Open Letter: Why I don't participate in Movember

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Photo: flickr/Skakerman

I keep getting asked about Movember -- if I’ll be "growing a mo' for the boys" and care enough about men’s health issues like testicular cancer to grow a moustache.

I choose not to participate in Movember. I find it problematic for a variety of reasons, which men need to start discussing.

I remember the first time I grew a moustache in November. I was 13 years old. I had barely hit puberty, but lo and behold, hairs had sprouted on my upper lip. As a boy of East-Indian and Ugandan descent, this growth of facial hair was perfectly normal in my culture.

Yet my moustache wasn’t looked upon too kindly by my predominantly white classmates -- I remember being laughed at for what some had deemed my "Paki stache."

Facial hair remained a triggering subject for me growing up.

Living in a post-9/11 Canada rampant with Islamophobia, I was hesitant to grow facial hair. I had already been called a "terrorist" enough as a clean-shaven, brown-skinned young man -- the idea of growing more facial hair, and giving strangers even more of a reason to do things like shout "Go back to Afghanistan" from their cars while I crossed the street, was out of the question.

I eventually did muster up the courage to grow a full beard. I became normalized to the racism I encountered, and began wearing it proudly as a symbol of resistance and of solidarity. But eventually the racism became too much to deal with, so I shaved it off. And as someone who grew up in Canada and doesn’t speak with an accent, and who dresses in Western clothing, I can only imagine how much worse it would be if the opposite were true.

Dark skinned, Muslim men aren’t the only ones who may be triggered by the thought of facial hair.

We live in a society that likes to separate gender into two categories -- or binaries -- which stipulate specific roles and characteristics to each of them. So if women have even small amounts of facial hair, like moustaches, sideburns or goatees, they endure ridicule and shaming as a result.

When we consider that women of colour are more likely to have this facial hair be visible, or are coming from cultural contexts where facial hair on women is the norm and thus don’t take steps to remove it the way Western women might, it highlights how facial hair can be such a triggering subject along the lines of race.

And this shaming is exacerbated during Movember, with some "Mo Bros" openly jeering at women with facial hair and demanding that Movember be for men only.

Not to mention that the realities of "man" and "woman" aren't reducible to gender binaries. For cis-people, where gendered experience easily maps onto their sexed body, Movember might not seem so threatening. But for trans people, what if they decide to grow a moustache -- how are they included in Movember? Or how about a trans woman with testicles -- are they allowed to participate?

It’s even worse given that the Trans Day of Remembrance, an international date to memorialize the deaths of trans people as a result of the transphobia they faced, occurs during Movember.

So why is this a problem? Well, it’s easier to participate in Movember as a white, cis-man, meaning certain groups of people are being excluded. It doesn’t help that we see "Mo Bros" shaming people with moustaches who don’t fit into this category.

I’d like to take a moment here and clarify that it is not my intention to speak on behalf of women of colour, trans people, or any other communities I’ve referenced that I don’t belong to -- but rather, am noting my observations and relaying experiences that have been shared with me.

It’s important to note that community is not homogenous -- for instance, I’m sure that there are women of colour who are happy to take part in Movember as a supporting "Mo Sista." My purpose in referencing issues other communities face is to help bring these to light and prompt discussions amongst men who may never have heard of, say, a trans person before.

Another reason why I don’t participate in Movember is because growing a moustache is such a strong symbol of masculinity in our society. Masculinity, or what it means to be a "real man," is directly connected to the idea of dominance over women.

Just look at how Movember is promoted -- it’s common to hear, "sluts should do anything for a Mo Bro," or something along those lines, giving me the impression that some of the men participating in Movember tend to be the same ones at house parties, nightclubs and in dorm rooms ignoring consent and committing acts of sexual assault and rape.

So if growing a moustache is a part of masculinity, and if this masculinity includes things like not caring about consent, what does that imply for Movember? Is Movember contributing to rape culture, by re-enforcing this idea of what it means to be a "real man?"

This is not to say that everyone who participates in Movember is intentionally propagating sexism in our society -- but when this behavior occurs, where are the dissenting "Mo Bros?" Where are the "Mo Bros" calling out their peers and proclaiming loudly that promotion of men’s health does not include the degradation of women?

As men, we have it considerably easier than women in a variety of ways, and that includes being able to call out sexist behaviours. We don’t get triggered the same way, or face the same constraints in speaking out. Instead of remaining silent, we need to mobilize our privilege.

Even though it’s nearly the end of Movember, and we’ll be seeing a lot fewer moustaches around, please start to think about some of the issues I’ve raised, especially if they’re true for your "Mo community." It’s time to seriously consider why you grow the moustache, and the impact you’re having by participating in Movember.  

Riaz Sayani-Mulji is a youth worker from Hamilton, ON. 

The author would like to acknowledge that this article was edited with the help of Nashwa Khan.

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