I spent an afternoon mustached last weekend, and it was fun. At a beer festival in St. Paul, The House of Shandy handed out tattoos of thin ‘staches and furry adhesive ones in various styles. I donned “the smarty.”
I was curious to spend the afternoon with this symbol of masculinity across my face, though admittedly I was pretty far from masculine in my sun dress. My recent completion of a gender studies course in masculinity inspired the temporary transformation. And it was well received. I wasn’t the only person (woman or man) to wear the House of Shandy’s party favor, thus it became more of a playful accessory than a commentary on gender. Thirteen different men complimented my mustache. Some pretended to be jealous. Two women gave me positive feedback. I did get one confused query about where I got it and why I would wear it, but nothing hostile.
But there is quite a difference between a satirical, temporary mustache on a female and a woman’s acceptance of her own natural facial hair. Rebecca Nieto makes this distinction in her piece “Hair Trigger,” in which she chronicles her own desire to remove upper lip her at age 12. She also examines the growth of mustache popularity in queer communities, versus its rise in hipster popularity. If you don’t recognize society’s fierce protection of mustaches as a symbol of masculinity, check out this commercial for the prescription Vaniqa, a product intended to reduce women’s facial hair. In the commercial a beautiful, smooth-skinned woman’s voice drops to a baritone when discussing how her facial hair makes her feel manly, presumably a tragedy for any women trying to leave the house.
Some women, queer or not, have begun to let their – facial – hair down. Not only is it liberating to free onself from the hassle of waxes, razors, or lasers, but it also sends the message that women can be women without perfectly smooth and hairless (dare I say prepubescent) bodies. Or, on the other hand, women can be choose to be a little masculine with their facial hair.
Gay men arguably took to mustaches as a way to confirm their masculinity in the 70s. R.W. Connell writes about the Castro Clone trend in his book Masculinities. Gay men are often excluded from hegemonic (i.e. mainstream) masculinity because of their sexuality. By accessorizing as a tough, manly man (think Ron Swanson’s ‘stach), gay men affirmed their masculinity despite attempts to feminize them.
While I wore my temporary mustache I couldn’t help but consider the politics that center on these two to three square inches of hair. A hairy upper lip says a lot. And even though my experiment with it didn’t shock or shatter stereotypes, it’s fun to play with people’s perceptions. Nieto concludes, “With every imitation and copy, the mustache is warped, destabilized from being a symbol of purely masculine citizenship, and brought to a place of queer play.” And really, the mustache has only the power that we allow it. It remains a symbol of masculinity, but it doesn’t have to be confined to a male body.