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Essay #4: Shaving Closeness vs. Comfort: The Eternal Trade Off

About This Essay

Several years ago Charles A. Roberts, creator of the Hydrolast brand and Method Shaving movement, authored a series of essays that ignited a surge of interest in wet shaving. These essays offered an innovative approach to maximizing the results of the razor and shaving brush, and provided many men a great introduction to a world of luxury shaving they never knew existed. The Original "Shaving Graces" Resurrected!

Over the years much dubious conventional wisdom has been dispensed about the nature of shaving—nearly all of which has been accepted without question by millions of shavers and the manufacturers of shaving products. And like any body of accepted wisdom that has grown up over time, these various beliefs about shaving have congealed into a kind of dogma that few dare subject to careful scrutiny. These beliefs—and the false assumptions behind them—are embodied in three distinct assumptions.

  1. Shaving is necessarily unpleasant, painful, and tedious. It can never be truly pleasurable. The corollary of this fallacy: all men hate shaving. 
  2. Since every man who shaves has done so nearly his entire life, every man therefore shaves correctly.
  3. It is impossible to shave both as close and comfortably as one likes.

The fact that these three assumptions are egregiously incorrect has not reduced their power over the minds of most intelligent men. And it is these men who, by the thousands, spend millions of dollars and infinite hours slogging their way through the slums of shaving misery. Thus, to effectively dispel each of these three fallacies, it is necessary for me to briefly examine the distinct illogic of each claim on its own merits.

First, all men do hate shaving with one group of notable exceptions: those men who, over the years, I have taught to shave. For the rest of mankind, the misery of shaving, like the destiny of death and taxes, is as unavoidable as the rising sun.

Second, I have never yet met a man who knows how to shave. In fact, I continue to be astounded at how badly the average man shaves. Until a man learns to shave correctly, he will forever suffer the dogged misery of “hell face” without remission.

Finally, the most limiting condition of shaving has traditionally been the broad acceptance of the inescapable trade off that presumably exists between shaving close and shaving comfortably. In other words, the average man can never truly have his shaving cake and eat it too; he must relinquish one benefit or the other. In attempting to shave “clean” as it were, he will be savagely punished with razor burn. Thus, in order to avoid razor burn, the shaver must be willing to sacrifice the intense pleasure of closeness for the next best alternative—comfort. Why is this? Before we can better understand the origins of the closeness/comfort tradeoff, it is first necessary to briefly explore the more general problem of shaving discomfort.

In order to understand the “pain problem” that plagues the conventional shaving experience, it is only necessary to understand that the typical shaver does not use water whilst shaving. In other words, the entire practice of modern shaving can be best described “as the worst possible means used in the attainment of a positive and important end.” But, if men do not use water when they shave, then what do they use? Nothing but pain—is the unavoidable answer.
In his infinite wisdom for reducing the unnecessarily complex to the unmanageably simple, modern man has repealed (to his miserable detriment) the first law of successful shaving. This law requires the effective deployment of hot water to the entire shaving terrain in a method that directly facilitates the efficient reduction of human facial hair by the most appropriate means at hand (your razor of choice). Unless a shaver understands and masters the several related processes by which hot water is deployed, controlled, and continuously replenished during shaving, he will never—and I mean never—experience one minute of pleasurable shaving in his entire life, though God Almighty should will it to be otherwise. The converse of this fact is also true: any man who will take the time to receive proper instruction in the correct methods of hot water shaving, the kingdom of infinite shaving pleasure shall be his.

The plight of today’s “hot face” shaver bears a kind of perverse relation to the principles of trench warfare current a century ago. In that sad instance, the underlying motive of winning the war was certainly a laudable end. However, the near universal belief that the filth and murder of trench warfare was the most perfectly fitted means for winning was as ghastly and unforgivable as any act of inhumanity mankind has exhibited in its entire history.

