Learning to shave later in life, and why a man must teach his sons.
You and your Dad standing in your boxer shorts in the bathroom, his face covered in cream holding his razor, you on a footstool next to him, your small face lathered up, holding your own razor, bladeless. He shows you how to hold it, angle your face, elongate your neck and cheeks, and how to take that first swipe. Very Rockwellian, and perhaps how many of you gents learned to shave.
For me, not so much. My father was a busy Congressional aide by day and an active politico by night in Northern New Mexico in the 1990’s. His work uniform consisted of a short sleeve button-down shirt and a tie, dark polyester Levi’s slacks and boots. For nighttime campaign functions, he switched the slacks for jeans, the tie for a bolo, and threw on a blazer. Rounding it off was his tidy year-round beard. Shaving, for him, was limited to the upper cheeks and neck.
My father and I never discussed shaving; that some day I’d have to do it.
It was, in fact, my Mom and oldest sister who first pointed out the fine but dark whiskers protruding from the outer edges of my upper lip around my ninth grade year. I’d seen plenty of one-blade Bics in the bathroom, and so one evening, I decided it was time. I spread the white foamy Gillette over my meager mustache and sideburns, and, for the first time, pulled the plastic yellow-handled razor over my skin. I was so proud of that moment.
I went to tell my Dad who was napping on the couch, charging his batteries to head out again for the night. I woke him and said, “Look. I shaved. With a razor.” He blinked his eyes open and muttered something. He wasn’t impressed or proud. He was tired and went back to sleep.
By the end of high school, I had full-blown whiskers on my cheeks and had enough hair on my chin for an inchoate goatee. I was shaving once a week with no one’s help, and had learned the agony of shaving too close and against the grain. I bled here and there and cut open the binary moles on the upper left quadrant of my chin more than once. Add to that a severe case of acne that called for oral meds and my mug was on the fast track to destruction.
I went on to college in the late 90’s with gel foam, Bics and an electric razor, a gift from my sister, and a device I opted for on days I didn’t feel like slicing up my face. Men’s magazines back then had popped up in droves, and each weighed in on how to groom, and so for the young man that had never been formally trained, the articles on shaving were a godsend. In between periods of goatees and beards, the clean face was always the classic college look, and it meant having to lay the hot towel on first, splashing hot water, lathering up, then taking short confident strokes. Or so Esquire said.
That worked for a good long while, on into my post-college professional life.
It became a ritual: hot towel, lather, shave.
Splash with cold. I’d never been one for after shaves or dousing myself in too much cologne, and instead eventually found the natural products like lavender oil and witch hazel. I remained committed to the multi-blade razors and bought them willingly as they increased up to five blades on one razor.
In the back nine of my 30’s, now a Southern California transplant, I took some unsolicited advice from a man who said you could clean your razors with alcohol and preserve their life indefinitely, thus bringing your annual spend of razors down. I can’t say whether this razor-cleansing technique directly brought on the infection that ravaged my upper lip for about five months, but I think it had something to do with it.
The problem first appeared on my upper lip as irritation, almost like acne.
Alternating shaves with the electric razor on dry skin helped, but my skin continued to decay. Plan B: grow a beard out. Again, a short-term fix until the bumps and redness spread and filled with pus. I tried everything. Apple cider vinegar. Aloe vera gel. Honey. A blue-bottled liquid called Tend Skin. None of it worked and left me with burning, flaking skin.
I went to my local Art of Shaving boutique and asked some questions. “What’s going on here? Why me?”
“Simple,” Dave, the storeowner said. “Your skin’s infected. Today’s multi-blade razors irritate your skin. And you shouldn’t shave against the grain. You should oil your skin, then lather with a badger brush, then use a single blade.” His sales pitch. But then, “You should also visit a dermatologist.”
I instantly trusted Dave. He was a dapper, older white-haired surfer and wore a turquoise bolo tie under his snug wool sweater. He described the difference between the razors and creams and oils, and how they would make a difference for my skin. “You want to seal and heal,” he said a few times. Seal and heal.
Two hundred dollars later, I thanked Dave for the new products. Before I left the store, I asked him how to actually use the blade.
“Hold it like this and we get cut.” He pantomimed his invisible razor in a straight-to-the-skin hold with a swift pull downward. Then he tilted the next invisible razor at a slight angle, and eased it down. “Hold it like this,” he said, “and you don’t.”
Just for a moment there, only the two of us in the store that evening at Fashion Valley Mall, it felt like what a father should teach his son. How to select your equipment, creams, and oils. How to properly prepare for the single quintessential male grooming regimen you’ll have to learn and master for the rest of your life.
I made an appointment at the dermatologist and eventually got my skin under control.
I relearned an entirely new way to shave with the help of a store clerk. Sure, I could have asked my Dad when I was younger, but that’s not what you did in my family. Everyone was on their own island or too busy. You just figured things out on your own.
My one wish is to not let that happen for my own sons. I see their adorable little faces and I want only to protect them forever. I promise I will show them—when it’s time—how to bring the blade to their faces with confidence and ease. I will teach them how to honor thy precious skin, and take what is quite possibly the most dangerous thing a man does to himself daily, and make it as enjoyable of an experience as I feel about it now. I will make that Rockwell painting a reality some day in our bathroom, the three of us guys, in our boxers, sharing the moment together.
Photo credit: Getty Images