Saturday, August 21, 2010

The manly experience of being shaved

Warning: Some will consider the following incorrect not that I care but I'm giving warning anyway.

I saw some pictures taken of wolves interacting a few years ago. They were not art shots but the work of a field biologist and they were intended to demonstrate one of those phenomena that are initially surprising but make profound sense when you think about it.

The thing that the photo shows you is that one of the ways the dominant wolf demonstrates its dominance is by leaving its throat vulnerable to others. "Demonstrates" is the wrong word because he doesn't think about it. He doesn't think, I'll show these whippersnappers that I'm the boss by leaving my throat vulnerable thereby demonstrating that I'm alpha here. No, the thing is that he knows he isn't vulnerable so he doesn't adopt a defensive posture the way all the other wolves around him do.

That psychology is an important part of getting a shave and it was an important cinematic ritual in an era when all men knew what it felt like to get a shave. The hero rides into Tombstone, Arizona after a few days or weeks on the range. He sees a town in uproar. Drunken brawls and crooked poker games in the tavern and shootouts on the street. He ignores all these and goes to the barbershop, pulls, the cowering barber out of the back room where he has been hiding from the violence and gets him to give him a shave.

The iconic moment is when the hero lying back in the chair arches his neck back to expose his throat to the barber, who is so nervous at the noise outside that he is shaking. Our hero, however, is fully confident that his manly social status alone will establish him as a non-victim. Henry Fonda was especially good at enacting this. We know he will triumph, we just don't know how.

I felt that Henry Fonda feeling today.

I'd been a little fearful all day. The last time I'd tried to schedule a barbershop shave had been the first day of my vacation and when I found that the barber was closed that day, I'd felt an odd sense of relief. It shocked me and I started thinking about it.

A razor is a dangerous weapon. Before the invention of the switchblade, it was the weapon of choice of New York gangs. The switch blade was clearly an effort to improve upon the technology being able to open with gravity alone just like a straight razor but also able to lock the blade.

Anyway, the thing that came home as I thought about it is that you put yourself in a position of vulnerability when you lay back for a shave. And it doesn't matter that you think you know the barber isn't going to kill you. The thing is that you have to mentally consider the possibility of being a victim, even if just an accidental nick.

You have to think, am I a man? Am I a real man who can do this even though he does not know that it will work out the way he wants? Henry Fonda knew the screen writer was always on his side. We know no such thing. We have to consider that we might be a victim of a freak accident whereby the barber is alarmed or jostled and they accidentally draw the blade across our skin or even across our throat.

Thus the power of the Sweeney Todd story, which began as an early urban myth. The notion that anyone, even a magistrate, could be brought down this way undercuts our sense of manliness. And manliness here is a story about social status. It's a powerful reminder that at any moment we could just disappear. Our body might not sweep down through the trap door to be made into meat pies the way it happens in Sweeney Todd but it would not matter to us. We'd just be gone.

I knew I was choosing to have my Henry Fonda moment where I would lay back and expose my throat to the barber with the deadly blade. And I knew that, even if only for my own satisfaction, I had to do this gesture right.

I had a lucky break in that my barber was relatively new to shaving and was still learning the trade. My barber is also an attractive and pleasant young woman named Jessica. Both these factors made it that much easier to establish that I was the calm one in this scenario. There was a social hierarchy here and social hierarchies are moral hierarchies and the remains true even if we affect to disdain the moral hierarchy in question.

Once I was over that crucial test, it was all gravy. The thing was a sensual experience. The cream, the hot towels before hand, the feeling of the blade on my skin, the witch hazel, the chilled towels afterward, the experience of being tended and cared for forty-five minutes. I discussed how good it felt with Jessica and she suggested I might like a visit to a spa. But a spa is a womanly thing, Men who go to spas are like guys who tweeze or wax. They are less than real men.

The thing about a shave is that blade and the manly gesture of exposing your throat to it. I didn't tell Jessica about that part. She was already nervous enough.

Let me tell you then. The endorphins fired in a big, big way. It must have been like a giant fireworks display of endorphins going off in my system. Roman candles, skyrockets, Catherine wheels must have gone off. What I felt, however, was a feeling of immense calm. It was so profound that, as I was walking home, everything had a magic glow. The light through the trees looked like a special effect created by a particularly good cinematographer, the freshly cut grass smell was like recalling my entire lifetime in wonder.

Okay, I know some of you are asking: Was it a better shave?

No, not really. But I think it could be.

There were parts of my face that were noticeably smoother than when I shave them. This was especially true of the upper lip and my cheeks. But there were other parts that were not. This was especially true of those areas where I can get better contact by, for example, pulling by chin up to get a taught, easily accessible surface for the blade on my neck.

Then again, the lovely Jessica is learning and she will get better. It may also be the case that a good shavee can lead the dance as it were by presenting his skin in ways that make for a better shave as the barber works his or her way around their face.

Or then again, maybe I'm just rationalizing my desire to repeat that endorphin rush.

Which probably can't be done. The mixture of fear and triumph and uncertainty can never be quite like that.

Which brings me to the other obvious question: Would I recommend this to other men? Well, yes, obviously, but pick your moment. It's like losing your virginity, you can only do it once and if you settle for cheap and tawdry the first time, you can never go back and do it right.


  1. The Serpentine OneAugust 21, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    So do the three scenes in Brideshead Revisited (just to work a Catholic angle in) that involve shaving speak to the manliness of the characters in any way?

    -Charles, Sebastian and Boy Mulcaster getting shaved after spending the night in jail
    -Charles having his beard removed during the storm on the ocean liner
    -Charles shaving in the bathroom in the New York hotel and having the difficult conversation with his wife

    It seems to me that these three scenes do say something about the characters involved and their idea of themselves. And isn't that an aspect of manliness? How you portray yourself to the world?

  2. That's funny, we've been having the same discussionn on The Art of Manliness site in the male only TESTOSTERONE group, i.e., how one portrays oneself to the world and if by acting a certain way you can become that way. I think its possible but there's a limit also. There's also a group called The Manly Art of Shaving.

  3. "It's a powerful reminder that at any moment we could just disappear. Our body might not sweep down through the trap door to be made into meat pies the way it happens in Sweeney Todd but it would not matter to us. We'd just be gone."

    Yes, I think its an allegory about the reality of death, and also about how in a materialistic age everything we've acquired could suddently be gone.