Modern shaving practices offer a similarly barbaric analogue to the kind of thinking that produced the horrors of Ypres and the Somme. This belief derives from the notion that the most unthinking means is often the best suited to achieve a wise and appropriate end. Such thinking—or perverse ignorance—is neither laudable, nor, in most instances, is it particularly effective. Indeed, knowing better and failing to do better is a crime against the human spirit itself. When such reasoning is applied to the subtle practice of shaving, it destroys both a man’s face, and the luminous spirit of his soul. The unholy practice of modern shaving—with its blood, pain, and chronic dissatisfaction with results-- kills a man’s spirit as sure as an axe kills a chicken.

The fact that millions of men resort to the ritual murder of their delicate visage every single day offers a powerful argument for the perverse tendency of men to act irrationally even where their own self interest is concerned. And this tendency is nowhere demonstrated with such blinding clarity as in the universal acceptance of hot face shaving. This is shaving in its worst possible resorts: without water, without skill, and without pleasure! How was it possible that even one man was convinced to shave without hot water!  What evil seducer convinced anyone that a chromium blade comprised of cold, unyielding steel would do anything but destroy a man’s face, especially when brandished bare and naked against the only face a man has?

The habits of modern shaving are directly shaped by the overwrought claims of modern technology and those who worship at its altar. These claims are not only specious in regard to the living realities of shaving. They are also blissfully ignorant of the kinds of benefits men actually seek from their daily shaving experience. This accounts for the dismal fact that not one in 10,000 men has ever experienced a painless shave. Indeed, this sad admission is only exceeded by the fact that not one shaver in a million has ever experienced an enjoyable shave.

It is important to understand that despite the roaring claims of modern technology, the general state of shaving has actually improved little since the disappearance of the straight razor a century ago. To be sure, the institution of mass market shaving goods has certainly risen to the challenge of placing a mediocre shave within reach of nearly every living soul on the planet. And there is little question that the modern razor blade is a marvel of ingenuity and technical virtuosity. However, it is impossible to name one individual who wouldn’t dispense with all the current stock of shaving marvels for one great shave at the hands of a competent barber—but even this latter option has been liquidated by the postmodern shaving commissars.

Indeed, it is conceivable that today’s shaver is actually more poorly rewarded for his shaving efforts than his counterpart was in 1900. Certainly, we do not encounter any mention of razor burn, or acute shaving discomfort in the various memoirs of that time. We can confidently assume, however, that earlier shavers understood the supreme importance of hot water, a badger shaving brush, sharp razor, and proper technique on the way to a pleasurable shave.

The shaver in 1900 also understood that success in shaving has nothing to do with mastering some obscure “art” of shaving itself. Nor does it require one to rush out and buy every new razor that appears on the market. For the discerning gentleman of 1900, shaving was a thoroughly—and uniquely—practical activity. It was the kind of joyous activity that a man performed assiduously every day. He also knew that when done properly shaving generously provided all of the pleasure that usually attends the mastery of any important act of continuous self-improvement.

This former, imminently rational, view of shaving should be contrasted with the one presently held. Modern man, the supremely impractical dupe that he is, thinks that shaving is a thing someone “gets,” in much the same what that one “gets” a burger and fries. Because of his muddled infatuation with “speed and convenience” today’s shaver spends thousands of dollars (and over 3000 hours of his life, to be exact) with nothing more to show for his sacrifice than a face that looks 20 years older than it should. Little wonder that the average shaver’s face stings like hot bacon grease after every shave.

A century ago, and for generations thereafter, the practice of shaving was considered essential to a man’s well being. Moreover, shaving served to differentiate men within social classes. In this regard, shaving played a crucial role in defining a place within a man’s professional and domestic environs. Men shaved in much the same way that they married, conducted business, or mastered the arts of language. Their chief concern was to dignify the most important offices in one’s life. The arts of shaving were part of this grand endeavor. This is largely because prior generations typically defined a man’s “well being” as more than just getting and spending. Thus it is hardly surprising that they viewed shaving rather differently than we do today.

