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There’s no elegant way to put this, but I’m in love with an online forum devoted to facial hair. Naturally, and like many other discussion boards, Beard Board is full of men—but the men here are kindhearted and supportive of one another. Cruelty is forbidden; generosity is encouraged. The site can feel like a haven, which is important, because while it’s nominally about beards—growing them, grooming them—in practice it offers a kind of group therapy.

I stumbled across Beard Board in June. I hadn’t let myself go more than a week or so without shaving in more than a decade, but now, at 30, I was self-employed and about to start graduate school. It was a time of transition, of Saturn return, of instability and possibility. I remember watching Always Be My Maybe on Netflix and thinking that I could probably grow a patchy beard like the one Keanu Reeves had. But my decision to stop shaving was ultimately mysterious to me. Before long, my casual stubble gave way to a wiry purgatory, and the strange drama unfolding on my face became an obsession. I began searching for answers in other men’s scruff.

Beard Board was founded in July 2001, ancient times for the modern internet, but it buzzes with activity and is still gaining members. The concept is straightforward: Members post pictures of what they’re growing, and in the comments others offer encouragement, compliments, and advice. What’s often counseled is patience: Most beards take time to come in—even as long as three months—and they go through lengthy phases when you’re strongly tempted to give up. To believe in your beard can feel insane, like believing in God, or in yourself. A community can help.

Fundamentally, Beard Board is a place for men to talk about grooming, and in that way it is useful, thrilling, and possibly unique. Some of the posters are experienced beardsmen (“Patchy Beard success stories Before and After photos”); others are younger guys pursuing a first-time beard (“Any hope?”). If you see a beard you like, you can probably find photos of it in every awkward stage of its growth—a digital record of how its owner, now a generous presence on the board, once wrestled with self-doubt. When I posted pictures—unflattering, unforgiving close-ups—of my scrubby six-and-a-half-week beard, I was advised to trim about a centimeter off the neckline, which I promptly did. I was also told that my mustache was “absolutely massive,” that there were “no visible patches” to suggest that I should stop, and that “it won’t be long before you have a very enviable beard.” I remember feeling astonished. I had mentioned that I was worried about the evident thinness on my cheeks, but I was told, “It really is looking great already, mate. All this needs is time and you’ll be right where you want to be.”

This kind of aesthetic feedback—especially from other men—is rare. When it does come, it’s often delivered indirectly, couched in macho terms. Certain brands can’t seem to sell beard oil or mustache wax without relying on clichés of hypermasculinity, as if telegraphing some insecurity about the fact that, basically, they’re in the beauty business. “Be a man; join the club,” demands the Beard Club. “Are you man enough?” it asks, with a link to an array of grooming products. The legend on the website of another brand, Beardoholic, sounds like a machismo word salad: “Where real men beard the most out of their beards.”

You can read this kind of marketing as tongue in cheek or cleverly subversive, but it also draws from a language of male cruelty, while revealing nothing about the products. Beard Board, whose rules state, “If you cannot make polite, constructive suggestions to a poster, then do not post,” has had to ban mean-spirited participants in the past, though robust moderation has stemmed that problem. Outsiders don’t always get it. Two years ago, the sub-forum devoted to teenagers’ beards came in for mockery on Twitter. Back in 2003, a write-up in Playboy delivered a near-perfect (though inadvertent) illustration of Beard Board’s value: “After eavesdropping electronically on guys who dig Vandykes, you realize that while beards are manly, talking about them isn’t. Members trade tips on how to shape beards with the precision of topiary gardeners.” It got uglier. Sneering at men who can’t grow beards, the writer proposed that we “look up their skirts.”

Not to pick on Playboy, though; 2003 was a less enlightened time. These days, Beard Board doesn’t seem so alone in its project. Greg Berzinsky, a 57-year-old architect in Philadelphia, joined Instagram six years ago to monitor his children’s use of the app. He had a prominent handlebar mustache. He posted a selfie, then another, and then another. Later, he grew a full salt-and-pepper beard, and suddenly he looked like a Greek god. Today he’s a beard influencer, with more than 180,000 Instagram followers. Berzinsky makes popular YouTube videos for Beardbrand, a beard-products company that isn’t shy about the realities of grooming. I’ve never tried the products, but I appreciate Beardbrand’s videos; a favorite series features 24-year-old Jack Milocco documenting his beard growth (and beard care) over the course of a year.

Berzinsky’s grooming bits do well. One, called “How I Style My Beard,” has more than 2.9 million views. His message is self-effacing and surprisingly relatable. Though he sports a stunning beard, he reminds viewers that he wasn’t able to grow it until he was about 50. He refers to his beard as a “comb-over,” meaning it achieves its gloriously dense appearance only once it has reached a certain length. Many beards are that way. “I think people look up to me as a father figure,” Berzinsky said when I called him recently. “I get a lot of people asking for advice. And then because my beard came in late, I offer hope to a lot of guys who have weaker beards maybe in their 20s.”

