If you watch the Westminster Dog Show on television, what you’ll see is the best of groups—like toy or hunting—and ultimately the best in show. But earlier in the day, in a warehouse on a pier, judges pick the best in breed. This is my favorite part. Since dog shows grade canines on their adherence to a predetermined ideal, the competitors are essentially identical replicas of one another. A best in breed contest includes not just several dozen matching shih tzus—but specifically those who are physically the least variable from a given ideal. To the untrained eye, they all look exactly the same.
What I’ve seen (recreationally) of beauty pageants feels a little like this, too. The very state of being a woman in the world is to be judged based on how many standard deviations away you are from an unachievable physical ideal. Pageants just codified this—lining up a series of carbon copies to determine who is the least unlike the biologically impossible Barbie. Granted, a retrograde sequined spectacle associated with Donald Trump is not the right place to look for nuances in skin-deep beauty; but the point is that in a space of physical expression, often homogeneity rules.
As I prepared to attend my first ever facial hair competition, I wondered whether judging beards would be like judging dogs and bottle blondes. Over three days in Austin, Tex., hundreds of competitors from 36 different countries would compete across 26 categories at the World Beard and Mustache Championships. There would be Musketeers and Garibaldis, Imperial Mustaches and Natural Sideburns, Fu Manchus and beards between 30 and 45 centimeters—quite the range, but each with highly exacting guidelines. I imagined them looking like mall Santas or black and white pictures of Civil War battalions: indistinguishable beyond what differentiates them from the average modern man.
Inside an auditorium better suited to orchestral arrangements, the facial hair was striking in its specificity. But the event itself felt like a convention for individual expression. Costumes aren’t a requirement, but if you’re rocking a foot of facial hair day in and day out, you might as well contextualize it for one long weekend a year. I saw a Moses, a Poseidon, a mad scientist, gradations of gladiators, a Star Wars X-wing fighter pilot, a live-action Reds mascot, several swashbucklers, and either actual Kevin Smith or a dead ringer for Silent Bob—just to name a few of the hundreds of passionate competitors.
“It’s a uniquely male socially acceptable way of saying, ‘Look at me,’” said Al Underwood, who was wearing an all-black ensemble and an eye patch to compliment his braided musketeer goatee.
That’s not entirely true anymore. For the first time this year, women competed at the World Beard and Mustache Championships. Several classes of “whiskerinas” took the stage on the first day of the competition to be judged on either their “realistic”—made of actual hair—or “creative”—anything from Lego to braided and shellacked bacon—beards or mustaches. There’s concern that biannual event won’t be as accepting of women when it’s hosted by other countries—the 2019 competition will take place in Belgium, and two years after that it’ll be in New Zealand—but at least in Austin the facial hair bridged the gender gap.
I asked a whiskerina with a particularly convincing human-hair chin wig that was custom crafted by a stage makeup artist if she gets offended by people who have to do a double-take or even fully mistake her for a man. “That means I’ve done my beard right,” she said. “That’s the point. Then I win.” She doesn’t identify as a man, and she doesn’t wear the beard in her daily life, but part of the fun of facial hair is that it’s transformative. Although, she told me, when women who do grow facial hair naturally enter the contest, they always win.
Women who want beards are a highly particular niche of the population, even in Austin, even at an event where facial hair is the through line. But what attracts them to this community is the same thing that attracts the men: An opportunity to be appreciated physically for deviating from the norm.
Creative Producer: Jorge Corona