More than a Contest

Among my college-aged generation of Americans, “no-shave November”, sometimes known as “Movember”, is most commonly understood as a month-long challenge. It’s a loose competition between male friends to determine who’s the bravest, the most stubborn, or both. The rules are thus: shave your facial hair on October 31st, let it grow and fly free for the next 30 days of November, and… well, that’s about it. Participating in the ritual involves little effort; in fact, it effectively means putting forth less effort in daily grooming than one would in the other 11 months of the year.

Whoever can endure the month of taunts that accompanies the awkward early stages of growing a patchy, unkempt mustache or beard gains a sense of resolve and a boost to his masculinity. For those accomplished at facial hair-growing, it’s eagerly awaited as a period of time to exercise a different look. For those less fortunate in that department, it becomes 30 days of socially-acceptable, free-for-all facial hair experimentation.

Polarizing only among those with strong opinions on the attractiveness of facial hair on men, “no-shave November” is often regarded as merely an amusing annual fad. There’s no more telling evidence of this than a quick search for #noshavenovember on Instagram. Countless pictures of mustache- and beard-adorned dudes are returned, with captions mostly just referencing the level of success of the hair growth and/or its progress over the preceding weeks. Scrolling through these pictures for even a few minutes, it becomes clear that “no-shave November” is all about aesthetics, a self-serving but harmless fashion trend and nothing more.

That’s not true, though. There’s something more meaningful underneath the hair. What often registers as an afterthought (or is entirely unknown) to those who participate in the yearly fad is its relation to the fight against cancer. Movember and No-Shave November are the names of two distinct, officially-recognized charitable organizations founded in Australia and in the United States, respectively.

The former, Movember, began in Melbourne in 2003. In November of that year, a coalition of 30 guys sought to raise awareness about prostate cancer and depression in men – two male-specific afflictions not often discussed openly by men – by growing and maintaining mustaches throughout the 30 days of that month. Since then, Movember has grown tremendously, taking hold in an official capacity in 21 countries and raising $559 million to date. The organizers recruit mustache-growing men to participate by personally seeking sponsors – namely, friends, family members, and coworkers – to donate money in the participant’s name, or rather, in the name of their mustache. Women are encouraged to participate in the fundraising, too.

No-Shave November, the smaller of the two operations, was created in 2009 in the United States by two friends eager to organize a means for the masses to donate money to cancer-fighting efforts. The organization has since raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” toward the cause and, in 2013, it partnered with the American Cancer Society to ensure donations were being appropriately and effectively utilized. Unlike Movember and contrary to popular understanding, No-Shave November places less emphasis on mustaches and beards and more on hair growth in general. Those organizers wish for their participants to let their facial and body hair grow unfettered throughout November and to donate the funds that would otherwise have gone toward grooming, waxing, shaving, trimming, or any combination of these.

Despite sharing the very same names, there’s a serious disconnect between the trend of not shaving facial hair in November and the two charitable organizations that worked to start the fad. “No-shave November”, the facial hair fad/month-long event, has outgrown the fundraising and awareness-generating aspects for which it was originally intended. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of selecting such an arbitrary act as the primary means of fundraising for these two organizations; really, not shaving hair throughout November doesn’t have much to do with cancer. Perhaps, though, it also speaks to the American habit of following trends without considering their history or significance.

One doesn’t have to think too far back to see shades of this issue in a different example: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The viral social media phenomenon that took hold this past summer simultaneously highlighted two behavioral patterns among Americans: how easy it is to get us to latch onto a funny meme and how difficult it is to get us to do basic research (or to think about the potential drawbacks of wasting that much water). For many, the viral challenge outgrew the cause behind it. It became a meme to be reproduced with higher stakes for the sake of shock value, with any connection to ALS thrown by the wayside by many.

The facial hair-growing fad that is “no-shave November” is not near those miserable lows, fortunately, as there are no real consequences of guys becoming bushy-faced in November for the sake of trendiness or narcissism. Movember and No-Shave November, the organizations, have raised millions collectively to aid the fight against cancer, showing that their annual event has its supporters who, by all accounts, care deeply about the fight against cancer. Legions of clueless mustachioed and bearded guys on Instagram aside, “no-shave November” is doing significant good for a greater purpose. Oh, and in the spirit of serving that purpose: http://us.movember.com/donate