Early in our marriage, my husband and I used to argue about important things, such as whether more men had mustaches or beards. He, unwisely, supported the prevalence of the mustache, citing dictators, motorcycle cops, gym teachers, Pride parade marchers and Lord Kitchener. I knew that the beard was numerically superior, because I had on my side prophets, Russian novelists, history teachers, Druids and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Now, unequivocally, the argument is over: The beard has won. Like capitalism beating its chest over the corpse of communism, the jaw-carpet has conquered the lip-fringe. The evidence is all over my neighbourhood, which on any given day seems to be hosting a convention of ZZ Top cover bands. Young men cycle down its streets, their Rasputin beards so resplendent that I think: Did you start growing that when you were 10?
What a change from 40 years ago, when a beard spelled trouble. My father, unusual among his contemporaries, always wore one. When we went to visit my great-aunt, Sister Mildred, she would fold her hands in the sleeves of her habit and shake her head disapprovingly. The beard marked him as an anarchist, or worse, a jazz musician. It didn't help when he said, "But sister, Jesus had a beard."
Now the age of hirsuteness may be coming to an end, if you listen to a team of Australian academics predicting we have reached "peak beard." This week in the journal Biology Letters, they published a paper that appeared to show that the rarity of beards corresponded to the level of attraction felt by women (and men). In their study, the three researchers from the University of New South Wales showed subjects a series of pictures of men who were clean-shaven, heavily stubbled, and fully bearded. When they were shown full beards in succession, they judged the hairy fellows less attractive.
As Rob Brooks, one of the researchers, wrote in a blog post, "under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. … beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular."
Does this mean men should pick up their razors in order to pick up women? Don't even think about it, gentlemen. Instead, recognize and embrace what women everywhere have known since we began waxing and plucking in a futile battle of deforestation: Hair is political, and, depending on how you hack it, a symbol of oppression or autonomy.
In 1890, this newspaper ran a robust defence of beards under the headline, Hairy Men of History: Why Nature Has Given Men Beards. "In modern times," writes the unnamed correspondent, "the fashion of wearing the beard has undergone many changes, but as a general rule, it will be observed that those nations which have been remarkable for rigor and intelligence have always repudiated shaving." The same article scorned the smooth-skinned Maoris for their saying: "There is no woman for a hairy man."
You could think of this as The Bearded Man Theory of History, but it was hardly a universal belief. Anarchists, revolutionaries, beatniks, hippies, Southern guitar rockers – all the great countercultural movements were symbolized, and mocked, for their devotion to giant facial bushes.
When the anarchist and labour activist Samuel Fielden was arrested along with several colleagues for the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago, a newspaper reporter noted the accused "were taken to the barber shop, where they were shorn of their long beards … Fielden presented a melancholy look on his face when his long beard was cut off." Like Samson, Fielden had his power cut off at the roots.
In 1968, American major league baseball managers voted to ban beards among their players – also, to be fair, bushy sideburns and mustaches. In essence, baseball players were expected to be as hairless as the balls they threw, as smooth as the apples put in America's most patriotic pies. They were not meant to look like the protesters who marched in anti-war rallies, or soul musicians, or furry freaks.
Now, of course, many major league baseball players have the luxuriant facial hair of cave-dwelling hermits. They may have had to ditch the tobacco, but by God they're keeping the beards. What was once a counter-cultural symbol is little more than a badge of masculinity in world where tests of male prowess are increasingly rare, and a fellow's more likely to have to struggle with the cap on a craft beer than a bear.
A political statement has become a fashion statement, but is that such a bad thing? If we've reached "peak beard," and the fashionable reach for their razors, it's all the more reason for the beard to resume its proud status as the mark of the maverick, the outsider, the rebel. In short, the kind of man who honours the words of another great, hirsute philosopher, Danny the drug dealer in the film Withnail and I: "Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight."
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