I suspect that a shaver of four generations past would have would not have understood the modern affliction of “razor burn.” At the same time, he would no doubt be greatly amused by the myriad and often ludicrous ways that today’s shaver tries to relieve it. As a practitioner of correct, water-proficient, shaving he would have been quite at home in reading this essay and its pointed message. He would not be puzzled to learn that an outstanding, badger shaving brush is an essential part of water- proficient shaving. He would also be comfortably adept at combining hot water, high steel, and a water sensitive shaving cream to secure a smooth, cool, comfortable shave every single day of his life. Today’s shaving practices—and the misery they create--would fill his ample mind with disbelief. After some reflection, he would probably conclude that children, not men, had taken over the world.

The modern approach to shaving treats razor burn as though it were a kind of blasphemy against the almighty god of convenience. But it is the modern obsession with speed and convenience that has stolen the sublime and wondrous pleasures of great shaving and replaced it with the horrors of hot face. Yet, in a perverse twist of fate, today’s dupe of the modern shaving babylon gets little of what he asks for and even less of what he needs. Worst of all, he never gets a decent shave. His plight is more ludicrous than the sight of a dog chasing its tail; he is, in fact, a man who is chasing his beard.

In short, today’s shaver is being constantly fooled because he is a kind of fool. His enemies are the peddlers of shaving hype. This is a type of hucksterism that always promises the impossible: the promise of a perfect shave; the promise of a shave without water; the promise of a shave that requires no time, no money and no effort. Indeed, modern man’s willingness to believe in the boundless efficacy of technology to deliver the perfect shave at the perfect cost in the most perfect way is not easily refuted. Modern man’s “will to believe,” as William James once noted, is greater than his desire to know the truth. As a result, modern man’s lot continues to be one of common complaint and uncommon misery.

So, stop being the eternal fool. Learn how to shave correctly and start enjoying life again.

Close Vs. Comfortable: Some Final Observations

Ultimately, every shaver learns that shaving close means one thing while shaving comfortably means quite another. The happy union of the two embodies the whole form and substance of fine shaving. The “art” of shaving, therefore, can be defined as the individual shaver’s unique ability to achieve both ultimate shaving closeness and comfort without compromise. A truly effective “art of the shave” therefore ensures that the “perfect shave” is a daily experience. The idea of the “perfect shave” is therefore best expressed in three simple words: cool, close, comfortable.

However, in attempting to shave as close as possible (without the proper method or tools) the shaver invariably punctures the delicate acid mantle of the skin. This action creates severe razor burn—or “hot face” as I like to call it. At the same time the effort to avoid hot face forces the shaver to cut less close. This results in beard stubble, oily skin, and the unpleasant sensation of having shaved for nothing. Hence, the need for every shaver to make his peace with the mocking demon of compromises.

Under so-called “normal” shaving conditions the perfect realization of “close and comfortable,” is literally impossible to achieve. Indeed, not one shaver in a million has ever experienced one of my “Alpha” quality shaves, for the simple reason that he can not.

This is not to suggest that millions of shavers have not heroically tried to experience the perfect shave. The mere fact that millions of men shave in frustration every day is clear evidence that they emphatically care about the quality of their shave. Rather, the experience of perfect shaving is forever denied them for several very specific—and inescapable--reasons. Chief among these are the following:

  1. The average shaver has no way to develop a sufficient “cutting floor” to prevent razor burn. This means that the methods he uses to shave are inadequate to the task of building sufficient water to protect the delicate acid sheath of the skin from the caustic action of the razor itself. This failure results in the direct sacrifice of the “comfort” factor that every man longs for in shaving. The process of creating a “heavy water platform” is absolutely critical to achieving a perfect shave every time. However, the mere acknowledgement of the importance of sufficient hydration to promote efficient cutting is scarcely enough. The process itself must be mastered; otherwise further effort at improved shaving is categorically impossible to achieve. (From time to time I encounter customers who tell me that they already “wet shave” by shaving in the shower. This revelation does not amuse me. After noting the prevalence of ingrown neck hairs, patches of irregular beard growth, and obvious traces of razor burn, I remind them that shaving in the shower is useless unless one turns on the water. They, in turn, are not amused).
  2. Perfect shaving is a “dynamic,” not a passive activity. This means that the entire shaving process itself is one of constantly changing causes and effects. This dynamic quality in shaving is realized through the combined use of hot water, effective razor action, and the skillful creation of a robust cutting environment.

