I ONCE SPENT three weeks in my early 20s actively trying to increase the fullness of my beard. My plan did not involve taking supplements or applying creams, but more drastic measures: a steady diet of scotch and Clint Eastwood movies.
Despite all the Macallan single malt and Dirty Harry, my beard didn’t grow any fuller–sideburns still disconnected, hairless patches still dappling my face.
So I shaved off my “beard,” and figured, hey, maybe everything would grow in by my 30s.
Then this thing called Movember started to take off. Although the initiative began in 2003, it wasn’t until 2009 that the organization’s partnership with Livestrong helped push Movember into the U.S. mainstream.
Some of my friends were growing mustaches around that time, but more for the novelty, it seemed, than for raising awareness and money for prostate cancer prevention, one of Movember’s now-many causes. Even if I had wanted to join them, whatever the motivation, I felt like I couldn’t. I was facial hair challenged, scotch whisky be damned.
It took me 12 years before I decided to challenge my fate (Do you feel lucky, punk?) again, when Men’s Health Digital Director Mike Darling asked me in September of this year if there was anything I wanted to contribute to Movember efforts.
I can contribute that I can’t contribute, I told him. Raising awareness about men who can’t grow a mustache for Movember would be my story. I’d conduct my experiment during the month of October so that I could have the results ready to by the start of Movember.
Mike liked the idea, but Mike was probably just happy he didn’t have to grow a mustache for Movember. Who I really needed to like my idea was my wife, Meghan.
So I did the smart thing and marked October 1 on our shared Google Calendar with the notification “START GROWING A MUSTACHE” and then avoided the topic until late September. It was a nice night and the family was in a good mood. We had just finished dinner on our back patio when I broke the news.
It’s not that Meghan is staunchly anti-beard. She’s just staunchly anti my beard, which she refers to affectionately as “patchy bullshit.” If I don’t shave for a few days, I’ll notice that she’ll curl her lip and draw back her face when I attempt to kiss her. It’s her way of saying, “I love your insides, but your outsides are currently grotesque.”
And her opinion on mustaches, specifically?
“Ah GOD, are you kidding me?” she said that late-September night. “A whole month? You’re kidding me, right? Can you even grow a mustache? It’s going to look terrible. You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding. I’m not going to kiss you, you know that? Are you okay with us not kissing for an entire month?”
I had already elected to do it, and I was determined to make the best of it, I told her.
“Plus,” I added, “Mike Darling liked the idea.”
Experiment Phase 1: Preparing to grow a mustache when you can’t grow a mustache
I have a buddy, Pete, who has grown a full, bushy mustache every Movember for more years than his wife, Kate, would care to count. I have another friend, Steve, who can grow a mustache within an hour after having shaved and without watching even two minutes of Gran Torino.
In the absence of a supportive wife, Pete and Steve would act as my mustache-growing inspiration and motivation.
I texted Pete on September 30 for his advice. “Stay strong,” he wrote back.
Experiment Phase 2: Trying to grow a mustache when you can’t grow a mustache
If you’re ever grown anything from seed, you’re familiar with the magical process of watching something sprout from nearly nothing. Able mustache growers have likely grown numb to the wonder of this process, given that it’s a quick one for them. But for me, it’s arduously slow.
It wasn’t until the fourth day of the experiment that I grew anything that anyone noticed. And that anyone was my wife. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell that I offended her in some way, as if I’d just done something stupid and not copped to it yet. Only I know what I did. I decided to grow a stupid mustache.
As the hair on my upper lip grew, so did the distance between my wife and me. I turned to the men in my life for moral assistance. I asked my toddler son what he thought about my new facial hair. His response: “Not good.” I texted Pete and Steve a selfie halfway through the month, with the question: “Any tips?” Steve replied: “Avoid playgrounds and elementary schools.”
And then, around October 16, the mustache began to offend even me. A few hairs near the right side of my lip grew faster than the others. They’d brush up against the rim of my coffee mug. In the shower, they’d soften and flatten and felt like tiny worms dangling beneath my nose.
Luckily, this is during the time of COVID-19, where I have a reason to cover up the bottom half of my face. But during the last week of October, not even the poor pixilation of a Zoom call was enough to blur the fuzz.
I started to experience that thing that people do where they feel like they have to say something in response to a physical transformation that looks like hell: “Oh, you’re growing a mustache.”
“For Movember,” I say, as a way to attempt to shoo them off.
And so arrived October 30, which was both the last day of my mustache-growing experiment and when I spoke with John Anthony, M.D., Staff Dermatologist for the Cleveland Clinic.
Experiment Phase 3: Trying to understand why you can’t grow a mustache
Dr. Anthony has treated all types of skin conditions in his more than 10 years of experience with the Cleveland Clinic. “Mostly clinical and medical skin conditions–some surgery–skin checks, cancer checks, hair loss, acne, psoriasis, inflammatory conditions,” he told me.
When I asked him how many people have come to him because they couldn’t grow a mustache, he said, “I don’t get that complaint very often. You’re not the first person, but it’s rare.”
I had sent Dr. Anthony photos of my “progress” and I asked him: “Doctor, why can’t I grow a mustache?”
His response was that, simply, I was never intended to. “It has to do with genetic predisposition,” he said. “Just like we all have different profiles of hair on our scalps, body hair varies from person to person.”
Because I’d always had this problem, I could rule out that I had some sort of skin condition that could cause facial hair loss, Dr. Anthony said.
The hairless “spots” on my face, and the lack of fullness in my mustache–even after 30 days of growth–could all be attributed to my genes. While testosterone causes facial hair to grow, the hormone can’t grow hair if there’s no follicle. And because genes determine how many hair follicles I have on my face, Dr. Anthony said, well, I was out of luck.
There’s nothing special about mustache hair. It doesn’t grow differently than other facial hair. Maybe it’s slightly coarser or thicker, but that’s not a given.
Taking a testosterone supplement for hair growth wouldn’t work, Dr. Anthony said. By the age of 30, whatever hair I did (or didn’t have) on my face was likely what I’d forever have.
“But what about the layer of blonde underbrush I seemed to have developed beneath my mustache?” I asked Dr. Anthony, grasping at straws. Surely, if I continued to grow that out my mustache would look fuller someday?
Those were “vellus hairs,” he said. “We all have those hairs all over our bodies. They are hairs even a child would have.”
Experiment Phase 4: Accepting that you can’t grow a mustache
As soon as my conversation with Dr. Anthony ended, I decided that it was time to let go–not just of my current mustache, but the idea that I could, one day, grow facial hair that would look somewhat presentable to the world.
By accepting this fact about myself, I was free.
Pete texted me October 31. I had already shaved off my mustache, not in defeat, but with a newfound sense of security about who I am. I told him so much.
“I’m sorry to hear,” Pete wrote, “but sometimes a mustache isn’t meant to be.” I swore I could hear Pete’s dense mustache follicles thrumming with anticipation of his Movember to come.
And then I realized: I don’t have to grow a mustache to support Movember. I can support someone growing a mustache to support Movember.