Movember: Growing awareness along with whiskers

Movember: Growing awareness along with whiskers
Seventeen faculty members at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts are growing mustaches and raising money for men's health awareness. Back row L-R Drew Mininsky, Ryan Weidmann, Bill Halagarda, Sean McComb and Chris McGuiness. Front row L-R Ryan Hoge, Brent Bellenger, E.J. Seergae and Craig Reed. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

The last time Ryan Imbriale grew a mustache, he was a junior in high school. Now 39, he still cringes a little when he sees that yearbook photo, showing the wispy scraggle above his lip. He was never tempted to set aside his razor again. Until now.

"I've been growing it since Nov. 1, to the dismay of my family," said Imbriale, principal at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts and a married father of four daughters. Imbriale and 16 other faculty members at the school are growing mustaches to raise money and awareness for prostate cancer and other men's health issues, as part of a global campaign called Movember.

The rules are simple. Start Nov. 1 with a clean-shaven face and then grow a mustache for the entire month. Register on, and seek donations. If you want, have a mustache contest, or post pictures on the Movember site, a cheesetastic ode to '70s-era facial hair.

"It's for a good cause," said Imbriale, who has crafted a modified mutton chop, with the sides of the mustache extending to his chin. "I'm always touching my face, I'm just so not used to having it," he said. "It seems like my left hand is always rubbing my mustache."

The campaign, started by 30 men in Australia in 2003, is not new to Baltimore, but it seems to have more, um, Mo-mentum locally this year. In a city and region where clean-shaven faces are the norm, mustaches now seem to be everywhere, and men are clearly having fun growing everything from glorious Tom Selleck-style 'staches to thin pencils that seem to belong above the sneering lip of a silent-movie villain (or John Waters).

Nick Jackson, 27, a Web developer who lives in Mount Washington, said he first grew a mustache for Movember in 2008, then took a hiatus while job-hunting before growing another one this year. In 2008, he said, nobody knew about Movember, and people did not react favorably to his mustache. Now, he said, "It's usually like, 'Hey, nice mustache! Are you doing Movember?'" He's also raising more money this time around, and has already netted $1,100, he said, compared to about $350 in 2008.

"It's definitely been good except for the fact that my fiancee tries to avoid kissing me as much as possible," he said. He'll probably shave at the end of the month for her sake, he said, but he's reluctant. "Excuse the pun, but I think it's growing on me," he said. "It'll be weird to have to shave it off because it feels like an accomplishment."

The story of how Movember came to be has the patina of myth but most of it is probably true. It started with a group of 30 friends in Australia who were musing about the demise of the mustache from its Burt Reynolds glory days.

They decided to have a one-month mustache-growing contest, said Donny Killian, U.S. manager for Movember, which has U.S. headquarters in Venice, Calif. As they shared their stories of "the bosses that scolded them, the significant others who thought they had lost their minds," they realized that mustache-growing was a great way to draw attention and spark conversation, Killian said.

They decided to put that facial-hair-growing energy to good use, and in 2004 began a partnership with the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, said Killian. Since then, Movember, which in the U.S. gives money to Livestrong and the Prostate Cancer Foundation, has grown to 450,000 participants around the world, who raised $81 million last year, he said. "It's about doing good and having fun at the same time," he said.

Movember came to the U.S. in 2007, and had grown mostly by word of mustache-topped mouth. It appears to be getting more attention this year in part because of television advertisements by partner organizations, said Killian. This year, U.S. registration has grown to 139,000, up from 65,000 in 2010, said Killian, who has been participating since 2008 and said that during his first year, "I felt like I was the only guy in the world" with a mustache.

Tom Rowe, 34, director of Web marketing and creative services at Visit Baltimore, is one of a five-member Visit Baltimore team that has raised $955 so far. Rowe, who also participated last year, said he'll shave as soon as the month is over.

"The people who have mustaches year-round have figured out how to drink a Guinness without getting froth on their mustache, but I'm still struggling with that."

Men participating in Movember says the focus on men's health makes it a nice follow-up to Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The mustaches help break down reluctance to talk about men's health, typically a topic that falls well below sports and cars on the list of things men like to discuss.

"For many of us who don't have mustaches on a normal basis, it's an absolute conversation-starter," said Imbriale. "When I go to meeting or talk to parents, I have that conversation. It actually is nice. I think the community sort of appreciates what we are doing."

Though students are not officially on the Patapsco team, several are growing mustaches to support the cause, said Imbriale. The school, which expects to raise more than $2,000, is embracing the educational aspect of Movember, offering men's health facts during the morning announcements each day and planning a schoolwide party Nov. 29 to mark the end of the mustache-growing month. Students can buy fake mustaches for $1, with proceeds going to Movember, and art teacher Sherri Chambers Fisher, who was on the television show "Ace of Cakes," is making a mustache-shaped cake.

Imbriale said he hopes to expand Movember next year, "maybe even challenging some of the other high schools in Baltimore County." But he's also planning to shave his mustache as soon as November ends. "I'm certainly willing to participate again next year, maybe try a different style," he said. "I would have to get some serious permission from key members of my family."