Beards in Academia, Part II: More Popular than Ever? Beards and Masculinity in History

This post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.

beard

Hipster Beard
Credit: Come2England

This week came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

BAFTA Film Awards 2013: George Clooney Ben Affleck
Credit: Ian West/PA

Nobody can have failed to notice in recent months the ubiquity of facial hair. Keep your eyes open as you walk down your local high street and you will probably notice a variety of styles, with the ‘Amish’ style seemingly especially popular. It is also interesting how newsworthy beards are. Just look at how often they have appeared as a topic for discussion in recent months. The furore caused by Jeremy Paxman’s beard for example. There were lengthy discussions about celebrity beards at the Baftas in 2013, and now the economic revelations about how much the beard is costing.

This current beard trend is actually very interesting. Over the past 10 years or so beards have been less in vogue. There have been ‘spikes’ of beardedness but these have tended to be of short duration – sometimes only a matter of months. But this latest outcrop of beards has already lasted the better part of eighteen months. By early summer 2013 the idea of ‘peak beard’ was already being put forward. Quoting the head of a major British barbering company, the Guardian suggested that “beards are more popular than ever…there’s a beard culture – people like talking about their beards, feeling their beards’. Now, in September 2014, passion for beards shows little sign of abating and, in many ways, appears to be going from strength to strength.

It is also interesting to note how economics have begun to intrude into the argument. By anyone’s yardstick £72 million is a large chunk of revenue to be lost to what some people see as an irrelevance – something everyday, quirky…even repulsive. In reality though beards have never been anything less than central to men’s conceptions of themselves. Faces, after all, are the most public part of us. The way we present ourselves to others involves all manner of things, from clothing to cosmetics, but the face is the ultimate index of character. The decision to shave, cover or adorn the face has implications for how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. Beards actually matter. Quite a lot. And they always have done.

Over the centuries beard trends tended to last for decades. It’s perfectly possible to identify an historical period by its beard hair. Think of sixteenth-century England. The Tudor ‘Spade beard’ was the order of the day. This was the long, oblong outgrowth of facial topiary sported by kings, princes and elites. Doubtless it made its way a lot further down the social scale too. This type of beard is evident in Holbein’s paintings. Not all Tudor men embraced the beard though. Men like Thomas More was a clean-shaven, perhaps in line with his austere lifestyle. Thomas Cranmer was clean-shaven but, it is said, grew a beard as a symbol of his grief upon the death of Henry and of his break with the past. In this sense the beard was a turning point in his life.

Young Cranmer

Young Cranmer
Credit: Gerlach Flicke via National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikipedia

Old Cranmer!

Old Cranmer!
Credit: unknown artist, via Wikipedia

In the seventeenth century Stuart monarchs preferred small, pointed ‘Van Dyke’ beards. Charles I and Royalist ‘Cavaliers’ often sported this type of facial hair together with flowing locks. Masculinity here was remarkably feminine, with flowing, diaphanous gowns and silk breeches the order of the day. Contrast this with Puritans who generally went clean-shaven, believing beards to be a mere bauble. One argument about the origins of the term ‘roundhead’ is that it referred to the shape of the head after the beard and hair had been shaved – a popular parliamentarian style – rather than the shape of helmets.

roundhead

A Roundhead
Credit: John Pettie via Wikipedia

Victorian men, after 1850, were characterised by their huge bushy beards. After nearly a century of being clean shaven British men were exalted by a range of new publications with names like Why Shave? which sought to convince them that shaving was little less than a crime against God and nature. The beard was the ultimate symbol of masculinity, and something used as a tool to prove to men that their position of superiority over women was justified. More than this, it was argued, beards had health benefits that simply couldn’t be ignored. They acted as filters to keep germs away from the nose and throat. (See my other post on Victorian beard health).

In the twentieth century, at least up until around 1950, moustaches were much more in vogue. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘toothbrush’ moustache was a cultural icon. Whether or not (as is sometimes suggested) Adolf Hitler grew his because of Chaplin, whose work he admired, is another matter, but the military moustache was a staple of the first decades of the century, from British Tommies to the emblematic RAF pilot’s moustache.

