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27 November 2013updated 09 Sep 2021 5:58am

Why Movember isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective against some very real health issues.

By Arianne Shahvisi and Neil Singh

Ah, autumn days. That time of year defined by jewelled grass, silky chestnut shells, and men across the nation eyeing their top lips like adolescents in a month-long event of back-slapping, high-fiving and Instagram-liking. We are now in the thick of Movember season. The last few weeks have seen our Facebook newsfeeds littered with selfies, as the otherwise banal and natural (yet for the female amongst us: totally unacceptable) process of hair growth is eagerly tracked with tongue-in-cheek insults pertaining to the thinness, style or “gingerness” of the emerging whiskers. Precious few of the posts, or the resulting comments, focus on men’s health issues, and virtually none recognise the pernicious gendered and racial connotations carried by the practice.

For the most part, sponsored activities (day-long silences, sponge-throwing, public waxing) depend on the extreme, the outrageous, the ridiculous. Friends and family are, apparently, only willing to part with money to witness something odd, humorous or downright unpleasant. So what message does Movember convey to those whose moustaches are more-or-less permanent features? With large numbers of minority-ethnic men—for instance Kurds, Indians, Mexicans—sporting moustaches as a cultural or religious signifier, Movember reinforces the “othering” of “foreigners” by the generally clean-shaven, white majority. Imagine a charity event that required its participants to wear dreadlocks or a sari for one month to raise funds—it would rightly be seen as unforgivably racist. What is the difference here? We are not simply considering an arbitrary configuration of facial hair, but one that had particular, imperial connotation to British men of our grandfathers’ generation and currently has a separate cultural valence for men from certain ethnic groups. Moustaches, whether or not “mo-bros” mean theirs to be, are loaded with symbolism. We often wonder how our fathers (both life-long moustached men) must feel each November, when their colleagues’ faces temporarily resemble theirs, and are summarily met with giggles and sponsor-money. No doubt they draw the obvious conclusion, that dovetails with many other experiences of life as an immigrant: there are different rules for white faces.

Further, the inclusivity of Movember deserves examination. For one, only men (and even then, only some men) can grow a moustache. The decision to focus on the moustache to raise awareness of men’s health issues might seem like an apposite one (though there’s no obvious relationship between moustaches and cancers), but it reinforces the regressive idea that masculinity is about body chemistry rather than gender identity, and marginalises groups of men who may struggle to grow facial hair, such as trans-men. Ironically, Movember also excludes the very men it is supposed to uplift; many men who have undergone radiotherapy or surgery to treat testicular cancer are rendered “hypogonadal” and are therefore unable to grow facial hair.

In solidarity with Movember, some women have also relaxed normative shaving-etiquette during “No Shave November.” Instead of being met with the same teasing words of encouragement, many have been subject to ferocious abuse across social media, reflective of the intolerability of women’s body hair, as opposed to the acceptability of a range of—albeit sometimes humorously viewed—male facial hair-styles. From this we learn that men’s facial hair (as with the appearance of men more generally) is neither here nor there, and is therefore fair game for a bit of charitable fun, while female breaches of prescribed gender norms are quickly policed, and may result in disgust, ostracisation, and threats. Movember is a reminder that women should think carefully before subverting their sexually objectified bodies to join in with boy’s games, something female athletes know only too well.

As the month of sacrificial hirsutism draws to a close, mo-bros may convene at their nearest “gala party”. These events showcase the worst of what the Movember “movement” is really about: white young men ridiculing minorities, and playing up to the lad culture within which the charitable practice has become embedded. Across nine cities in the UK, participants dress up in costumes that mock and trivialise racial minorities (“turbanator” Indians, fez-topped Arabs with day-hire camels, Mexicans in sombreros and bandoliers) and the LGBT community (parodies of the Village People), celebrate war and imperialism (gun-toting cowboys, colonial generals in pith helmets, and cavalrymen in slouch hats), and emulate racist fictional characters and sexist stereotypes (such as ‘Dictator’ Aladeen with a harem of female bodyguards, Hulk Hogan lookalikes, hard-hatted builders). Meanwhile, female attendees take on the uniforms that now seem fit for any occasion, yet really for none at all: Playboy bunnies, air-hostesses, nurses, cheerleaders. Unsurprisingly again, the woman deemed best-looking or best-dressed picks up the title of “Miss Movember”. Set against this damaging carnival of normativity, an official Movember t-shirt slogan “Moustaches Against Establishment” seems particularly empty and hypocritical. This culture is summarised in the language of the website, which is itself a lesson in how to reinforce traditional conceptions of masculinity (witness: ‘fighting the good fight’, ‘moustache army’, ‘flying the flag’), once again precluding the ostensible aim of breaking down the norms that force men to adopt pre-packaged roles which discourage the discussion and acceptance of serious illness.

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Some may respond that Movember is surely “just a bit of fun, in aid of a good cause”. But, to answer to the second part of this specious defence, how efficacious is the campaign itself?  The idea is that men, on the whole, visit their doctor less frequently, are more cagey about discussing health issues with friends and family, and lead less healthy lifestyles. Undoubtedly, these factors combine to contribute to a shorter male life expectancy, which is thought to be in large part due to higher rates of heart and vascular disease (interestingly, not the sex-specific diseases that Movember targets). If there is to be a male-focused health campaign, shouldn’t it be centred on tackling the root causes of this gender disparity? Shouldn’t the campaign instead be focused on deconstructing the strict gender norms that keep so many men suffering silently? Shouldn’t it be built around teaching men to self-examine for lumps, challenging taboos surrounding psychiatric illness, and encouraging men to minimise drinking, smoking and red meat consumption, all of which have been associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer? It would seem that Movember isn’t really about “changing the face of men’s health”, so much as fetishising facial hair for the entertainment of young men. According to Movember’s own data, only 43% of those who take part in the campaign reported increased awareness and education regarding the health risks they face. It pays to ask what the other 57% of men thought they were doing.

One of the Movember mantras is: “Real men, growing real moustaches, talking about real issues”. The slogan is as misguided as its campaign: Movember is divisive and gender normative, not least because it centres on the notion that there is such a thing as a “real” man; it is racist, inasmuch as it steamrollers over the cultural significance of the moustache (and thereby ignores what the campaign means for the men who really have moustaches); and it is non-optimal, because it does not tackle—in fact it only compounds—the very real health issues that hurt the men we love. 

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