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What is it with Beards?

Updated on January 9, 2015
Neil Blake, Bearded Baykeeper
Neil Blake, Bearded Baykeeper | Source

Beards are like Ideas : Men don't have them till they grow up

The beard must be the most contentious feature of a man's face.

It's nothing more than the sign of the adult male, or is it? Like the thick cartilage which surrounds a man's larynx, it appears in puberty and is classified as a secondary sexual characteristic which only means that women have neither an Adam's Apple nor a beard. (Most women, anyway).

But there's something about this perfectly natural growth on the face that causes diverse and drastic responses.

In some communities the beard denotes a high social status, it can be an outward sign of a religious belief, or it can signify rebelliousness, a willful indifference to the status quo. While to some people a beard may convey an impression of wisdom and knowledge, others see this as mere slovenliness, is there any middle ground?

It's a Man Thing

Whatever you think of bearded men you must admit that growing a beard requires a man to show

  • single-minded determination
  • indifference to passing fashion
  • perverse persistence
  • a high degree of boldness
These are, essentially, masculine characteristics. Only a man would grow a beard.

Attractive Hairy Neanderthal
Attractive Hairy Neanderthal | Source

Are Beards because of Evolution?

The Mystery of the Muttonchops

It's a strange thing, evolution. While we can understand obvious reasons for some attributes that we carry around today, the amount of facial hair is a mystery. What is it for?

A beard isn't necessary for survival or reproduction, if it were, we would all of us have beards, men, women and probably children too. Since facial hair rarely occurs in women, is minimal or even absent among men in particular ethnic groups, and unrelated to climate or ecology, it's not a mutation that ensured the ultimate survival of our species.

Since the amount and appearance of facial hair is directly attributable to male hormones, particularly testosterone, did it once function in sexual selection? Perhaps.The colour and texture of a beard are clear signals of a man's age and can be read as a sign of general vigour.

Were Neanderthal women attracted to hairy men?

A bushy beard would have made a man appear larger and cushioned his face against injuries in a hunt. Good reasons in those far-off days for choosing a hairy man as a mate.

This is my personal opinion of course, my genetic heritage is from North Western Europe where men used to hunt large and dangerous animals for dinner. This could well be the reason for my atavistic appreciation of a good furry, fuzzy beard.

A Long Way from the Caveman

Natty little Beard
Natty little Beard | Source
Hatshepsut with her Beard
Hatshepsut with her Beard | Source

Hatshepsut - Woman with a Beard

The Gal with the Goatee

In the case of Hatshepsut of Egypt, the beard was a symbol of power. She wore a false beard made of metal, called a postiche, which she tied over her head and attached to her jaw with a gold chin strap.

Hatshepsut was considered one of the greatest leaders of her time. As the fifth ruler of the 18th dynasty, she opened and increased trade expansion, oversaw rises in grain production and storage, initiated scholarly studies of the Nile, built temples to the gods and kept her country at peace for the whole length of her rule.

Many queens had ruled before her, yet Hatshepsut was the first woman to assume the title of king. She wore male clothing, was addressed as masculine and became a Pharoah in every manner, custom and rite of Egypt. But she didn't have a royal beard!

The answer? A false beard!

The strange story of Joseph Palmer and his beard

Wild and Whiskered!

Poor Joseph Palmer! He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and moved into what he thought was a Utopian Community, Fruitlands, an agrarian commune set up in the 1840s by Amos Bronson Alcott and based on Transcendentalist principles.

The core belief of transcendentalism was of an ideal spiritual state only realised through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. (An account of Fruitland's less-than-successful activities can be found in Alcott's daughter, Louisa May Alcott's, Transcendental Wild Oats).

This ideal commune was less than kind to Joseph Palmer. He was openly insulted, pelted with rocks, publicly denounced during sermons and refused communion.

What dreadful crime did Palmer commit to be treated like a pariah?

He was the only citizen who chose to wear a full beard.