By way of helpful illustration, it is possible to equate the process of fine shaving with that of fine cooking. In the latter example, a chef prepares a fine dining experience by obtaining the best possible ingredients. These are then expertly portioned and prepared in a manner conducive to their fullest flavor releasing potential. High quality cookware is then used to complete the job of preparing the meal exactly as the chef desires it. The entire process from menu to presentation of the food at the table, involves an intense, expertly managed process at every step. Great cooking, in effect, is not merely a “passive” event. Nor is it one in which food is haphazardly thrown into a pot and allowed to “stew.” Instead, the best chefs actively manage the entire cooking process in a way that most effectively captures and accentuates the inherent uniqueness of each ingredient. This suggests that for any fine dining experience a customer should expect to pay a premium to have his own meal expertly prepared by the chef himself.

This cooking analogy I have just offered can be easily extended to the process of shaving. Indeed, I often use the expression “cooking the shave” when conducting shaving tutorials. As I noted above, a great chef uses intense heat, motion and very high quality ingredients to achieve a desired result in the kitchen. The same approach works in fine shaving as well. In the latter instance, high levels of heat, motion and very high quality shaving ingredients are combined to realize the perfect shave.

More importantly for our current discussion, however, I want to emphasize the supreme importance of “dynamic combinations” in achieving the prefect shave. These combinations include:

  1. Intense—and voluminous—amounts of very hot water rapidly infused with a rich, lipid based shave cream.
  2. The continuous movement of hot water and shaving cream across the shaving terrain.
  3. The proficient use of effective cutting technique in achieving optimal beard reduction. All of these elements must be combined in a continuous and coordinated process throughout the shave, if the desired result is to be obtained. (In relating these various and critical elements of the shave, it will be instructive to note that these form the building blocks of my new practical science of shaving I call “hydratics.” I understand that preparations are currently underway to award me the Nobel Prize for this achievement).

Contrary to universal belief, performing the same action repeatedly is no guarantee that the agent will improve his skill in that action. If this were not true, there would be very few car accidents in America. We would expect experienced drivers to have the fewest accidents. We would assume from this that driving experience itself would guarantee the experienced driver a long and healthful life on the American road. Such, however, is hardly the case. Despite spending countless years behind the wheel, most Americans are really quite incompetent drivers. Anyone who doubts this fact should spend a little time driving in Europe, where superior driving skill and experience are compellingly evident.

The same can be said about shaving. As most of my readers already know, I conduct tutorial shaving sessions in my Austin, Texas retail showroom. Over many years I have had the opportunity to teach—and directly observe—the shaving habits of literally hundreds of men. To date, I have not encountered one competent shaver. And how do I define competent shaving? I apply a simple standard to quickly measure the relative competence of any shaver. I personally shave one half of his face; I then ask him to shave the other half of his face to match the “look and feel” quality of my own. No man has yet been able to competently perform this feat. (The appearance of blood on a shaver’s face or neck is a clear indication of shaving incompetence. In addition, the inability to “cut clean” without incurring some form of razor burn is also a sign of incompetence. If by 10:00 in the morning an office colleague asks if slept in your car the night before, a quick look in the mirror will usually explain why he asked).

At this point you might ask: “If men are indeed incompetent at shaving, why, then, are they incompetent?”

A few answers to this question can be offered. First, men shave incompetently because they have never been taught a superior method of shaving. Second, proper shaving is necessarily a “customized” process. This is because every man’s beard is profoundly different.  Various important reasons explain this fact—several of which I have discussed above. This means that every man must be taught to shave his own beard in a manner that is conducive to his own comfort and appearance needs. Finally, mass produced shaving products are wholly unsuitable to a customized shaving situation. This is not to suggest that it is impossible to shave with mass-market products; however, it strictly limits the use of such products to the narrowest functional application possible.

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