From age 12 until about 23, I used to look into the mirror every morning and think, “this is a disaster.” The relentless acne on my forehead and chin from wearing a football helmet, the ingrown hairs that multiplied around my neck after haircuts, and the clipper-induced red marks on my sensitive skin was destroying me mentally. To make matters worse, I was a consistent pimple popper. I would take all kinds of instruments to my face and skin to try to clear it up but as you can imagine, it just made matters worse. The more I tried to combat the problem with products, the worse it seemed to get. My body image plummeted.
As I started college, pseudofolliculitis barbae (known to regular people as razor bumps) was starting to take over my life, and apparently the lives of a lot of my peers. Up to 85 percent of black men get unsightly razor bumps along their beard area. I was going to the same barber as hundreds of other college students, so I always worried about the him using the same hair clippers for all those dudes without possibly properly disinfecting them, which could’ve done more damage.
With other issues already plaguing my mental health, and the non-existent option of confiding in my friends (whining about feelings was taboo in my circle), I started to hate who I was becoming physically and psychologically. Dating was a nightmare, leaving the house seemed daunting, and I was self-medicating with prescription pills and alcohol.
“Body image issues can be equally damaging for men as they are for women and that can be because of the lack of conversation when it comes to men’s mental health,” says University of Maryland psychologist Carlton Green. “So much of our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-concept comes from our bodies.”
I was looking for a big change to alter the negative way I perceived my appearance, but couldn't figure out what exactly it could be. I absolutely hated shaving—it was annoying and time-consuming. So as an impromptu move on vacation in Dominican Republic, I decided I was not going to pack hair clippers or shaving materials and try the beard thing. Not only did I hear having a beard was aesthetically pleasing, but it supposedly would curb my issues with razor burn, bumps, and irritation by not constantly having to shave multiple times a week. Whether that ended up being true or not, my skin needed a break.
“The absolute best treatment when it comes to treating razor bumps is to just let your hair grow longer, but we know that is not possible for people who have certain jobs,” says Keith Morley, professor of dermatology medicine at the University of Vermont. “Shaving comes with skin risks such as folliculitis, which can happen if you don’t change your razors frequently or [if you] share them. Also, some people have the tendency to keloid, which is the overgrowth of scar tissue that you can get from shaving. You can spend quite a bit of money to get these issues corrected, but letting it grow is the best way to avoid it all.”
What’s transpired since growing my beard on that Caribbean island years ago has been nothing short of therapeutic. The skin on my chin and neck became completely acne-free within a few weeks. By not taking a blade to my face, the skin cleared on its own. It became easier to keep my hands off my blemishes because I was not constantly putting shaving instruments to my face and worrying razor burn or painful ingrown hairs. To me, growing a beard was not about jumping on a trend, but a necessary step to improve my skin, psychological well-being and even social life.
The beard has been a conversation piece as well. I sometimes just sit at a bar by myself and eventually hear a woman ask if she can touch my beard (“if you must,” I usually say, quietly wondering where her hands have been. Acne-panic never really goes away, apparently). The facial hair became one of my favorite qualities. It’s not as if the rest of me as a person is not interesting, but having a well-groomed, jet black mane sprouting where my body insecurities used to be is pretty remarkable.
“When it comes to men, we have to understand and accept that a lot of our self-confidence comes from our body image,” Green says. “It all starts with having these conversations with children who can get trapped into the stereotypes of what our bodies are supposed to look like as early as Pop Warner football. Once we start to acknowledge early on, we can really have the conversation of looking at ourselves and possibly address past traumas that have led to us disliking our flaws or the way we look.”