What do Icelandic men have to say about their facial hair?
The silence of the barbershop is accentuated by the sharp metallic snipping of scissors. In the centre of the room three barber chairs occupied by patrons face full-length mirrors decorated by antique, gold-painted frames. I know I’ve come to the right place for some serious barbering. One of the hair dressers, a hulking man with spectacles and large, immaculate hands approaches me and gestures that I should take a seat, but I shake my head and begin to explain that I’m not here for a haircut: I’m here for answers.
Arriving about a month ago one of the first things I noticed about the face of Iceland was the fact that it was, well, fuzzy. It seems that wherever I look I see another beard waiting to be tugged. The streets are flooded with beards—beards pushing baby strollers through the park, beards having lunch at cafés, beards washing shop windows. Red goatees, blonde sideburns, black imperials. Here a beard, there a beard, everywhere a BEARD! So I became determined to find out why so many more Icelanders seem to have facial hair than men elsewhere, and what exactly this profusion of bearded men had to say about Iceland’s fuzzy face.
Facial Hair Is In
My quest brings me to this barbershop called Hárhornið. After explaining my interest in facial hair, owner Torfi Geirmundsson pulls out his iPad to show me a photo blog called ‘Beards in Iceland’ by American photographer Pat Moriearty. As we scroll through the pictures of Icelandic men with giant bushels of facial hair, Torfi tells me that he’s been a hairdresser in Iceland for more than forty years and taught barbering at the Technical College Reykjavík before going on to open his own shop.
As a teacher many years ago, Torfi says he couldn’t find models with large enough beards for his students to practice their full beard trimming techniques. But nowadays it seems there’s a large beard looking for a free trim on every street corner in downtown Reykjavík. The blog displays photograph after photograph of Icelandic men with full Santa Claus-like beards hanging down to their chests that might surprise an outsider. For anyone used to walking down Laugavegur, however, these photos are far from shocking and feel more like a montage of the more expansive beards you’ll see on your Saturday morning walk to the grocery store than anything exotic or outrageous.
Torfi explains to me that Icelanders are participating in a greater worldwide beard-growing trend, but the beards may be more obvious in Iceland, a country where everyone follows the latest fashion trends, be it a pair of wingtips or a particular haircut. As beard fashion makes its comeback there’s been more and more interest in shaving with a straight razor, harkening back to that classier James Bond-esque masculinity. Being able to touch up your beard with a straight razor has become a sign-post of manly sophistication, he says, waving his hand at shelves of brightly-coloured boxes of straight razors to my right, which he started selling five years ago and range in price anywhere from 10,000 to 28,000 ISK (90–250 USD).
Hands Off My Beard!
Modern beard fashion isn’t all champagne and tuxedos, however, as neglected scraggly beards—like those featured in the ‘Beards in Iceland’ blog—have become more and more popular as well. Torfi tells me that the majority of modern beard growers, at least in Iceland, are in their twenties and prefer a ‘hands off’ beard-style, wanting their facial hair to look as if nobody has done anything to maintain it. “They want their beard to look like Karl Marx’s or something—long, especially in the front. They don’t like straight lines here,” Torfi says, tracing a line under his neck in the classic decapitation gesture. Twenty-eight-year-old Kristján Aage, who has been a hairstylist and owner of the Sjoppan hair salon in Iceland for the past four years, seems to agree. “Too stylised a beard doesn’t look that good,” says Kristján, who’s had his own neatly cropped brown beard for ten years. “You have to maintain it a little bit or else you’re going to look like a homeless person. It’s about finding a balance. You can trim it a little bit, but it still has to look like it’s grown out naturally.”
While modern beard fashion stresses that it’s not cool to look like you put too much effort into grooming, when it comes to having a full beard, Kristján and Torfi are adamant that maintenance is key. “Sometimes you take off a long beard and it’s dirty, full of dead skin cells and everything else because it hasn’t been washed enough,” Torfi explains, his voice rising in frustration. “Hair gets ten times dirtier than your hands, and you wash your hands all the time. Why not your beard?”
That’s not to say that everyone with a big beard is growing it out of pure laziness. Real beard aficionados know the importance of keeping a large beard healthy and clean. “It’s somewhat ironic,” says Thomas Brorsen Smidt, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher who has grown his beard for eight years. “Back in the day, a big beard would smell like motor oil and yesterday’s food, but today you know, it smells like tea tree oil or whatever it is people put in it.”
Hobo No More
With facial hair fashion shifting towards more unkempt, hands-off styles, the negative stereotype around large scraggly beards has been on the decline in Iceland. Most Icelanders I’ve spoken to claim that it wouldn’t be out of place to show up to a job interview with a full beard and that it wouldn’t be strange to be greeted by a scruffy bank teller. There’s a marked difference, however, between how Icelanders and foreigners interact with people sporting grungy beards. “Tourists have actually literally crossed the street to get away from me,” says 29-year-old fiction author Kjartan Yngvi Björnsson. “It tends to happen when I’m with a friend of mine, Árni, as we’re both kind of tall and have big bushy beards,” Kjartan says. “The other day we were walking up Laugavegur and we had the whole sidewalk to ourselves. It’s kind of funny; I suppose people get scared.”
That’s not to say that Icelanders have always been so tolerant. Shortly after my visit to Torfi’s shop I meet 44-year-old Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, who has been growing his Charles Darwin-esque beard for the past ten years. “When I first started growing my beard people didn’t hesitate to tell me what a hobo I was,” Ólafur tells me, recalling the general stigma of laziness and uncouthness that traditionally surrounds beards. “But it’s not like that anymore,” he goes on with a chuckle, “we’re winning.”
The Face Of Iceland Is Extra Fuzzy This Month
The face of Iceland is actually unrepresentatively fuzzy this month thanks to Mottumars or “Moustache March.” The Icelandic Cancer Society’s response to Movember and other new lifestyle fundraising programmes, Mottumars is a month-long moustache growing competition in which participants from around Iceland raise money to help fight cancers affecting men. Participants raise money for the cause and enter their photo to the Mottumars website where people donate to their favourite ‘stache. At the end of the competition a winner is selected based in part on the amount of money a participant raised and in part by a committee’s vote. As Mottumars begins its seventh year, the Icelandic Cancer Society hopes to raise around 30 million ISK, which is what they’ve been raising for the past few years. Anyone wishing to compete can register individually or as part of a team by visiting the Mottumars website, www.mottumars.is. Also go there to donate.