In 1830 he was attacked by four men who tried to shave his beard off and, in defending himself, he stabbed two of the gang in the legs with his jackknife. Palmer was arrested and fined for committing an unprovoked assault. He refused to pay the fine on principle, and was jailed as a debtor, spending over a year in prison during which time he fought off two more attempts by jailers who tried to forcibly shave him.

From prison he nourished his beard and wrote letters to various newspapers protesting that he had really been imprisoned not for assault, but for wearing a beard. The case was widely discussed, the national newspapers took up the shameful story and the local constabulary became so embarrassed that they suggested he forget the whole thing and just go home.

But Palmer refused to leave the prison! He demanded a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. That assurance never came, and he was eventually tied to a chair and carried out of the jail against his will.

Now there was a man made the decision to be bearded and had the determination to stick with it.

Red Sox Beards

The Boston Red Sox, winners of America's baseball World Series, 2013
The Boston Red Sox, winners of America's baseball World Series, 2013

Beards and more ...

One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair
One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair
History of hair (pretty incredible). From how Freud interpreted a beard to bearded ladies and everything in between. For the curious, the beard fans and a beard-owner's manual of sorts.

Why do men shave?

A better question than asking why men have beards

Why do men wear beards? I believe this is plain back to front - a total reversal of argument and a clear example of begging the question.

Let's be logical here, when most men naturally grow facial hair the question should be : - why do men not have beards?

In contemporary western society shaving is the norm and Letting Nature Take its Course is the exception. But for most of human history, right up to the middle of the 20th century, men have grown their beards. From an observer's point of view it's easy to understand why. It's a darned nuisance to scrape your face every day - and I've observed a large number of men scouring that natural growth off their face.

You can drag up reasons for shaving like avoiding head lice, military discipline, keeping cool in a hot climate, or a basic desire to conform to the rest of the red-cheeked crowd but my guess is entirely different.

Companies make billions of dollars by selling shaving products.

Beards - Breathtaking, Befuddling and Bizarre

Click thumbnail to view full-size

World Beard and Moustache Champions

For the most splendid beards (and moustaches) you must see the website of the World Beard and Moustache Championships.

In Kathmandu holiness wears a beard

Holy Bearded Man
Holy Bearded Man | Source
The Moustache Grower's Guide
The Moustache Grower's Guide
Everything you wanted to know about growing your own 'tache

But what about the moustache?

Does that count?

A moustache doesn't count as a half-beard, a moustache exists for itself alone.

However both of these varieties of facial hair, up to and including sideburns, share common characteristics. There are fashions and modes, sometimes a whole generation of young men will suddenly sprout facial hair in a particular, and probably peculiar, style.

The 1970s saw a proliferation of moustaches for example, while a century earlier no respectable man would be seen dead without an over-the-collar beard and full sideburns.

It's been hard for the moustache to shake off that 70s image after near-fatal doses of leading men along the lines of Burt Reynolds, and how can anyone forget the Village People. I can't forget them, though heaven knows I've tried.

But will the moustache make a comeback?

Brad Pitt flaunted a moustache for Quentin Tarantino's World War II film, "Inglourious Basterds," and then there's that little tache that James Franco wears as Sean Penn's long-suffering boyfriend in "Milk."

Even the pro-mustache Movember movement is a double-edged razor. Originating in Australia in 2004, Movember challenges men to grow mustaches for the month of November to raise money for men's health charities; an estimated 4,000,000 men worldwide participated in 2013. It brings the moustache back every year, only to kill it off a few weeks later.

But for the man who wears a moustache with pride, these fashions and fads are meaningless.

Vandykes, bristles, brush, fuzz, goatees, muttonchops and imperials

Debate : Should Men have Beards? - Your turn!

Should men grow beards?

Take the Poll

Why do men really have beards?

See results

What do you think? Forget the fuzz or stroke the strands? All comments are most appreciated, you don't have to be bearded to leave yours.

© 2009 Susanna Duffy


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