“I must confess this is only a synthetic beard,” said Dexter. “I’m not yet really rugged enough to grow my own yet.”
“It doesn’t matter if you have the beard on the outside,” said Action Hank. “As long as you’ve got the beard on the inside.”
Just like in Dexter’s Lab, when I was young, bearded men were among my heroes: Father Christmas, Lee Van Cleef, Blackadder II and the Three Musketeers.
I grew up expecting to grow a beard (struggling to make the hairs grow like many teenage pipsqueaks). At the end of my first year at university, I had a competition with a friend on who could grow a beard first. Alas, I don’t remember who won. After the competition, he shaved his off. My scraggy beard remained and has barely left my face since. Growing that first beard was hard work, and it looked awful. But it made me feel like a real human being.
I used to be suspicious of clean-shaven men. Notice I use the word “men” and not “boys”. Boys don’t have a choice, and the sprouting of those first few hairs are a rite of passage. Those men who choose not to grow beards, especially those who had the capacity to grow an awesome beard baffled me. I thought they were hiding something.
For a while, I considered myself a hard-line “beard evangelist”. But as my beard has waxed with age, so my rage at the clean-shaven has waned.
When I grew up, it shocked me that many (even most) men who could grow perfectly good beards didn’t. They shaved them off. Why?
What Is A Beard?
It’s the hair that grows around a man’s cheeks, chin and neck. Furthermore, women with hirsutism are sometimes able to grow beards. For some religions, the wearing and cutting or not cutting of the beard is part of the central dogma – especially encouraged in Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam.
In Evolutionary Science, beards are generally considered to be a ‘secondary sexual characteristic’. They don’t play a role in reproduction, but they mostly appear on the chins of just one sex. Evolutionary psychology suggests the beard is either a sign of dominance or attractiveness – as it increases the size of the chin and is a sign of male sexual maturity.
But culturally the beard has been in recession. Kissing a man with a beard might be a chore, but not as bad as the sandpaper effect from kissing someone with stubble. Perhaps, it’s to do with civilisation.
The Romans saw beards as synonymous with savagery and barbarism, which is perhaps why many in the West see them that way today. But even the Romans gave in to the allure of the beard eventually. The Roman emperor Hadrian brought the beard back, whilst carrying on an exciting and public affair with a young, decidedly clean-shaven boy.
It’s perhaps that savagery that attracts men and women alike to the beard. Not everyone is Jason Momoa, Brian Blessed, Chris Hemsworth or Ian McShane, but we can emulate just a touch of their perceived barbarism and machismo.
Beard Trends Throughout History
The Kings and Viking Chieftains of the past wore the beard with pride. The more civilised we’ve become, the fewer beards we see out there in the world. The business world is largely responsible.
In places like Japan, it was considered important for a person to send in a photo with a job application – to make sure they looked smart and clean shaven. In Japanese history, there was even something called the anti-moustache Shogunate.
Back in the old days, businessmen used to wear beards, moustaches and chops. A bank manager wouldn’t have been seen dead without something bushy on his upper lip; a self-respecting adventurer demanded a face full of cavalry whiskers; and, Rasputin strutted a scraggly bird’s nest. They all did it with pride.
But there were clean-shaven times in history. 18th Century Europe had no time for the beard; the style was of the foppish nature: wigs, makeup and baby cheeks.
Beards are often worn in times when masculinity itself is perceived to be under threat. The Victorian era saw beards explode across the faces of the new industrial elite – perhaps due to the challenges of their time; or perhaps due to the rise in the prominence of women in public life.
In the early twentieth century, the moustache was the main armour of the fighting soldier – a decent soldier always sported a tidy and professional moustache.
In the 60s though beards became popular with the hippies, they became associated with being lazy, drug-addled and useless. And that stuck. The business world through to the 80s and 90s was slick and clean-shaven (even if they had some funky moustaches and questionable body-hair in the 70s). Jordan Belfort wouldn’t have wolfed his way through Wall Street with a set of whiskers.
Are people frightened of beards?
It’s known as Pogonophobia and it’s a real thing. To prove this, an early twentieth-century psychologist, John B. Watson, conditioned a boy to be frightened of beards. I’ve met many people – men, women and children – with an aversion to beards. One of my favourite childhood authors, Roald Dahl, had a ‘fierce antipathy for beards’.
It is perhaps a touch ironic that it was Roald Dahl’s obsession with Mr. Twit’s digusting beard that I count as one of the prime motivating factors for my own beard obsession. The beard was so vile that it became glamourous. Though I don’t think Roald Dahl would’ve gone so far to decry ‘beard privilege’ - yet many conisder the beard itself an act of male tyranny.
On the hairier side of the debate, the British-based Beard Liberation Front decries ‘beardism’ at every perceived slight toward the beard. It defends bearded men (often heavily-bearded men) from the workplace discrimination against the smooth-faced brigade and their supposed ‘clean-chinned privilege’.
Perhaps, we could take a lesson from Action Hank, and learn to get along. Beard or no beard.
The Modern Beard
I assume hipsters wear beards to match their man buns, otherwise their heads might tilt back. The modern fashion for the beard is only gaining strength – perhaps related to the idea I mentioned earlier of masculinity coming under threat.
But, if that were the case, you’d think men’s rights activists would be bristling with hearty beards. In fact, they are some of the most bland, clean-shaven, goody-two-shoes people on the planet. You’d think someone who wanted to assert the right of men would dress, muscle and hair himself like a Viking.
Are beards a symbol of positive masculinity? In a time when the very idea of masculinity is being associated with words like ‘toxic’ and ‘aggressive’, many men (notably hipsters) might find “the humble beard” an inoffensive way to enjoy being a man.
Besides, the beard has an intricate connection with male sexuality: the man in the popular sex manual, The Joy of Sex, wears a beard.
Why not wear a beard?
"Inside every clean-shaven man there is a beard screaming to be let out," said psychologist Robert Pellegrini.
Some men don’t suit beards. Or, at least they’ve not found the right beard for them. There’s a litany of beard styles out there: if you’ve got a round face, the classic goatee’s the one for you; if you’ve got a square face, you’re best off with a rounded goatee; if you’ve got a pointy-face, then a full beard should do the trick.
But some men just don’t like them. Some men can’t grow anything anyone would want to look at. Many women and children are disgusted by them. And that’s something I’m just going to have to get over.
Beards mean a lot to me. And still I try to compliment a man with a well-fitting beard every time I see him. But it’s true, some men just look better without beards and that’s their choice.
When I met my wife, she was wearing a beard – albeit pencilled on with eyeliner – amid an awesome Jack Sparrow costume. She had embodied Action Hank’s great message, a message that has stuck with me since seeing the cartoon the first time on Saturday morning:
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the beard on the outside, so long as you’ve got the beard on the inside.