Once upon a time I had friends who shaved. Now I have friends who look like roadies for the Doobie Brothers.
They’re far from alone. Whether it’s family, acquaintances, neighbors, the guy selling me gum at the local 7-Eleven, or the big-brained Ivy Leaguer expounding on international relations at the D.C. think tank, everyone these days, it seems, thinks that it’s flattering to grow out the stubble.
Don’t get me wrong, some men can nurture glorious blooms worthy of a Viking warrior. We’re duly impressed. May Odin bless your brood! Wear it well. Others, alas, are able to deliver only an archipelago of lonely whisker patches desperately trying to connect with their scattered comrades. It’s a shame that such men’s loved ones haven’t stepped in and dissuaded them from this madness.
Most men, of course, grow something in between these two extremes. Something boring. At this point, those who don’t almost certainly feel some societal pressure to follow suit. Our present unshorn trend has gone on longer than any in memory. Which is more than long enough.
The question I have is why. What impels masculine urbanites to sport itchy outgrowths of hair that, in many cases, strip them of individuality? The most prevalent argument I encounter is that beards are the natural state of man. It’s primal, they tell me. And while it often seems like the only thing separating man from the chimpanzee is a Schick Hydro five-blade razor, I remain skeptical.
My own aggressively uneducated guess was that men grow their facial hair for the same reason they do nearly everything in evolutionary science: They want to impress the ladies. Charles Darwin, himself the wearer of a prodigious beard, theorized that beards were a result of sexual selection. But these days, the evidence that a majority of females find males with facial hair more attractive than shaven men is, at best, inconclusive. The results fluctuate depending on trends, upbringing, location, and other variables. A recent study by Oxford University Press’s journal Behavioral Ecology, for instance, found that though beards amplify a woman’s perceptions of a man’s age, social status, and aggressiveness, they play only a minor role in her perception of attractiveness.
The key notion turns out to be assertiveness. The results of the beard study are “consistent with the hypothesis that the human beard evolved primarily via intrasexual selection between males and as part of complex facial communication signaling status and aggressiveness,” the researchers explain. Men wear beards — perhaps unconsciously, at this point — as a means of intimidating the other men in their social circles for hierarchical purposes.
Perhaps in a culture increasingly hostile to the instinctive and traditional impulses of masculinity, I also supposed, the beard is merely a small act of rebellion. For a moment I thought I’d stumbled onto a politically convenient conclusion. But as someone who’s walked Brooklyn’s hipster-laden streets and attended Washington, D.C.’s nerd-heavy parties — both teeming with bewhiskered men — I realized that this theory quickly falls apart. The very ubiquity of the beard has rendered it impotent.
It’s true also that in ancient times the beard was considered a symbol of not only virility but wisdom and dignity. To cut off another man’s beard was considered a great insult. “You shall not cut the hair on the sides of your heads, neither shall you clip off the edge of your beard,” commands the Almighty in the Book of Leviticus. The Hebrews were not alone. Men in most ancient civilizations — Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians — groomed, dyed, or curled their beards. Even the self-adulating Greeks often wore beards — though the greatest exporter of Hellenism, Alexander the Great, preferred to be clean-shaven to identify with youth and divinity. The custom of scraping off the whiskers surrounding the mouth and on the cheeks really caught on only during Roman times.
Early Christians were schizophrenic on the beard-wearing front as well. The theologian Clement of Alexandria claimed that the beard was “the mark of a man,” and Euthymius the Great forbade men without beards — more specifically, those “with female faces” — to enter his monastery. Yet soon enough most Christians embraced shaving. In 1119, the Council of Toulouse threatened to excommunicate any clerics who “like a layman allowed hair and beard to grow.”
In his informative and, given the topic, surprisingly entertaining book Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, Christopher Oldstone-Moore tells us that “historians who focus on one place and time may miss the larger picture that emerges over many centuries. Beard history is like a mosaic: The image becomes sharper the further back one stands.” So I’ll take his advice. Mankind has gone through numerous cycles of beard-growing, and this one tells us nothing special.
Yet despite sporadic outbreaks, Americans have been a relatively clean-shaven bunch — especially of late. William Howard Taft was the last president to sport any kind of facial hair. Perhaps there is a simple facial-hair guideline Americans should follow: If you’ve never owned a pickup truck and a rifle or shotgun, and you’ve never hunted game and removed the internal organs of the animal you slaughtered for purposes of preserving the meat for ingestion later, use a razor on a near-daily basis.
Now I suppose I should have admitted up front that my animosity toward beards might be somewhat personal. For one thing, to a teen of the 1980s, the 1970s looked like an era inhabited by undistinguishably hirsute men in denim. Or perhaps my animosity is primarily driven by the fact that my salt-and-pepper growth makes me look like a meth addict who’s been forced to wear a suit for his court date.
Here’s the thing, fellow men: You probably do, too. So let’s fix this.