Cutting it Close

Drawing from US patent 775,134 (safety razor).

Drawing from US patent 775,134 (safety razor). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my most persistent childhood memories is watching my Dad shave.  I remember this in particular while we were camping, which we did a lot as kids.  We’d go into the restrooms, and while Dad shaved for real he would let us lather up with some shave cream and then use a toothpaste tube with a crimped end to scrape it off.  As far as I know he pretty much always shaved with a cartridge razor before switching to an electric.

When it was my turn my parents apparently didn’t want to trust me around exposed sharp objects so my first razor was an electric.  And my second.  And my third. . .  This worked, for the most part.  Most mornings facial hair was in fact removed.

Then something strange happened.  I was on the web researching leg shaving. . .no, that’s not the strange thing, actually, not in my world.  While looking for recommendations from cyclists I started seeing all these forums and product reviews with guy after guy extolling the virtues of shaving (their face, that is), “old school.”  You know, the old double-bladed safety razor, shaving soap, a badger brush, the whole deal.  It suddenly dawned on me: I’ve been having crappy shaves for my entire adult life.  Putting up with a less-than-close cut, the late-day re-growth, the skin irritation. . .all of which I’d just accepted as the normal price for getting through an unpleasant, unavoidable, daily task as quickly as possible.

Now one of the motivations for many of the guys was money; frankly, I had no idea of the small fortune that men who use disposable razors and canned shaving foam are spending every year.  But most other people were talking about shaving in a way that almost didn’t compute with me, shaving as something that was enjoyable, a practice in which to indulge.

So I figured, why the hell not?  You are never too old to try something new, right?  So I ordered all the requisite merchandise, warned Mary to be ready to mop up copious amounts of blood, and set to.

Well, I’m almost three weeks into the great shaving experiment and I can’t see myself ever going back to an electric except for the occasional travel emergency.  Quite simply, the whole thing has been a revelation.  I’m still learning, but so far the quality of the shave has been extraordinary.  The learning itself makes you think differently.  To an electric razor your face is a continuous surface; it might as well be a sheet wood to be planed smooth.  But your face has angles, curves (who knew?), parts that like being shaved one way, parts that like being shaved another, hard to reach recesses. . .

Sure, there was some initial outlay for all the equipment.  Good double-edged safety razors are not cheap, $30-$40 and up.  Wait, that is actually pretty cheap for something that will last for years.  Not surprisingly, the best ones are from Germany (Merkur) and England (Edwin Jagger, the brand I settled on).  The first time you hold one in your hand you understand why such a thing is no longer made in America.  A DE safety razor is heavy, sometimes very heavy.  It is built to last.  It is designed to do one thing and do it well.  In the US, however, the shaving market is completely given over to disposable convenience on the one hand, or high tech power devices that also make your morning coffee and in the evening double as a marital aid.

I’m not going to lie, my first time fronting up to the mirror with one of these paperweights in my hand was a nerve-wracking experience.  But I just followed the same repeated advice I read everywhere and trusted the razor to do the work.  Because that is why they are so heavy.  There is no scraping yourself raw with a disposable or grinding away at your skin, pushing all the crud deeper into your pores, that you get with an electric.  You just rest the blade against your skin and let gravity do the rest.

While the US has completely failed in the artisan razor department it does seem that there are some people out there in the US making some really interesting shaving soaps and aftershave creams that I can’t wait to try.  There, by the way, was another revelation.  Sometimes my Dad would let us kids try his after-shave lotion, or skin-bracer, or tonic.  There was some strange idea abroad in former times, apparently, that your skin needed tightening up, toning.  The way to do that was by burning it to a crisp with alcohol.  In an alternate universe, people use aftershave creams, complex moisturizers that impart a subtle tingle to the skin but are deliberately designed to do the opposite of the standard US aftershave product: to stop your skin from drying out.

Of course, it may be a while before I get to try any other soaps or creams.  Because the stuff is ridiculously cost-effective.  After reading several recommendations I went with the classic Italian Proraso brand.  I purchased the small TSA-friendly size soap and after nearly three weeks I’ve barely made a dent in it.  The lotion is going down a little more quickly but still very slowly.  I also purchased a year’s worth of good quality blades for–wait for it–ten bucks.

