SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to The Deep Dive, a weekly podcast. It takes a deeper look into the happenings at the walrus. I’m Sheena Rossiter.
ANGELA MISRI: And I’m Angela Misri. On this week’s episode:
SEAN WETSELAAR: I think a lot of men probably go through this period where for the first few weeks of growing a beard, it just looks patchy and awful. And for me, I was never able to get over that hump. I would not shave for weak and kind of decide, you know, this is the time. And then, you know, my fiancé would look at me and go, I, “this is, this is not acceptable. I’m not going to allow this.”
SHEENA ROSSITER: We’ll hear from Sean Wetselaar. He’s the manager of scripts and content at the Score E-sports where he helps to cover everything from competitive gaming to internet memes. He’s also a freelance writer based in Paris, Ontario, where he will keep trying to grow a beard out, at least until his fiancé demands another trim. And that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about today with Sean: COVID beards.
ANGELA MISRI: Yeah, Sheena, lockdown and isolated for the past two years has left many men all over the world with the opportunity to skip shaving, including my husband. And they’ve put themselves through a hyperbolic time chamber of facial hair growth. So, I’m really looking forward to this conversation with Sean.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Now, before we get it into things, can you describe what your COVID beard looks like for our listeners? Like, am I looking at a ZZ-Top beard or are we talking more about like a well-kept, closely trimmed beard here?
SEAN WETSELAAR: Yeah, so I, I think a lot of people hear “pandemic beard,” and they assume that I’ve got this mountain man beard and, you know, I haven’t shaved since the pandemic started. And I mean, it’s fairly close. My strategy has been to take my clippers. I do a number four (for people who know what that means) and I trim it back and then I’ll grow it out until my fiancé is no longer willing to tolerate the length. And then I trim it back again.
SHEENA ROSSITER: And, and why didn’t you have facial hair before? Was it just kind of a social thing or …?
SEAN WETSELAAR: It was a mixture of things. Yeah. I have a kind of unusual little beard in that I have fairly dark brown hair on the top of my head, but my beard is like more blonde. And especially when it’s first growing in, it’s like very blonde. And so it looks strange. I think a lot of men probably go through this period where for the first few weeks of growing a beard, it just looks patchy and awful. And for me, I was never able to get over that hump. I would not shave for a week and kind of decide, you know, this is the time. And then, you know, my, my fiancé would look at me and go, “this is, this is not acceptable. I’m not going to allow this.” And, you know, I looked terrible to her credit, so I would always end up shaving and yeah, a beard was never something that I had really considered growing when COVID hit. It just was the perfect opportunity I was in lockdown. I didn’t see anyone except her for weeks. And I was able to skip the social hurdle. Right? I emerged with a fully formed beard and no one saw that awkward in between that’s so uncomfortable to get through, I think for a lot of men.
SHEENA ROSSITER: How did you do this? Sort of like deep dive into men growing facial hair during the pandemic?
SEAN WETSELAAR: I mean, it it’s been really interesting to look into. I think the, the first thing that really struck me when I started doing research was how unprepared a lot of men are for having a beard. I think if you’re a clean shaven man, and you go through your life, you know, shaving every day or shaving every couple of days, you think of having a beard as an absence of grooming responsibility. It’s like, I don’t have to take this step in the morning, but they actually, you know, if you want it to look not disgusting, which definitely I would prefer it not to look disgusting. You need to put some time in, you know, beard oil, conditioner are definitely your friends. I think something that I hadn’t realised and that a lot of men hadn’t realised when this whole thing started was that basically your face is gonna become like a scalp.
Like it’s going to be just like the top of your head, if it’s totally covered in hair. And if you just let it, get it dried out and grows, it’s gonna look terrible. It’s gonna feel terrible. If you’re in a relationship and someone is getting close to your face, it’s not gonna be fun for that person. So I had to learn a lot about how to groom the beard. And I think that was the case for a lot of men as well. I, you know, anecdotally I have friends that started growing out these massive beards and I, how are you taking care of it? You know, like what brand of beer oil did you buy or something? And they just gave me this blank stare, like what, and those are the people who have shaved. I think that weren’t willing to keep up with it.
