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NDP leader Thomas Mulcair comments on the federal budget in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Thursday March 29, 2012.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Political leaders are supposed to stand out from the crowd – just not too much. There's a fine line between distinctive and disturbing when you're in the public eye, but the prevailing wisdom is that beards are far too risky.

The rules of political conformity have met their match in Thomas Mulcair. The recently selected NDP Leader sports a tidy but extensive black-and-grey beard that challenges vote-seeking orthodoxy even as it enhances his ready-for-an-argument jaw line.

Beards are hardly unusual in the rest of Canadian society, but at the highest levels of political leadership they've been virtually non-existent for well more than a century. No Canadian prime minister since the unremarkable greybeard Mackenzie Bowell took office in 1894 – by appointment, not election – has kept his face covered up.

What did the professorially bearded Stephen McNeil do less than a year after being chosen as Nova Scotia Liberal Leader? Shave, of course.

A man with a beard, so the saying goes, has something to hide. "We're wired to read the smallest facial subtleties," says Allan Peterkin, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. "But when a man wears a beard, you can't see his lip quiver, you can't read his expression, the nuances are concealed."

Such primal instincts are bound to come into play in a close-fought election campaign. "Fifty per cent of the electorate could be well-disposed to a beard," says Dr. Peterkin. "But most politicians aren't going to take the chance with the other 50 per cent who could misread it as something dark."

How dark is dark? In a culture where clean-shaven is the norm, facial fuzz is bound to attract attention and spark interpretations of the message it conveys.

Yes, Santa and Jesus are depicted with beards. So are goateed Satan, bushy Marx and straggly Osama bin Laden, and they're the kind of demonic icons a clever attack ad could slip into the wavering voter's subconscious.

Abraham Lincoln makes the strongest historical case for successful hirsuteness, but it's often forgotten that he grew his fringe only after he was elected president in 1860. And Honest Abe didn't have to contend with the non-stop intrusiveness of modern journalism.

"In a 24/7 media environment that Mr. Mulcair has now entered, there's a greater need for image management," says Alex Marland, professor of political science at Newfoundland's Memorial University. "We know that people form impressions and make cognitive shortcuts based on what they see."

Proponents of the Mulcair beard can point to Jack Layton's mustache as proof that facial hair isn't a liability. "The beard is to Tom what the mustache was to Jack, a sign of an independent mind," says Quebec political commentator Anne Lagacé Dowson.

To the degree that voters admire independence – and can see it on Mr. Mulcair's face – the beard supplies added value. But it shouldn't be forgotten that NDP operatives tested Mr. Layton's trim policeman mustache with focus groups, just to be on the safe side.

Their nervousness was justified. Public opinion can't be dismissed by those contesting democracy's most significant popularity contests.

To a television audience, notes casting director Jenny Lewis, "the perception of a beard is that it's menacing. Most of the time when we're asked for someone with facial hair, it's for drug dealers or some other kind of riff-raff."

In TV and films, you may see well-meaning beards on distinguished elders, cerebral academics, otherworldly priests, and desirable bad boys. But the conventionally attractive male leads almost never have beards.

Before the disposable-blade safety razor was brought to market by King Gillette in 1903, shaving was far from easy or universal and beards could thus command more respect. Wisdom and maturity were seen to be characteristic of the bearded, and clean-shaven youthfulness wasn't nearly the political necessity it's become.

But in any culture where the rich could afford to indulge in the luxury of old-style shaving, the beard could also assume negative connotations: the mark of the barbarian, the poor, the out-of-date, the anarchist. The mass culture of modern shaving has varied that routine to make the beard look more like an assertion of personal independence and detachment – beatniks, hippies, slackers, wise-guy baristas, an out-of-work Conan O'Brien, a who-cares Dr. House. But that doesn't do a lot to encourage majority-seeking politicians.

Most would-be leaders with a few days vacation stubble who toy with the idea of defying the unwritten law get wised up quickly by their image managers.

Pierre Trudeau had a beard briefly, while in opposition exile – described as "bedraggled and awful" by his press secretary Patrick Gossage. "If you want to give the signal that you are out for good, keep the beard," said his close adviser, Jim Coutts. The moment he decided to take another run at being prime minister, the beard was gone.

But the beard is more than just a covering, as can be seen from the title of a recently published study in the journal Behavioral Ecology: "Beards augment perceptions of men's age, social status, and aggressiveness, but not attractiveness."

For co-author Paul Vasey, a psychology professor at Lethbridge University, beardedness evolved not because beards were effective in attracting a mate – women prefer clean-shaven men – but so males could frighten off competitors with a don't-mess-with-me look.

Appealing to voters is quite a different vocation from fighting those primeval Darwinian battles. The contemporary desire to display a clean-shaven face is for Prof. Vasey "a signal that you're not aggressive. You're presenting yourself as friendly, approachable, trustworthy."

And therefore electable? But that doesn't mean Mr. Mulcair, nicknamed The Grizzly, should grab the nearest razor and join the crowd.

"If your rivals are going to be intimidated by your beard," says Prof. Vasey, "I could imagine contexts like a debate where you'd have a psychological edge."

Mr. Mulcair doesn't lack for confidence, and his reputation for being aggressive is consistent with his choice of facial style. Set against the cherubic cheeks of smooth Stephen Harper, the out-of-step beard may well define the man and his mission.