I love you, you're perfect, now change.
August 19, 2011 9:02 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my partner drastically changing his appearance in response to his baldness, and the way it affects my attraction to him?

My (gay male) partner and I have been together almost a decade, we're in our early thirties. He started losing his hair in his mid-twenties, and it's something he's always felt really awful about it. He says, "I'm not attracted to guys who are balding, which means I no longer find myself attractive the way I used to." He did Rogaine for a long time with some results, but ultimately he decided it was a losing battle and he shaved his head. He's also always trying to grow a beard, but his facial hair is naturally pretty sparse and he's not too diligent about upkeep (probably because he's really trying to let it grow out) and so it often looks pretty scraggly.

Honestly he still has lots of hair on his head; it's definitely thin at the crown and his hairline is high in the front, but it's still pretty robust otherwise and looks attractive when it's styled. It's not thin or weird-looking throughout. And I am much more attracted to him when he has it -- he just doesn't look like the same person I met and was initially attracted to, especially with that awful beard added. I look at pictures from just a few years ago and I feel my heart swell, and I look at him now and... well, it's not as automatic, not by a long shot. I know these are things that every long term couple faces eventually, but we are still very young and this seems so unnecessary.

He thinks that having a smooth face and a shaved head makes him look ridiculous, as if the beard makes up for the baldness somehow. Honestly the current arrangement makes him look years older than me, though I am the elder partner. Whereas when he's clean-shaven and has hair, he looks more or less his age. It also interferes with our sexual dynamic in some weird age-related ways -- things feel off-balance to me now.

I have tried to be extra gentle about this because of his self-image issues, and tried to let him feel free to do whatever he wants with his own face -- though I have made my preference clear, and whenever he does shave his face I always compliment him on how good he looks. I feel like he is unsatisfied with either look, but is defaulting to the one he feels most comfortable with. Either way, he hates having attention called to it. And anyhow he's a grad student, with all the attendant pressures, in an environment where looking sharp is not really a priority most of the time.

As time goes by I feel a little trapped sometimes, because he just doesn't look anything like the person I fell in love with, and I know he's still not thrilled with how he looks, and I don't know what to do about either one. I have certainly changed my look in certain ways over the years to adapt to his tastes, but he seems incredibly reluctant to do the same.

He is not averse to therapy, but I also don't think he's interested in discussing these issues with a therapist. I am looking for a therapist of my own, so you can just skip that recommendation. Couples therapy is very difficult to schedule because we both travel a lot.

Is it okay to let him know the extent to which this is interfering in my attraction? How do I do this without making everything worse? If it's not okay, what can I do for myself to adjust?
posted by Vinegaroon to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever just gently said, "I miss your hair when you shave your head, and the beard just isn't the same. Will you go back to close-cropped hair, just for a little while, for me? I love you."
posted by juniperesque at 9:11 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is it okay to let him know the extent to which this is interfering in my attraction?

Just don't put it that way, but yes. Say "I want my clean-shaven man back!"

And be frank. Say that he looks better with hair, even with the slight bald spot, given his age. Explain that as he gets older, he can think about shaving it, but that he's not ready for that given his age and relative amount of hair.

I would not put it in terms of being less attracted to him.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Don't mention that it's a turn off.

Say, "I like you with longer hair. I'm not asking you to have a comb-over. Are you worried that other people on the street will think that you haven't accepted your baldness? I'm the one who loves you. I'm the one you should be trying to look good for."

My wife uses this sort of reasoning to snap me out of weird self-delusions.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:28 AM on August 19, 2011

Yeah, there is a strong meme out there that tells guys "as soon as you've got some baldness, shave it off or you look like you're in denial". But that's not always the case for all people. Some people do look better with cropped hair (even if it's more thin in some spots than others) than completely clean. "[Partner], I spend a lot of time looking at you adoringly and of all your looks, I think you're the hottest with cropped hair and less beard."
posted by the jam at 9:31 AM on August 19, 2011

I think that this is reasonable predominantly because 1. it's an easy fix; 2. it's a return to a look he liked before and 3. it's something that is easy to control - ie, you're not asking for him to totally change his body, get surgery, embark on 3-hours-at-the-gym-daily or otherwise make really major changes to his life. You're not asking him to wear his hair in a way that he has always hated; you're asking him to have confidence in the style that he's always liked.

It is pretty tricky to handle that whole "I think people who look like I do aren't attractive" thing. I've found that for myself this has to do with self-hate and the desire to self-punish - I take something fairly ordinary and inescapable about myself (that I am a pinkish white person instead of a beige white person, for example) and tell myself that pinkish white people are ipso facto ugly because ugh, the pink! This is much more about my feelings about myself and my worth than it is about pinkish people, because really, it's impossible that all pinkish white people everywhere are ugly to everyone.

