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:: By Seth Mayer

:: Photography by Seth Mayer

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Chicago Journal ::

On your mark, get set, grow

Students revive Chicago’s mustache-race tradition.

Liberal education, the transition to adulthood, and facial hair have gone together at least since Socrates first sprouted a beard. While an observer might argue that pogonothropy has always been part of the University of Chicago tradition (see, for example, Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey), it might be more accurate to say Chicago has been a willing participant in the ancient tradition of bearded classical education.



Writer and mustache-race participant Seth Mayer goes from youthful fourth-year to weary future graduate student.

The long-abandoned Mustache Race was part of Chicago campus life through the first half of the 20th century. Members of the senior class would try to grow a mustache over the course of a few weeks, at the end of which judges would crown a victor. Then the seniors heaved winners, losers, judges, spectators, and others into Botany Pond, depending on whom that year’s crowd wanted to soak.

This year the Chicago Shady Dealer, the self-proclaimed “international humor publication of the University of Chicago,”revived the event, making it more inclusive by adding “beardsmanship” and “female facial hairitude” to the original “mustachery” category. Because I’ve had success growing a beard in the past, I signed up for the race.

Opening ceremonies took place February 27 at the “C” Bench on a cool, breezy day. Twenty-six contestants—including four women—showed up for the 3 p.m. start time. As one of the contestants, here I chronicle my journey from fresh-faced youth to full-bearded maturity.

Day One. I wake up early for the last shave of the next six weeks, applying a liberal amount of Gillette “sensitive skin” aftershave gel—my face will not smell this fresh for quite some time.

At registration the mustachioed judge, Zachary Binney, ’08, former editor-in-chief of the Dealer, gently caresses my face to make sure I haven’t gotten a head start. Despite this unwanted contact with my still-barren cheeks, I sign a sheet saying that I’ll be competing in beardsmanship rather than mustaches or female facial hair. I also pledge to steer clear of “performance-enhancing chemicals and treatments” like Rogaine.

Day Two. My stubble would probably not be out of place in an Old Spice commercial. At this point I could still pass for a member of polite society.

Day Four. Polite society is no longer an option. I wake up and realize I have gone beyond mere stubble into some awkward in-between category that can’t yet be called a beard. Mostly, it looks like I have just finished a four-day bender.

Day Seven. In cartoons there is sometimes a shady-looking character who runs a pool hall. Today I resemble him. Perhaps I should consider buying a vest, stogie, and bowler hat. The uneven distribution of my facial hair and the looming threat of a neck beard (aka neard) lead to further anxiety.

Day Ten. Will the end of this mad quest be that I transmogrify into a wolf man? I guess that would have its benefits.

Day 12. Experienced my first bout of itchiness. Until this point it had only registered at a subconscious level, but I must have an especially bristly beard. It is also uneven. Wondering what could cause these deviations in facial-hair length, I run through the possible culprits: genetics, growing up near industrial plants, work-related stress, not eating enough leafy greens. There are some things we may never understand.

Day 13. I’ve had it with the itchiness. In the depths of a cupboard I locate my beard trimmer, only to find that its batteries are dead. The neard will survive one more day.

Day 14. After procuring three batteries, I try to achieve a modicum of grooming. A minute or two of whirling blades is all it takes to shape my facial hair into some semblance of order. Neither the neard nor my beard’s upper reaches will be missed.

Day 18. In the mirror, a face that looks much as I imagine Dostoevsky’s Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’s stares back at me. It might be the beard, but it is finals week, and, like Crime and Punishment’s protagonist, I feel increasingly alienated. On the plus side, I can now thoughtfully stroke my facial hair.

Day 21. I’m finally getting some beard-growth stability. I worry, however, that extreme, problematic bushiness is to come.

Day 23. I notice that my mustache is beginning to grow down over my mouth. Is it trying to silence me?

Day 26. My mustache continues to lengthen. At my chin, my beard has grown to almost an inch below my face. Unfortunately, the section below my mouth, what might be termed the “under-stache,” is also expanding.

Day 27. Finally, I’ve gotten pretty used to my beard.

Judgment day. After distributing free burritos to contestants and onlookers, the organizers commence the judging. Based on the length and intensity of applause, the beard grown by Seth Samelson, a fourth-year studying philosophy and English, and the fiery-red mustache sported by Jim Ryan, a fourth-year studying Near Eastern languages and civilizations (and, in the interests of full disclosure, my roommate), are crowned winners. Second-year mathematics major Chris Henderson, a male dressed in drag, captures the female facial-hair prize.

It’s cold, so no one ends up in the pond, despite threats to the contrary. Instead, winners receive a pail filled with grooming supplies, including Barbasol shaving cream and Clubman mustache wax. The least follicle-rich people in each category get a Pringles potato chip tub and Chef Boyardee ravioli can, both of which feature mustached men on their labels who can serve as “future inspiration.”

I find myself somewhere in between the winners and losers. But no matter, I feel I could go beard-to-beard with the best of them. Well, maybe not Dewey. Now that guy had a mustache.