The French writer Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” and that idea equally applies to men, too.
In India, masculinity is as rigidly codified as femininity, fueled by stereotypes of strength and aggression that are reinforced in popular culture and advertising. While traditional femininity is often critiqued in both academia and mainstream conversation today, the inflexibility of the male identity is not usually questioned to the same extent. Indian men, owing to their “masculinity,” have often been discouraged from talking openly about their problems or fretting about their looks.
It is this culture of toxic masculinity that prompted Vishal Singh to start the Bangalore Beard Club in May. The 31-year-old wedding planner and event manager, originally from Mumbai, envisioned the club as an outlet for men across religions, races, and creeds to come together over their mutual appreciation of a great beard and bust some stereotypes at the same time.
“Being a man, being an Indian man, we are not taught to do this,” Singh said. “We’re not taught to talk to people and open up.”
Singh said the goal of the club is to raise awareness about men’s health, via charity events, and to teach members how to grow and maintain an epic beard.
On that latter topic, Singh is an expert. He spends at least Rs 5,000 a month on beard-care products, using a specialised blow dryer as well as shampoo, conditioner, and different oils made specially for beards.
In this sense, Singh is a sign of the changing times. As disposable incomes have risen in urban India, the internet and travels abroad have opened up the world of male styling. That has boosted the men’s grooming product market over the past few years. It is expected to surge to Rs 18,594 crore by 2020, up 146% from Rs 7,542 crore in 2015, according to estimates by consumer research firm Euromonitor.
This comes after many years of men being restricted to limited options in stores, usually just basic soaps, deodorants, and shaving accessories. Singh, for instance, remembers using whatever family members recommended. However, he notes that urban India is slowly moving forward, particularly when it comes to styling. That’s because workplaces are turning more informal and men are becoming more aware of better grooming habits.
And that is where the Bangalore Beard Club hopes to lead the way. For now, the club has just 12 members, ranging in age from 21 to 67. But that small number is a conscious choice, the result of a meticulous selection process.
“It’s just not about the beard, it’s also about the brains behind the beard,” Singh said, adding that he hoped to gather together men of different backgrounds and professions. The club’s members currently include doctors and engineers, as well as newspaper editors, social media experts, and even a farmer.
For beard aficionados outside Bengaluru, the club is expanding. It will soon launch branches in Mumbai and New Delhi, too.
This article first appeared on Quartz.