But I think what also really struck me and maybe this isn’t directly connected to the pandemic, but it was really interesting to me is that I kind of went into this with an assumption in that this was this historic moment where the beard had become really closely tied to what was going on in the world and pandemic beard, right? Was this moment in history. If you look at social media trends, you know, COVID beard or pandemic beard, or like maxing out all the charts that you know, in, in April, 2020. And it really felt like this moment in time, but I knew very little, both facial hair going into the pandemic. And as I’ve been researching this story, what I found is that facial hair has almost always been tied to history and social movements. And if you look back through history, facial hair has been a way that we express ourselves or a way that we interact with what’s going on in the world for literally hundreds of years.
If you look back to before the First World War, there was a period of time in the 18 hundreds where these massive beards were extremely fashionable and that was seen as, you know, the epitome of like Manliness or masculinity. And so it’s, it’s definitely something that I think comes in waves during the first world war. A lot of full beards fell into favour because men went off to war and they had to shave so that gas masks would fit around their facial hair, which is maybe eerily similar to today. If you want to take a dark view of things, and that continued all through, um, the century, if you look at the 1960s, the civil rights movement was very connected to facial hair. You know, you’ve got groups like the Black Panthers for whom their hair and their facial hair was a symbol of resistance and a symbol of what they were fighting for.
And so if you’re like me and you grew up in the, in the ‘90s or in the 2000s, a period of time where being clean shaven was kind of associated for a lot of people, I think in Canada with, you know, being put or, and the, the way that you’re supposed to look as a professional. Maybe you haven’t thought about the history of this, but beards have been a huge part of social movements, a huge part of history going back hundreds of years. So I thought that was really interesting. You know, I think a lot of people saw this pandemic beard thing on their social feeds, or they had a friend that decided to grow of a beard and they thought, oh, wow, this, this is so strange, but it’s actually totally normal.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Why did the full beard then start to come back at around 2010s or so?
SEAN WETSELAAR: Part of it is just a reaction to the past 20 years. You know, people who were young in the 2010s were looking at the last 20 years, they were looking at maybe what they were told growing up, this idea that you needed to be clean shaven, that a professional person, you know, shouldn’t have a beard that’s less clean, less put together. And I think part of it was just a, a natural reaction to what has come before that people started saying, well, I think beards look good. I want to grow a beard. I want to express myself. Maybe I want to resist my parents’ generation, or I want to forge my own path. So I, I, I think a lot of these fashion trends are often kind of, of like a reflection of that and a reflection of nostalgia, but it also, I think, has something to do with a generational kind of ageing into the workforce for millennials and for a younger generation where as we have kind of come into the workforce, I think in general, a lot of these things that were more taboo in the nineties and the two thousands like tattoos, or like face hair or, you know, different kinds of statements that you can make with your body have become more acceptable.
And as an older generation has slowly started to age outta the workforce, I think, you know, we’ve seen this shift towards the things that the millennial generation value as just more and more common. So I think the 2010s kind of represent that changing of the guard and that moment where you start to see the younger generation, the children of the baby boomers really coming into the workforce and the older generation may be having less influence on the, the trends and the fashions of the day.
Gilette ad: The face of Gillette is Federer, Messi. Namar. Icons of masculinity and sporting achievement underpinned by the classic payoff: “the best a man can get.”
SHEENA ROSSITER: To me looking back at the 2010s. I mean, it’s really across all aspects of pop culture. You see the beard come back in a big way, right? You see it in sports, you see it in movies. Um, you see it in music like so many more men are growing out beards of various lengths. I mean, you know, some people took it very far, some people a little less so, but I think by the end of that decade, if you were walking down the street anywhere in Canada and you saw a man with facial hair, you would see that as totally normal. There’s no statement being made there anymore. It’s just a very natural kind of fashion of the, and I definitely think that connects to why so many men grew beards during the beginning of the pandemic, because it was already fashionable. A lot of people were already, um, seeing beards and thinking that is aspirational or that’s something that I wish that I could do. And I think that look is something I want to emulate. So when we all got locked down, it was, I think really natural for a lot of people to take that step
Beard Man ad: I’m BeardMan. And I’m here to show you how to become the bearded beast you were born to be. I’m not talking about some barbaric team, man, and I’m sure as hell not talking about some selfie snapping soy boy – I’m talking about the kind of man who stands up for what’s right, holds the door for stranger and always gets the girl.
SHEENA ROSSITER: I mean, it is true. The hipster beard is a thing, or that has been a thing. But the one thing I wanna know is has this ongoing trend, especially during the pandemic, has it spawned a whole sort of industry for male groom products?
