In an act of radical transparency befitting a man who once livestreamed a dental appointment, failed presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has been Instagramming his transformation from a man with no beard to a man with a beard.
A series of posts from the past five weeks depict consistent growth through each stage of beard gestation. In early November, mere days after bowing out of the Democratic presidential primary, O’Rourke posted photos of himself sporting a forgot-to-shave, maybe-didn’t-even-shower scruff. A week later, he entered the this-growth-is-patchy-but-definitely-deliberate phase, his unkempt bristles glistening in the sun at a 10K race. The facial hair achieved OK-I’m-really-a-beard-now status by the week before Thanksgiving, and in recent days finally reached full maturity.
O’Rourke is hewing to a time-honored masculine tradition of growing beards to mark losses, career milestones, and departures from daily public scrutiny. Al Gore sprouted a temporary one after conceding the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Upon their respective retirements from long-running television hosting gigs, Jon Stewart and David Letterman both let their facial hair grow in. For gender-conforming men, there are precious few aesthetic adjustments one can make to one’s appearance that can convey a major shift in lifestyle and self-conception. Growing a beard is one of them.
I’d guess that the first reason men grow beards after stepping back from demanding jobs that require constant professional presentability is physical: Shaving is time-consuming and takes a toll on the skin. It probably feels good for O’Rourke to sleep for an extra five minutes in the morning, never make his face bleed, and let his cheeks and chin join him in a little meditative reset.
The second reason, it seems, is mental. “I think there’s a bundle of emotional manifestations with the beard that I have not yet been able to fully examine,” Letterman told GQ in 2017, the year after a photo of his newly bearded face went viral. “It’s almost a signal that I don’t do what I used to do. … Because I got so sick and tired of seeing myself with a coat and tie: Mr. Jackass on TV.” In O’Rourke’s moment of reinvention, a beard might help remind him—and, maybe, everyone else—that he’s not nearly as one-dimensional and buttoned-up as a smooth-shaven Mr. Jackass presidential candidate has to be. What is a defeat beard but a vision-boarding mindfulness retreat for the face?
O’Rourke’s post-campaign beard is such an obvious move for him, I’m kicking myself for not predicting it. We already know he loves introspective journeys and dramatic displays of emotion. We know he used to have a goatee, and it didn’t look terrible. At his most popular, during his 2018 campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke attracted attention for his brooding good looks and traditionally “hunky” backstory as an erstwhile skater punk. Why wouldn’t he make the most of his campaign’s demise by reverting to his hottest form? A defeat beard is a sign of contemplation and surrender—but it’s also a signifier of masculinity, insulating O’Rourke from the feminizing effect of being seen to contemplate or surrender.
But is it a good beard? Some beard experts (men) in the Slate office say O’Rourke’s neat growth pattern and conscientious upkeep demonstrate good “beard awareness,” though they recommend he learn to shave his neck. One of my colleagues says the beard makes O’Rourke’s face look too much “like the face of a sad dog,” but I think that’s just his sad eyes, which are at the heart of his emo-bro appeal. In a 2016 piece on retirement beards, Dan Zak described Gore’s post-election facial hair as “macho and reckless,” yet “endearing and homey.” That’s a good summation of the O’Rourke situation too, though with his flair for spectacle, he doesn’t need to outsource his personality to his whiskers as much as Gore did. All in all, it’s humanizing and humble—not a bad look for a guy who just wasted all the political capital from his Senate run on an embarrassingly premature bid for the presidency.
As O’Rourke reestablishes himself in his home state of Texas, his former constituents may find themselves comparing his new look to the beard Cruz debuted right around this time last year. Cruz, who tweeted “nice beard” at O’Rourke on Wednesday, was long overdue for a facial revamp when he first contoured his jawline with hair last year. Since then, he’s struggled with maintenance; nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the beard has been a spectacular boon to his visual appeal. O’Rourke, on the other hand, was already starting from an OK place, face-wise, when his beard grew in. He still looks like less of a jerk than his former adversary. But unfortunately for O’Rourke, and America, new beards are graded on a scale of facial improvement, not sum-total beauty. Cruz wins again.