Berzinsky sometimes makes videos with his son, Victor, 22, who can grow a dense chinstrap and sideburns but not much on his upper lip. “I cannot grow my father’s famous handlebar mustache, which is kind of surprising to both of us,” he says in an early video. It’s okay, though; Victor works with what he has. He got a retro sideburn trim from his dad on camera, and later a barber helped him rock a Wolverine-style look (also on camera). Now commenters on his Instagram call him Logan, after the X-Men character. His father loves it. The internet, Greg told me, has given men the freedom to talk about grooming. “It’s not about being masculine. It’s almost clinical,” he said. “I have that car, and I have this beard. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less a man because you spend five minutes on your beard.”

If straight, cisgender men do feel more comfortable with blow-dryers and cleansers and creams, credit is at least partially due to Jeff Falberg, who started Beard Board 18 years ago. Falberg, alias “the Goatee King,” is a 54-year-old dad in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose passions include video games and long-distance running. A software engineer, he recently returned to work after two years out of a job. On the phone, he comes across as soft-spoken and almost frustratingly modest. “We just want people to be happy, and try to help them with what they want to achieve,” he said.

The story of Beard Board starts with a costume. Falberg, who had long worn a mustache, decided to dress up for Halloween as Mark McGwire, the electrifying slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals. The costume called for a goatee. Halloween parties came and went, but the new look remained, and it kept filling in. At a certain point, Falberg posted pictures to a now-defunct site called Beard and Mustache Oasis. “I was encouraged by the friendliness of the people there,” he said. “They encouraged me to keep going. I’d say 20 years after the fact, I’m still happy with what I have.”

Falberg calls Beard Board “more of a hobby than anything.” He’s not as actively engaged with the forum as he once was, letting his staff of volunteer moderators and administrators (with honorific titles such as Beard Wizard, Beard Legend, and Beard Titan) keep it running. The site, which sits on a platform called Tapatalk, hosts ads but hardly makes any money, Falberg told me. He said it receives an average of 150 new posts and comments a day—not a huge number, but not nothing. As we spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t turned Beard Board into a full-time gig—upgrading the website, promoting products, turning a profit. He deflected, saying he didn’t have the time or the energy, at least not as a solo entrepreneur. “Family seems to come first,” he said.

Anyway, the forum is probably better left as it is, homespun and untainted by a profit motive. One administrator is Geoff Colman, alias “gato,” a 47-year-old father of three in Ottawa. Colman (rank: Beard Titan) told me that he wakes up at 4:30 each morning to spend about an hour on moderation work: reviewing the latest posts and comments to ensure that the tone is positive, and commenting on threads that aren’t getting enough love. He and the handful of other volunteer staffers are like camp counselors, showing up to break the ice. Colman’s been at it for close to five years. “Sometimes I would ask myself why I still do this,” he said. “But I actually think it’s important to provide a supportive place for guys to be able to ask these kinds of questions. I think a lot of guys post for the first time sort of timidly, not knowing what’s going to happen, and are surprised at how supportive the community ends of being.”

The implicit message of the site is that members should celebrate their bodies no matter what they look like, or what form their facial hair may take. We tend to be our own harshest critics. “I hate to break it to you but it is not going to be a weak beard,” one commenter (rank: Beard Wizard) told someone who in a rambling post had called himself “freakishly insecure,” and the Beard Wizard’s prediction turned out to be absolutely correct. Though a little tidying can help an emerging beard, some men make the mistake of trimming too much too early: “You are still only at 9 weeks, when 13 weeks is the recommended minimum,” another Beard Wizard told a member more recently.

One member acknowledged that he had shaved but with “a strong reason to do so.” His father had passed; this was a way of showing respect at the funeral. Now he was growing out his beard again. “This forum has become something like a second home to me,” he said.

My own father, who has been bearded for almost the entire time I’ve known him, didn’t say much when he saw me, with about a month’s worth of growth, at the end of June. (My mom, on the other hand, shrieked.) “Keep working on that beard,” he offered as we were parting. A month later, when I saw my family again, my mom and brother immediately started commenting on my beard, which by then had thickened out. I said that I believed I’d made it through an awkward phase. My dad disagreed: It never looked awkward, he said.

Yet near the end of the summer, after 12 weeks of growth, I shaved. I kept a mustache at first, and then the mustache, too, was gone. There had been aesthetic issues—even my wife, an early supporter, had agreed that the beard was getting too long—but more than that, my facial hair, in my own imagination, had become uncomfortably freighted with symbolism. The journey was over. It was nice to see my face again.

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