Also, you might want to consider why your heart swelled before and doesn't now, because that's pretty intense for a hair issue. Do you have unexamined stuff around aging, the relationship or the amount of time you're spending with your partner which is getting projected onto the hair? Your question does have a lot of emphasis on age - you're too young for this problem, your partner looks older than you now, etc etc.

(I find aging very tough to deal with because I spend a lot of activist and arts time in environments that skew mid-twenties. Accepting that I am not 25 anymore is sometimes a little tough; I find myself comparing my face to those of people ten years younger and feeling like I'm doing something wrong, when really I'm just in my thirties, and not even particularly old-looking for my age. )

Not that this is an unreasonable change in any case; unless your partner is actually really pro-beard there's no reason for him to wear one if you don't like it.
posted by Frowner at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2011

Can you sneakily enlist friends to also tell him (seemingly spontaneously) they like him better with hair and no beard? Perhaps then he'll think it's objectively better rather than just your own personal idiosyncrasy.

Though really, I think the bigger problem is your own -- he will change how he looks whether either of you like it or not, as he wrinkles and sags and edges ever-closer to death. As you recognize:

I know these are things that every long term couple faces eventually

Eventually is Now!
posted by Greg Nog at 9:53 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a tricky one. What I usually do, is when the hair/beard combination is at its most dashing, I load on the praise. "Oh, you look so handsome!" "look at that manly jaw, I love it when you're clean shaven" "Yum, I love when I can grab a little hair on your head"

Conversely, when its "Hey I decided to shave my head again" I say "You sure did!"

Mostly, its a matter of just realizing I love him just the same and sometimes its good to shake things up a little, its still just him.
posted by stormygrey at 9:55 AM on August 19, 2011

Gay guy here, (open) relationship going on 9 years.

Male pattern baldness runs in my family and I've managed so far to dodge that particular bullet by some mysterious genetic gift (knock wood), but I know I'd be scrambling to try to make up for it however I could if I started losing my hair. And would probably go through a period of feeling like shit about it, too.

Why not him the gift of a nice hot shave and a good haircut at a well-reviewed barber shop? They know what to do with guy's hair. Even balding guys. You can frame this as "I know you've been trying to figure out what to do with your hair lately, and I thought it'd be nice to get a professional's opinion and treat yourself a bit."

As a related and non-snarky aside, I'd consider expediting your search for a therapist of your own if in a decade-long (and presumably exclusive) relationship you've come to a point where all it takes to feel trapped/disconnected is some bad facial hair.
posted by area.man at 10:00 AM on August 19, 2011 [14 favorites]

My girlfriend got a haircut she hated and was practically inconsolable until I told her she looked like Marion Cotillard in Inception, at which point she slowly began to kind of love it, and eventually she altered it slightly to make it her own thing. My impression was that she just wanted to be able to identify a look that she knew worked, that worked with her, and then feel like she could own it.

Sounds like your guy is in a place where he's trying to find his look. You need to help him. Can you show him some pictures of guys with similar hair situations that are done in ways you find attractive? Get him to tell you which ones he likes and then you could be all "Damn that would look good on you". It's a good thing you can do together too. Then you can gush over it when he finds something that works and give yourself silent props that secretly saved the day.
posted by dobie at 10:02 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've had to make the adjustment to baldiness, and a close buzz works for me better than a full shave. My wife actually does the buzzing, and it's lovely -- and it occurs to me that having you help with your partner's head shavery might help both of you make the adjustment.

The beard thing is harder. There's a lot of self-denial with men and beards.
posted by feckless at 10:18 AM on August 19, 2011

Personal stylist consult, stat. As a wonderful present. One who you hire and supply with an agenda in advance. Make it a double appointment for both of you if you don't want to make it seems like you're fixing him. Like a "We're so overdue for a style update!" thing.

FWIW my partner knows that I'm a 99% chilled about, well, everything really... he can wear what he likes, travel all he likes, work at what he likes, be friends with who he likes, shag whomever he likes, whatever... but the minute he cultivates facial hair (beard or mustache) we are over. That and physical abuse are my known dealbreakers. That's how seriously I take this issue, and it does not mean I don't love him or respect his autonomy.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:16 AM on August 19, 2011

DarlingBri nails it. Consult a stylist. Though I suggest that you meet in the open for the consultation where you can discuss your viewpoint (with sensitivity!) and not give the stylist any agenda at all, other than helping your SO find a look that suits him. A good stylist is not going to let him out the door looking bad, and will probably be helpful in reassuring your SO that he has a vested interest in making sure your SO looks great.

