The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

To shave or not to shave, that is the question!

David Elenbaas answered in the affirmative, only to rediscover why he had resisted shaving for so many decades. David’s personal essay is called "About Face."
After decades with whiskers of one sort or another, David Elenbaas discovers the downside of losing his beard. He explores the complicated relationship men have with their facial hair in his essay, 'About Face.' (Submitted by David Elenbaas)

As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, I saw a face I barely recognized. I wasn't the only one taken aback.

My wife and I have known each other for well over 25 years and I'd had whiskers of one type or another for all of them. In fact, I had not been clean shaven since 1973, a time when mutton chops were de rigueur.

When my bride and I first met I sported a Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I. chevron-style, full moustache. The 'stache was followed by a moderately heavy beard that devolved into a trimmed twice a week designer stubble — known as a boxed beard — similar to the one popularized in the 80s by George Michael. A "whiskers on kittens" kind of gal, my better half will take José Bautista's "chin-imy thicket" over the baby's bare bottom look any day.

Elenbaas not only sported a Montreal Canadiens' jersey in 1974, but also a moustache. The result, he says, of being completely clean shaven a year earlier. (Submitted by David Elenbaas)

Nonetheless, I had been musing aloud about the idea of shaving for some time. "Don't do it," said my wife, who is to subtlety what Naomi Klein is to the oil sands. "You don't have an upper lip!" 

Was she really raising the issue of sex appeal? Is my bride an outlier? Apparently not. In one recent study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology researchers used computer graphics to ask women to rate the physical attractiveness of men with varying degrees of facial hair, including none at all. They liked the hairy dude. Maybe science and my wife had a point.

Then there were history and politics to consider. Shaving apparently goes back several thousand years. Religious reasons aside, whiskers have been in and out of fashion as often as the Atkins' Diet. At times beards have been seen as symbols of masculinity and virility. In other eras facial hair was a sign of a lack of hygiene.

While many U.S. presidents have worn facial hair, including Lincoln, of course, the last 18 have been clean shaven. The mustachioed Robert Borden was the last Canadian prime minister to display whiskers. Being bearded didn't seem to give Tom Mulcair a boost. I am not sure what it means for Jagmeet Singh. Before becoming an MP, Justin Trudeau had a buccaneer-like beard, but it wasn't a great look for a lawmaker. As for Andrew Scheer, it's hard to imagine whiskers covering those dimples.

Shaving it off

Then I read a book given to me by a friend with advice for new retirees.

The authors implore the reader to avoid the Yasir Arafat look and shave closely every day. "Patches of old whiskers here and there, send a strong signal: 'Old Loser!'"

So I decided to beard, or shall I say "unbeard", the lion, ironically enough in early Movember while my mate was away on business. Not willing to risk the Sweeney Todd treatment from my local barber, I decided to tackle it myself. Using my beard trimmer and a single-bladed generic brand disposable razor, I went at it in stages: first down to a goatee, then a simple moustache. When I got to the point where there was nothing left to lose, I took my very first (and last) selfie. I sent it to my wife so she wouldn't be shocked upon her return. Not surprisingly, I received an "OMG!!!!" response with four full exclamation marks.

Upon arriving home, her somewhat disapproving look didn't exactly bring on the soft music and lit candles. And being clean shaven now meant I had to shave every day. Plus there were other, even more challenging adjustments.

Elenbaas shaved his beard while his wife was out of town on business. (Submitted by David Elenbaas)

In my bearded life, I always had a couple of disposables on hand to trim my neck. But I hadn't really had the need to shop for a razor or blades in years. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the local druggist treats razors blades like Tiffany its jewelry; locked behind a clear display case. And with good reason; they now cost about the same. I half expected to be buzzed into the display area by a Brink's guard.

The industry considered it man on the moon technology when the twin-bladed shaver was introduced years ago. I now learned that while I was in my shaving hibernation, some models came to have as many as five blades. Five separate blades! Seemed like a classic example of building a market where one doesn't exist. It was not a market I wanted to enter.

Having shaved, I wasn't crazy about who I saw in the mirror, anyway. He just seemed like another person. My wife? She never warmed to him either. Frankly, no-one else even noticed.

My new look lasted about as long as Ishtar in the theatres (you can look it up). In fact, it took me all of one week to decide I was going back to the groomed stubble look. Along with the "tree fell in the forest" reaction from others and my bride's cool indifference, I was quickly reminded that daily shaving is a total pain in the butt. Plus my naked face actually felt naked. Most importantly, I learned something about myself that I hadn't realized before. My wife was right. I really don't have an upper lip.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay. 


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