SEAN ROSSITER: Yeah, I think the impact that it had on the whole kind of male beauty and grooming industry was really interesting in 2020. A lot of the players that had really dominated that space actually took a big hit. Like Gillette is someone who I think you will classically associate with male grooming. Their stock took a pretty big hit at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s because so few people were shaving. You know, it’s hard to say a lot of these traditional companies, these large kind of grooming or shaving companies were affected by a lot of the same things that the global economy was affected by at the beginning of the pandemic, the shutdown actually wasn’t necessarily very kind to them, but a lot of companies that are more focused on grooming and kind of self-care, and these, these ideas that maybe for a lot of men were very alien prior to 2020, definitely did see success.
So, you know, L’Oreal’s one of the big brands in both male and female beauty, and they’re much more focused on grooming and they have a whole line of beard oils and conditioners and the sort of thing their stock has risen pretty steadily through the pandemic. And I think probably what a lot of men might associate with is these smaller, like more boutique brands that are offering things that, I mean, certainly I had never thought about what goes into the products that I’m using, what goes into my shampoo. And I think for a lot of men, that’s like very common, but if you wanna take care of your beard, you know, you may want to put a little bit more thought into it. Ultimately, this is hair that’s right around your mouth, right? Like you, you want this to be clean. You wanna take care of it.
So I started to pay a lot more attention to what goes into my products. And a lot of these smaller brands have had a lot of success. So for example, a brand that people might have heard of is bioscience, which is often hawked by a queer eyes. Jonathan VanNess, their parent company saw a big spike in late in 2020. They’ve had a lot of success and a lot of these smaller brands that are more focused on personal kind of grooming and self care. And I think marketing themselves to a younger generation on the quality of their product and their ingredients and the cleanliness of their ingredients. You know, I think these are things that a lot of men are starting to care about in a way that far fewer of us did prior to the pandemic. So, I mean, I think if you’ve stuck with the beard at this point, it’s 2020, it’s been almost two years as crazy as that is to say, you’ve probably done the research and you’ve probably started to put a lot more thought into your beard than you did in April, where basically it was just a way of marking the time.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Now, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, more commonly known to most of us as the CDC, along with other organisations they’ve recommended against beards in order to maximise tighter masks around the mouth. So fashionable or otherwise can this trend actually last beyond the pandemic,
SEAN WETSELAAR: Basically the most important factor for facial hair and masks is these tighter respirator masks. So you’re talking about N95s or KN95s and in Canada, a majority of us were not wearing these masks through the earlier days of the pandemic. You know, we were wearing cloth masks or surgical masks. And for the most part, you can wear a beard and a mask and still get a lot of benefit. So this hasn’t been a huge problem until more recently, as we’ve seen Omicron really starts to spread a lot of public health experts are recommending N 95 S or K N 95 S they’re recommending fit, tested, or tighter respirators and masks. And this depends on what you do for a living. This depends on how high density, the place that you live is, but there are a lot of places right now where public health experts are really recommending these tighter masks.
And it is definitely true that a beard will interrupt the fit of these tight masks. You will not get that seal over your mouth if you have. I mean, I guess you could rock a go tea, but if you do have a full beard, it won’t work with a, with these tighter masks. So I don’t know how many men have found themselves shaving for entirely pragmatic reasons up until now. And I think definitely if you work in healthcare, or if you’re in some kind of frontline profession where it’s required, then at a certain point, you’re gonna have to shave the beard. If you’re an average person, you can still get good benefit from an N 95 with a beard, but it is gonna reduce the effectiveness is basically what everyone one is recommending. So, yeah, it’s funny at the very beginning of the pandemic, people might remember quite a bit of panic on social media about that CDC recommendation, because there’s a chart from 2017, that was really widely circulated.
At the beginning of the pandemic, actually, I remember first seeing it before the first lockdowns back in like February, where we were first hearing about, uh, the coronavirus on the news and this chart, very helpfully outlines, every possible piece of facial hair and whether or not is compatible with a N 95 respirator. And the answer is basically if you’ve got any kind of, you know, facial hair on your jaw line, it won’t, it won’t work. Um, I have a friend with a very aspirational, large beard. Um, and I remember he shared it on social media with, uh, yeah, I’d rather die at the time was his approach. Um, and I think a lot of other people felt the same way. You know, anecdotally I’ve talked to friends with beards and they’re like, I will live like a hermit in my house until this thing is over, but there’s no way I’m shaving.
