CLEVELAND — The scraggly patch of blond hair on Zak MacDonald’s upper lip is a source of mockery among his co-workers in this testosterone-laden office, where the art of growing a mustache has become a full-blown competition.
Scanning the cubicles, there are several handlebars and respectably bushy mustaches. The most prominent even rival the collage of famous ‘staches displayed on the wall, including Tom Selleck’s iconic facial hair. Much to his chagrin, though, MacDonald’s is not among them.
“As you can tell, we’re 22 days in and there’s not a whole lot happening up in the ‘stache area,” he admitted, rubbing a hand over his lip. “But you know, God knows I’m trying.”
These men are among the more than 500,000 eager participants in “Movember,” which inspired men all over the world to grow mustaches last month to raise money for prostate and testicular cancer. Since it was founded by a bunch of beer-drinking Australians in 2005, Movember has raised more than $100 million, with men collecting sponsorships and earning more money as those mustaches grow.
Movember’s founders say they are shedding light on a very real health threat. While breast cancer awareness has turned half the world pink, they say, cancers targeting men are rarely talked about.
“They’re silent killers,” says Movember spokeswoman Lisa Potter.
About 32,000 men will die of prostate cancer in 2010, according to estimates by the American Cancer Society. That’s not far behind the nearly 40,000 women who will die of breast cancer this year.
It all got started when a bunch of guys were sitting around drinking beers in Australia and decided to grow some mustaches just for fun. The ensuing disgust from their girlfriends and co-workers prompted them to find a charitable justification for their facial hair, Potter says.
“They were kind of laughed at,” she says. “But they raised over $55,000 that year with 450 guys.”
After signing up at Movember.com, men vie for donations through their “MoSpace page,” where family and friends can track their progress and rate the merits of the mustache by perusing uploaded photos. There’s even an iPhone app, newly introduced this year.
At SparkBase, a Cleveland-based software company that processes gift and loyalty cards, there’s a “mustache station” where male employees pose for mugshots every day in front of a laptop screen. The team raised a total of $2,700. While some of the bushier mustaches fared better than others, it’s all about selling the ‘stache, says CEO Doug Hardman.
“I’ve had board members ask me if I was quitting my job to go into porn,” said Jeff Pesler, who doesn’t work for SparkBase but is a high-ranking member of the company’s Movember team. “That was probably one of the worst comments that I’ve heard. You can make fun of me all you want, call it five dollars a crack. I can take it.”
Some guys say they jumped on the Movember bandwagon because they think growing a mustache is an inherently hilarious thing to do. The mustache itself already has something of a cult following, evidenced by groups like the American Mustache Institute, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that claims it is devoted to “facial hair advocacy.” The group likes to pull stunts decrying what it calls facial hair discrimination, such as saving the job of a Ruby Tuesday’s employee who was threatened with being fired for violating the company’s no facial hair policy.
“At the end of the 1970s, the mustache had fallen on very hard times,” says Aaron Perlut, who founded the group. “The only pop culture representation of the mustache for more than 20 years was the milk mustache. We found that very offensive.”
For Matt Moody, a 28-year-old lawyer in New York City, Movember is a reminder of a health scare several years ago, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and survived after doctors removed his abdominal lymph nodes.
“When I first had to go to the hospital it was quite embarrassing,” he said. “After I started telling the story, it was easier to talk about it. My friends and I joke about it all the time.”
The mustache is an easy icebreaker, an opening to talk about an uncomfortable subject, Moody says.
Steven Reuter, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark., hands out his Movember donation ID number to people in the office who inquire laughingly about his mustache, which has taken various forms throughout the month, including (to his wife’s horror) that of a fu manchu.
“Quite frankly, there’s a 50 percent chance that at some point, I’m affected by cancer in my life,” says Reuter, who has watched both of his grandfathers survive struggles with prostate cancer. “In my experience, younger guys have been less likely to talk about it.”
Research on traditional gender roles suggests that men are not very good at being sick or talking about it, says Debra Swanson, a sociology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
“Growing a mustache is a very sort of manly thing,” Swanson says. “So it still preserves that manly side, and yet allows them to talk about something that would be difficult otherwise.”
This weekend, the mustaches that have graced office cubicles and street corners for the past four weeks will be out in their fullest glory at giant costume galas — a last hurrah for the handlebar. As of Tuesday, the campaign had raised more than $60 million in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada combined.
“In the end, it’s very similar to a cancer walk,” says Perlut. “It’s just simply growing facial hair. Which, studies show, improve good looks by 38 percent.”