The key is making sure your SO understands this. If it gets to the point where bald really is the best look for him, if you accept it, I'd be willing to bet he'll negotiate the beard part.
posted by Hylas at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2011

I'm a 30-something balding guy that started losing my hair in my mid-20s. It took me *years* - nearly 10 - to be comfortable wearing my hair longer than half an inch. So it may take your man some time to accept his hairline as part of his new appearance. A lot of my acceptance had to do with the acceptance of aging and the passage of time, so this can defintely be connected to larger existential issues.

Tangentially,I have heard the bald yet clean shaven head referred to as the "millennium combover". In other words, the only person you're fooling is yourself.
posted by gnutron at 12:50 PM on August 19, 2011

Gay bald 50-year-old guy here. I started going gray at 30 and had receding hair too long after. My genetic male-pattern baldness just kept going and going and by my early 40's I was bald.

I've thought about shaving my head "just to see" what it would look like. My partner says not to, and it really doesn't matter that much to me. What I do is go to the stylist and get it cut with a the #1 or# 1-1/2 clippers. It keeps it neat so I don't feel unkempt. I have had a beard occasionally -- when I had more hair -- but I always thought that bald men with beards looked like their hair slipped down the front of their face. O.K. for others, not for me.

As you know, it can be especially hard for gay men to deal with aging and the changing appearance that goes with it. I wonder how much of this is about the hair, specifically, and how much is about the larger personal and cultural issues. For me, I embraced aging and looked forward to it, but I know it's not the norm. My partner, 53, is overweight, disabled, and has extreme health issues. He has struggled with self-esteem: When he was younger, he based that on how he looked, but now that identity is gone. For my part, I encourage him and praise him and concentrate -- both verbally and mentally -- on the positive things and let go of the negatives.

On a practical level, I endorse the idea of the two of you going to a stylist together. That actually is what my partner and I have done (partly because he can't drive these days, but I digress). We had good results and both left feeling happy and affirmed.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:10 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't comment on the LOOK of the beard. Comment on the FEEL of it. Surely you can engineer some scenario whereby his face is touching your ... whatever ... and you can comment that it feels scruffy and scratchy, or if he's shaved, you can exclaim how smooth and sensual his face feels. Likewise, you can run your fingers through his head hair and tell him you love the feel of it. If it's long enough, grab it and ... etc. It's not enough to TELL someone they're sexy when they look a certain way; SHOW him.

Mr. desjardins looks awesome with facial hair, but it's too rough for my tastes in certain bodily regions. One singular comment in the heat of the moment cleared that right up.
posted by desjardins at 1:23 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's perfectly okay to tell him you hate the beard. But I would not go anywhere NEAR telling him you don't like the shaved head. Don't forget, if he's balding, he is going to end up looking like this eventually anyway, and you do not want to give him the message that he is unattractive with no hair, because it will come back to bite you both when he can no longer help it. He may even be "testing" you (and the rest of the world) by trying out what he will look like when he is older and seeing if it is still acceptable. If you will be able to get used to his look when he really is bald, you can get used to it now.

But tell him to lose the beard.
posted by lollusc at 6:18 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem with this kind of situation is that it's SO darn serious that you may think and feel that it has to be broached in a serious way.

Whenever stuff like this comes up I always think, WWCG do? (Cary Grant)

Be playful, teasing, cute and get it over with!

"So...my dear, how's this (slight tug on beard) beard working out for you?"

Kiss, kiss, mild seduction...

"I'll never understand why someone would choose to hide such a handsome face."


That's just one method to communicate serious matters without hurting feelings.

In the big picture, considering all of the things you two may do together in your lifetimes, raising kids, relocating, finding career paths, and so on, this is small beans and you guys should be able to work it out.

(Sorry, that last bit was just to put things into perspective a bit!)

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here, I am wondering if some of this might be to do with you. My husband tried to grow a beard back when I first met him. For six months he tried to grow that thing and at no point did it look like anything more than a bad case of face fungus. I spent that whole 6 months all but begging him to shave it off because I thought he looked so much better without it. One passing comment from an old friend and that sucker was gone the next day.

Strangest part was my reactions. I hated him growing the beard because he no longer looked like the man I married, and then when he shaved it off it took me maybe 3 more months to get used to him beardless again and I hated him beardless until I got used to it. I also hate when he gets hair cuts for the same reason. We've both come to the conclusion I'm a very visual person and its become a bit of a joke between us.

Maybe you could bring it up to him as part your problem, you are the one having problems with the change, as he's still the same guy under it all. Though one going through a hard time trying to figure out his identity as he ages, which is never easy for anyone. Ask him to take the changes slower or less extremely, to give you time to get used to the "new" him. Which might actually help both of you as he might find himself somewhere between the extremes of shaven headed beardy guy and his younger full head of hair self.
posted by wwax at 7:28 AM on August 20, 2011

« Older Why are laser pointers cheaper than laser pointer...   |   Really make the bed a bed. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.