So really I think like so many things during the pandemic, this comes down to, um, personal comfort. This comes down to, um, you know, what level of safety you need for yourself and for your loved ones. Um, if you are a doctor, you don’t need me to tell you what, what kind of a, a mask you need to be wearing. If you’re worried about picking up COVID at the grocery store and you’re wearing an N 95 over your beard. I mean, it’s still better than wearing a cloth mask. Um, so it’s really up to personal comfort and, and, and, and how safe, you know, you really feel the need to be. I think that broadly, we are still going to see a lot of people continue with their beards. I don’t think everybody is going to shave for the sake of wearing N 90 fives. And I say that as an optimistic person, who is hoping that we will not see another variant even more transmissible than is six months, but who knows?
SHEENA ROSSITER: It’s so interesting that you mention all about the care that goes into beards because pre pandemic, I have a friend who he has quite the beard it’s very well taken care of. And the reason why he has a beard is to kind of shape his jaw line a little bit better. And he was explaining to me about the beard oil. He blow dries his beard as well. And just it, and after he pointed out all the work that goes into his beard, I noticed like, yeah, his is well taken care of compared to the scraggly brillo-pad beard as I’d like to call them.
SEAN WETSELAAR: Yeah. I think if you’ve never really experimented with what can be done with facial hair and, you know, the most you’ve ever done is kind of not shaved for week and just let it grow in if you were in the place that a lot of men were at the beginning of 2020, and it, this idea that we weren’t gonna shave until the lockdown ended or something, and you just grew this massive beard, a lot of men, their beards will be really scraggly. They will be really uncomfortable. Um, both for you and for other people, you know, you can get like food stuck in them. If you don’t trim your lip, you know, there’s a lot of things that you, you didn’t think about probably if you had a clean shaven face a I’ve never had a beard long enough that it needs to be blow dried, but that’s definitely something that you could do.
And beard combs can be really effective when paired with beard oil at kind of getting rid of that. Scraggles. So, I mean, for a lot of women who spend a lot more time, I think on average, taking care of themselves, the idea of taking five minutes in the morning and kind of like grooming your appearance probably sounds extremely basic, but I think a lot of men, a lot of young men just never have, have never necessarily taken that time. And I think societally, that’s really starting to change. I think broadly that’s starting to change. And so, you know, all of these things are connected, but for people that do started to grow a beard as a kind of spur of the moment thing at the beginning of the pandemic, I think for myself and probably for a lot of other people, it’s been a really interesting chance to learn a lot more about taking care of yourself. And, and that’s definitely a very positive thing,
Sean Wetselaar’s story on COVID beards and male grooming trends was edited by Nicole Schmidt and you can read it at thewalrus.ca. Let’s check out which Sean is reading right now:
SEAN WETSELAAR: So right now I’m reading a book called Gideon the Ninth, which is a, a fantasy novel. I’m a big fan of fantasy novels. It’s by Tamsyn Muir. And basically the premise is a groups are exploring a giant haunted house in space, not connected to beards in any way, but it’s been a lot of fun.
I’m Jason Herterich, and here’s what we’ve been talking about this week at The Walrus.
We were all talking about prime minister Trudeau’s announcement, $13.2 billion childcare deal with Ontario, the last province or territory to work at a deal that is perfectly timed with our May cover story by Sadia Ansari, will be on this podcast next week, talking about her story the week after she’ll be part of our next Article Club, along with two of her sources.
This was a week on Slack was filled with dessert recipes (don’t judge). Our Editor in chief calls it a timeline cleanser, so we’re sharing them with you, everything from chocolate chip cheesecake bars (thank you, Nicole), to Millionaires Shortbread (thank you, Laura).
And the events team at The Walrus was on the ground for the first time. In more than two years, live in Vancouver for The Walrus Talks Energy at Globe 2022. Rewatch the event in our video room.
As always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.
Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of The Deep Dive. It was produced by Sheena Rossiter and I edited it. Thanks so much to Sean Wetselaar for joining us this week.
Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, “Podcast Intro” by Inplus Music, and “Umbrella Pants” by Kevin Macleod.
Private Reflection by Kevin MacLeod
Protofunk by Kevin MacLeod
Umbrella Pants by Kevin MacLeod
Additional sources for this episode were provided by Live Bearded and Gilette and you can find links to all of this in our show notes at thewalrus.ca/thedeepdive.
Don’t forget to subscribe to Deep Dive from The Walrus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard, please leave us a review and rating. It really helps people find the podcast.
Until next week when we take our next deep dive.