Andrew Peterka had given up hope that he could ever grow serious facial hair. “My beard history has been … a bare parking lot of hair growth,” Mr. Peterka, 41, said. “I am other people’s patches. I’m the negative space of real men.”
But stuck at his home in the suburbs of Atlanta during the pandemic, he craved an outlet for self-expression. Lacking talent in writing and painting, and wary of the permanence of tattoos, his mind returned to beards.
After entering a few queries into a search engine, he came across a thread titled “Patchy Beard Success Stories” on a forum called Jeff’s Beard Board. In the comments, men celebrated and complimented each other, using expressions like “Grow on!” and “Beard on!”
While many corners of the internet, despite their idealistic underpinnings, continue to breed trolls and leave bad behavior unchecked, the users of Beard Board present a counternarrative to those often male-dominated spaces with their unfettered positivity. They adhere to 23 agreed-upon rules of engagement, including no discrimination, no harassment and no recommending Rogaine to promote growth.
Mr. Peterka said Beard Board felt different from any other website he’d visited. He described it as almost religious — a “peaceful place” with “a prevailing spirit” moving through it.
“We’ve got people who’ve been members since the board started, 20 years ago,” said Jeff Falberg, 56, of Bridgeport, Conn., who founded the site in 2001. Back then, he spent three to four hours per day maintaining its forums; now he has 10 moderators and four administrators who review every post and write encouraging responses.
Geoff Coleman, 48, a soft-spoken Canadian with a hefty gray beard, is one of those admins. A typical day for him begins at 4 a.m., when he wakes up at his home in Ottawa and spends 30 minutes reading new posts and leaving encouraging comments. After six and a half years on the site, he’s now posted more than 20,000 responses to beard posts.
“A common misconception is that whatever you can grow when you’re 20 is what you’ll grow for the rest of your life,” Mr. Coleman said. “But your beard will continue to mature into your 40s.”
Another misconception is that it only takes a couple of weeks to grow a beard, when in fact some hair follicles can take weeks to sprout. The board recommends waiting 13 weeks to see how much hair you can grow, and members are there to encourage you while you wait.
Aspirational beard growers come to the site from all over the world, and range from teenagers to senior citizens. Lorenzo Simonazzi, 21, of Savosa, Switzerland, came to the board shortly after the end of a relationship. “I felt I needed to change something in myself,” he said. A self-described perfectionist, he wasn’t sure where to place the neck line, whether he should trim his mustache, and if his cheek growth was full enough. Now Mr. Simonazzi is a moderator and spends about an hour a day talking to people.
He said the values he’s learned on the board include patience, delivering feedback and goal setting: “It’s about not putting the bar too high. Don’t have too many expectations, appreciate what you have, and focus on the strong points.”
While beards and a lumberjack aesthetic have been trendy in recent years, the stigma around men who agonize over appearance remains. “I think gone are the times when fathers tell sons how to do stuff,” Mr. Coleman said. “People turn, eventually, to the internet.” In his daily life, he doesn’t talk about his involvement with the board. “I don’t know how people would respond if they found out I’m a moderator,” he said with a laugh.
Mr. Coleman sees his work as a form of volunteerism, helping men feel their best in every aspect of their lives, from job interviews to first dates. “In growing their beard, they start to feel more confident in who they are,” he said.
As for Mr. Peterka, he’s now 10 weeks into his “beard journey.” Though he’s received a lot of support, he’s beginning to realize that a beard isn’t going to happen for him. But he still plans to stick it out a bit longer. Even if he can’t grow a beard, the board has helped him rethink what he considers normal.
“I’m under five-eight, and I always thought I was short,” he said. “But then I looked it up, and five-eight is actually one-third of the population. So I’m like, wait a minute, I’m kind of average.”
“I think people grow up wondering, am I enough?” he continued. “Am I normal? Am I OK? Am I on track?” As a father, he hopes that accepting his imperfect beard will leave an impression. “I want to let my kids know, where you’re at is where you’re supposed to be.”
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