The Science of Slow
Is the process of using a DE razor slower?  Yes, definitely.  But that is the thing that I’m enjoying about it most of all.  It is forcing me to slow down.  Not to charge off into my day like a bull at a gate but to start with a slow ritual that gives me time to ease into the day, to think about what I’ve got coming up, to do some planning..  Especially if you are a long-distance triathlete, your life is pretty much go go go all the time.  Building in just a few minutes of down time at the start of the day is, I’m finding, putting me in a healthier frame of mind.

None of this should, on reflection, come as any surprise.  Shaving is approached by most men as a chore, and while shaving companies retain some vestigial notion that it should be enjoyable, the marketing is mostly about how you can get it done as efficiently as possible.  But at least some people are gradually waking up to the idea that fast is bad (unless it is me trying to go fast on a bike time trial!).  We don’t, after all, rush through things that we actually enjoy.  This is the real tragedy of fast food, after all; you can serve people crap once they have accepted the notion that cooking, but even eating, are chores.

So the thing that has astonished me is that I’m enjoying the shaving.  I find myself looking forward to shaving.  A big part of that is because the whole process of kicking it old school (not really old school, I’m drawing the line at going back to a cut-throat) is actually a wonderfully sensuous one.  My face feels great during the process and terrific afterwards.  Gradually my skin has even started to look noticeably better.  This is mainly because wet-shaving is encouraging you to do what you should be doing anyway.  Using a badger brush to spread the shave soap is a gentle exfoliating action, very different to the harsh grinding of a razor or the strip-mining of a cartridge.  The after-shave cream, moreover, is making me do what all men but most particularly triathletes who spend an extraordinary amount of time outside, should be doing: moisturizing regularly.

Tina says: “Safety First!”
The question anyone who knows me well has probably been dying to ask is: don’t you cut yourself?  A lot?  And the answer is: occasionally, a little nick here and there, mainly because I’m still figuring out what I’m doing.  Do I therefore go around with wads of bog paper stuck to my fizzog?  No, because it turns out there is this amazing stuff called alum!  It is supposed to be like styptic, but in fact it is more like super-glue.  It instantly coagulates and seals any cut.  I’m now convinced that no first aid kit (especially that of your average triathlete) should be without it.

But clearly there has been some concern that my shaving was going to produce a crimson tide and that concern seems greatest among the canine members of our family.  As a result, however, it seems that our German Shepherd, Tina, finally has a real job.

Now anyone who has Shepherds knows that they are fiercely loyal and love to try and organize their flock. . .er, family.  Therefore, they need to have jobs to perform.  Now you can give them jobs.  Our previous Shepherd, Sayla, would follow Mary out in the morning and bring the paper back in.  She was pretty good at it.  (On the other hand, Dylan, our previous border collie, was bloody hopeless.  The plastic-wrapped paper was an exciting chew toy that he’d been given license to shake, rend, fling up in the air, and distribute across the lawn.  You were lucky if you received all the sections of the paper let alone if they were intact.  Frequently you didn’t receive all sections.  I’m still not entirely sure who won the 1996 presidential election because of this).  But while you can assign your German Shepherd a job, the best jobs are the ones to which they appoint themselves.

Sayla very early on decided that any time we were in the shower we were horrendously vulnerable and needed protecting.  Maybe she had simply seen too many slasher films.  At any rate she would always come in and lie in front of the shower when either of us were in there.  The depth of her commitment to this job can be measured by two things.  First, she was a dog that absolutely loathed water, but would put up with the splashing from the shower anyway.  Second, she was an extremely obedient dog.  But if you put her in a down, told her to stay, and then went into the shower, she would feel that her duty outweighed her obedience.  Very often we would look around the shower door to see her trying to make herself as small as possible as she slunk into the bathroom.

