Skip to main content
book review

This past June, during the height of the Stanley Cup finals, the hockey world found itself gripped by controversy. As the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks went head-to-head on the ice, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus started a battle of his own when he lobbied the NHL to officially ban playoff beards.

For Lazarus, whose network was broadcasting the playoffs in the United States, where interest in hockey is modest, this was framed as largely a financial concern. "Let's get their faces out there," he told The Chicago Tribune. "I know it's a tradition and superstition, but I think [the beards do] hurt recognition. [Players] have a great opportunity with more endorsements. Or simply more recognition with fans saying, 'That guy looks like the kid next door,' which many of these guys do."

The backlash to Lazarus's proposal was swift – not just from the players, for whom playoffs beards are a decades-old tradition in the NHL, but also from the fans. Watching your favourite team slowly sprout facial hair over the course of the spring is a nice visual complement to the gauntlet that is playoff hockey, where many players fight through injury for a taste of victory: a ragged beard to match their ragged bodies. A beard is also a sign of dedication, as if players are spending so much time at the rink and in the gym that they couldn't possibly find time for the razor. Plus, of course, it's entertainment fodder. Every year fans delight in tracking who has the best playoff beard, and (especially) who has the worst. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, for instance, may be talented enough to lead his team to three Cups in six years, but even he has reluctantly accepted that a full, thick playoff beard will always remain just out of reach.

Besides, were beards really as acute a problem as Lazarus claimed? After all, a beard isn't a disguise for the face. Many would argue that it's actually an accessory to it, albeit a rarely used one. Lazarus ultimately wasn't able to convince the NHL, but he's far from the first to try controlling male facial hair in the name of some larger purpose. In fact, he's part of a surprisingly grand tradition, as historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore could attest.

"The history of men is literally written on their faces," writes the Ohio-based academic in Of Beards and Men, a new and wide-ranging cultural inventory. Perhaps because of that visibility, beards have always carried a strong moral and symbolic power, even as the tenor of that power (good or bad) has proven difficult to pin down. To illustrate the book's fundamental tension, the inside flap of the dust jacket features two author photos. In one, Oldstone-Moore wears a thin, dark beard; in the other, he's fully shorn. Readers can choose which image of the author they want to mentally accompany them as they go.

Considered at book length, what's most immediately striking about beards is their scarcity. As Oldstone-Moore makes clear, ever since Alexander the Great first ordered his troops to shave before battle some 2,300 years ago, a shorn face has been the standard for much of Western civilization. This reign has been interrupted by "four great beard movements" along the way. Yet, like beards themselves, even these were often patchy and short.

The first beard movement took place in the second century, when the Roman emperor Hadrian led by example, thus convincing his subjects to give up shaving for the next hundred years or so. The second, during the High Middle Ages, saw kings and nobles grow luxuriant beards to match their splendorous armour, even as the clergy continued going bare-faced in the name of the Lord. The Renaissance was home to the third beard movement, partly as a popular rebellion against that church-dictated value system. And the final one came during the latter half of the 19th century, as a new wave of body-first masculinity took its cues from Walt Whitman declaring, in Leaves of Grass, "Washes and razors for foofoos … for me freckles and a bristling beard."

The crux of Oldstone-Moore's argument is that trends in male facial hair are never just a matter of fashion, or personal preference, or even practicality. He debunks, for instance, the legend that Alexander's men shaved so that enemy troops couldn't grab them by their beards, thereby gaining a tactical advantage. Hadrian wasn't merely growing his beard out to cover a facial blemish, either, as is also popularly believed. Rather, a society that encourages men to grow beards – or to shave them off – is making a conscious effort to redefine its conception of masculinity itself. For Hadrian, this meant a realignment with the male philosopher class, who had kept their beards all along and ridiculed those who hadn't. And for Alexander, some 500 years earlier, the statement was even more dramatic, since in his time, appearing clean-shaved was a look reserved for gods. By encouraging his troops to shave their beards, as he had already done, Alexander was essentially telling them that they, too, were godlike – not to mention categorically different from "the inferior, bearded Asians they confronted."

Throughout the history of the West, we see this pattern repeat itself, even as the specific contexts come and go. Beards are always categorical walls, separating one type of man from another. In general, facial hair tends to be associated with man in his so-called natural state: rugged and strong, but also brutish and uncivilized. Shaving, meanwhile, is linked with concepts such as modernity, weakness, femininity and (just maybe) godliness. Put another way: Men let their beards grow when they want to return to nature, and shave them off when they want to transcend it.

No matter what theory is in vogue at a given time, there are always scientists on hand who are ready to back it up. Some ancient Greeks believed that beards were the result of semen, which was believed to be stored inside men's heads, getting accidentally trapped in the chin region en route to their penises during sex, and then fertilized into hair by an inner "vital heat." Scientists today are no less committed to the cause. Maybe my favourite detail in Oldstone-Moore's book is the researcher who, in the 1970s, carefully weighed his beard trimmings to show that his facial hair grew faster on days before he travelled to meet his lover, thanks to extra androgen produced by sexual anticipation.

Ultimately, it comes down to optics. Politicians in particular are often closely associated with their facial hair, from Lincoln's chin curtain to Hitler's mustache to Thomas Mulcair's bristles (which might explain why so few of them wear it these days). But beards can also serve as larger Rorschach tests, in which different societies look at the same image and come to wildly different conclusions, and sometimes the real history must be retrofitted to match the symbolism of the day. Today we think of Jesus Christ looking like a medium-bearded ur-hippie, but for the first 500 years of Christian art, he was depicted as a smooth-cheeked figure similar to the Greek-style gods the Romans were used to seeing. The beard was only introduced when the church wanted to emphasize Jesus postresurrection: different from the cherubic angels he was surrounded by in Heaven, as well as visibly burdened by his ordeals on Earth. Even in eras when beards were shunned, the symbolism lived on: a fresh-faced, 12th-century bishop encouraged his fellow men seeking strength to "let our interior beard grow."

By his own admission, Oldstone-Moore's book has limitations. It is almost exclusively focused on elite males from Western Europe and North America. Anyone looking for insight into the significance of facial hair in Eastern cultures and religions will come up empty-handed (personally, when I think "beard," the first thing that comes to mind isn't David Beckham's calculated stubble, but the glorious, why-do-I-even-bother whiskers worn by my Sikh friends).

But when it comes to charting a path through facial hair's woolly past in the West, Of Beards and Men does a fine job – even if it does end on a rather uncertain note. Despite their cachet in certain cultural circles and at certain times of the year (see, if you must, Movember), actual beards are still in short supply. Modern-day science is conflicted over why men have them, whether women are attracted to them and even whether anyone likes them at all, period. After all these years, beards remain mysterious to the end.

And as Oldstone-Moore writes, this could all change on a dime. "When facial hair becomes desirable, or even acceptable, for soldiers, managers, and legislators," he writes, "we will know that a new chapter in the story of masculinity has begun."

Michael Hingston is the Edmonton-based author of The Dilettantes. He started growing a beard over the holidays and it isn't going well.