – and of course, there is no way to measure the number of people who assume it is fake and don't ask about it – would rather assume something slightly outside their daily experience is not real, even something as mundane as facial hair that is styled unusually. Facial hair is something that is within the reach of about half the adult human population of the world.
This is what makes the remainder of the common moustache comments troubling. They are all, to greater or lesser degrees, framed as praise for an achievement. As I've mentioned, nothing could be less of an achievement than possessing a naturally-occurring appendage. In fact, one of the questions, “Is it a lot of work?”, is particularly paradoxical in this respect: is the asker so unfamiliar with the process of shaving that they believe it takes some kind of exertion to grow hair? Obviously, I wax and style it, which requires some degree of effort, but the combing of, application of product to, and subsequent styling of hair is a process with which virtually everyone is familiar. It would be insulting to the asker to assume that they actually believe that not shaving one's upper lip and then twisting the ends of the resulting hair amounts to some kind of Herculean task, the completion of which merits congratulation. What, then, are they congratulating me for?
Most obviously, I am being congratulated for being a man. I am aware that not all men can grow moustaches, and that some women can. I am also aware that among trans and intersexed people, moustache ownership or the capacity therefor is mostly uncorrelated with gender. However, cis people form an overwhelming majority, and in the cultural consciousness of virtually everyone, facial hair is associated with masculinity. Thus, at least in the minds of the people commenting, I have a moustache because I am a man, and I am a man because I have a moustache. And they're congratulating me, in terms of “respect” and “legitimacy”. Wow.
But wait, there's more. Let's talk about expressed envy. It is infrequent, but sometimes it is women who say that they “wish they could grow a moustache like that”. I'll go out on a limb here, and say that all other things being equal, no. They don't. Given that one of the key responsibilities that patriarchy imposes upon women is to conform to prescribed standards of beauty (which most assuredly don't include growing hair on one's face), I'll venture that given the choice, not a single one of the women who have said that to me would wish to awaken the next morning with thick, coarse hair growing on her upper lip. What, then, are they wishing for? One obvious answer springs to mind: they are wishing that they were men. When, living in a world in which men are disproportionately in positions of power and privilege, these women are confronted with an unequivocal signifier of masculinity, they are prompted to express a desire, however transitory, that they were not members of a disempowered class. Perhaps not revolutionary, but not surprising, either.
Of course, the vast majority of those who express a wish that they “could grow a moustache like that” are men. Once again, such a comment seems, on its face, paradoxical. Perhaps the texture and growth pattern of his facial hair is such that he can't grow a moustache exactly like mine, but in all likelihood he can grow a moustache. Facial hair of some kind, almost certainly. And there is always something he can do with his facial hair to make him look as ridiculous as I do. So we ask the question again: what is he wishing for? Perhaps he is wishing for the social freedom to grow wacky facial hair. I have the social freedom to wear an eccentric moustache because I am a student who works low-paying low-status jobs in the service industry. That isn't the kind of social freedom that my customers probably want. It's more likely that these upwardly-mobile hard-working young professionals are wishing for another kind of social freedom: wealth. It's common enough – “I wish I could take a vacation in Tahiti”, “I wish I could drive a Lamborghini and not have to worry about speeding tickets”, “I wish I could just party all the time and not have to work”, “I wish I could grow a big handlebar moustache”. The way these commenters conceptualize it, the wish for a big moustache is a wish for membership in the elite, and thus by implication for the perpetuation of that elitism.
Could these criticisms be leveled at me for growing the moustache in the first place? Perhaps. I am a white male, I do have at least the level of economic privilege to concern myself at a given moment with trimming and grooming the hair on my face rather than where my next meal is coming from. In my defense, I can suggest that while my privilege authorizes and enables me to grow a moustache, having grown one does not enhance my privilege, or extend it over others. Ironically, my “unbelievably” weird moustache, though in one sense a function of privilege, serves to curtail my access to opportunities that my maleness would otherwise facilitate, in much the same way that one has to have a couple of grand to blow on tattoos, which subsequently hinder one's earning potential. In contrast, while my moustache doesn't actively oppress others, those who comment on it or congratulate me are expressing their respect and admiration for the position of privilege from which it descends.
Fuck those guys.