Well, our current German Shepherd, Tina, hasn’t really had a job.  Well, she appointed herself to one position but it is kind of sad.  She has apparently decided that our other dog, Boone, with whom she quite happily plays at all other times, is an Al Quaeda-level threat to Mary’s slippers.  She growls if he comes near, and if he is lying down near them, she will sneak over and quietly pick up the slippers and take them a short distance away.  Boone, needless to say, has never even noticed that such a thing as slippers exist.

But when I started shaving in this new way, Tina apparently decided that I was in mortal danger and needed protecting, so she’s started keeping me company in the bathroom during this morning ritual.  She has concluded that me with a blade in my hand poses an unacceptable risk, so as soon as I go into the bathroom in the morning she follows me in and lies down, sometimes beside me, sometimes right behind me (trapping me against the sink).  The thought that I might now be a greater risk with a blade in my hand and the chance of tripping over a dog has obviously never occurred to her.

Quality Shaving. . .It Isn’t Just for Men
One of the interesting things that I noticed while searching for information on shaving on discussion forums and product review commentaries was that there were a surprising number of women participating in these discussions.  In fact, I suspect there are more than there appear because when one woman self-identified her post was greeted with a string of “Oh thank god, I was afraid I was the only woman on here” type posts.  So these were women who were mostly interested in the shaving hardware but who were not infrequently using some of the soap, aftershave balms, etc. that are marketed for men.

Obviously I can’t really comment on whether or not women’s shaving needs are different than those of men.  The logical position would be that in some ways they probably are but in other ways they aren’t.  But it did get me thinking.  One of the things in which capitalism specializes is creating demand for “needs” that didn’t necessarily exist until they became a glint in a marketer’s eye.  One of the most profitable areas has been creating the perception of a marked difference in the needs of the different genders.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that in some areas expecting women just to suck it up and use the same kind of stuff explicitly designed for men is just wrong.  But it is also possible to move too far in the opposite direction; creating the idea that women need “special” equipment that is dramatically different from that for men subtly implants the idea that women themselves are in need of “special” treatment, as if they are a different species.  In contrast to a previous period of our history where supposed gender blindness in fact meant that the operative assumption was that everyone was male, we started to create products designed specifically for women.  Recently, however, I’ve started to notice some challenges to that radical separatism.  Some bike designers, for example, are starting to challenge the now orthodox thinking that all women need “women specific” bikes; the focus instead should be on a great fit for all individuals whatever their body type.  I have a few students this semester who are challenging the idea that we need to design videogames explicitly for women; the focus instead should be on designing great game experiences for everyone and lowering the barriers to entry (i.e. stopping guys either being a bunch of slavering jerks when women show up online or telling them they don’t know how to play in the first place).  The problem with these approaches, of course, is that given that we still live in a country that is massively sexist (apparently, only if you are a late-teen or early twenty-something is this truth not apparent to you) it is going to be all to easy to slip back into the “designing for everyone” equals “designing for men” mode.

But in the number of women interested in men’s shaving products I saw a kind of approach to life that I really admire: pragmatism.  My partner for example has for years used the male version of De Soto’s training shorts for racing (I do as well) because unlike the women’s training version (and either race short) they have four beautifully designed pockets that are perfect for cramming with gels, endurolytes, etc., and even when fully loaded don’t impair your movement or press on your muscles.  So even though this new shaving revolution has more than a hint of masculine posturing about it (returning to the days when men were men and sheep were frightened) it made me happy that at least some women were simply approaching it from the pragmatic angle: what is going to give me the best shave and make parts of my body feel really wonderful?

So, I’m a believer in starting my day by shaving slow and self-indulgently.  I’m looking forward to a whole new world of scented soaps and balms.

Oh, and guys?  This stuff all works great for your legs as well.

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5 responses to “Cutting it Close

  1. So how upset will your partner be if I need to touch your face? On a professional note, heavy weight grooming devices are well worth the price and effort.

    • Well, you’re a professional, right? I get touched by professional women all the time. Wait, let me rephrase that. . .

  2. I think its been a while since you bought blades for non-electric razors. A pack of 8 costs $30, and lasts maybe 2 months? So your one-time purchase for $40 is actually cheap.

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