Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

Remember the Razor

“Hire someone to pick the crumbs out of his beard” (@_wintergirl93)

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.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Most Popular


Put Up or Shut Up on These Accusations, Hillary

Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
National Review


Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Defense That Doesn’t Work

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that the “perfect phone call” defense of Trump and Ukraine doesn’t work. As Andy and I discussed on his podcast this week, the “perfect” defense allows the Democrats to score easy points by establishing that people in the administration ... Read More

Democrats Think They Can Win without You

A  few days ago, Ericka Anderson, an old friend of National Review, popped up in the pages of the New York Times lamenting that “the Democratic presidential field neglects abundant pools of potential Democrat converts, leaving persuadable audiences — like independents and Trump-averse, anti-abortion ... Read More
PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More