Mighty Beard

Mighty Beard
Credit: hanslangseth.com

There are many other important aspects to beards. Growing a beard has been an important marker of life stage; the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first shave is a virtual rite of passage for a teenage boy. On the other hand, in the past, the ‘beardless boy’ has been a symbol of immaturity or even of a lack of sexual prowess.

Indeed the ability to grow a beard has been central to conceptions of masculinity through time. In the early modern period the lack of a beard was viewed in humoural medical terms as the result of a lack of heat in the ‘reins’ and therefore a lack of sexual potency. Men who had a thin, scanty beard were open to suspicion of effeminacy (in the early modern sense literally meaning that they had feminine characteristics). In the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, so central was the moustache to military regiments that men unable to grow one were expected to wear a false moustache made of goats hair.

The management of facial hair says much about how men view themselves. During the enlightenment the mark of a civilized man was a clean-shaven face. To be bearded signified loss of control over the self and a rugged masculinity that was not elegant or refined. After 1850, however, as I have noted, the fashion was for huge beards, which were seen then as the ultimate symbol of God-given male authority. In this sense it was the emblem of the Victorian man.

How d'ye like me?

How d’ye like me?
Source: Wikipedia

After 1900 with the burgeoning market for shaving apparel and cosmetics the situation became even more complex. It is also noteworthy that the pace of change has quickened. Where beard trends used to last decades, since the 80s they have become more fleeting – probably a result of internet-driven celebrity culture.

If all this is true, what does the current vogue for facial hair tell us about men today? What ideal of masculinity are men in 2014 aspiring to? It is difficult to say. Unlike in the past it is harder to track changes in masculine ideal as they are now much more transitory. Nonetheless, one of the constants has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find fashion ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. The question now is how long this trend will last and, perhaps more interesting, will there be a backlash against the beard? History suggests so.

DrAlunThis post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.

Beards in Academia

To sport a beard signifies something.
Stories are not generally written about being clean shaven.
Aristotle1

It seems like beards are everywhere these days, having made a bit of a hipster-fuelled comeback. Yet academics know that they have been the bastion of beards for many decades. In honour of World Beard Day (September 6), we are taking a look at the furry, fluffy world of academic beards.

Peak Beard
Like all good things, the beard craze must come to an end, and one recent study suggested that we will soon hit ‘peak beard’. That is, the point at which having a beard is too common, and therefore undesirable from an evolutionary perspective. Thus leaving academics alone with their beards once again. The paper, published in Biology Letters and entitled Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair, tested “whether frequency of beardedness modulates perceived attractiveness of men’s facial hair, a secondary sexual trait subject to considerable cultural variation”.

The authors showed study participants a range of faces, manipulating the frequency of bearded faces, and then measured preference for four ‘levels of beardedness’. Both women and men reported heavy stubble and full beards to be more attractive when presented with a set of faces in which beards were rare. Similarly, clean-shaven faces were least attractive when such faces were most common, and more attractive when rare.

Such peaks are not uncommon. A previous review of facial hair styles in recent history found that sideburns peaked in 1853, moustaches in 1877, and beards in 1892. Moustaches subsequently had a renaissance, before peaking again from 1917 to 1919. The same study also noted a correlation between the prevalence of beards and skirt widths, as shown in the following graph:

beardskirts

To Beard or not to Beard?
Studies have come up with mixed results on whether beards make you more or less attractive. In one study, full beards rated highest for parenting ability and healthiness, while in another, bearded men with an aggressive facial expression were rated as significantly more aggressive than the same men when clean-shaven.2 Another study even considered, in detail, the effect of the participants’ menstrual cycles on their perceptions. The peak beard study itself concludes that beards “role in facial attractiveness is equivocal.”

Indeed, in Beards: an archaeological and historical overview, the author notes:

beards have been ascribed various symbolic attributes, such as sexual virility, wisdom and high social status, but conversely barbarism, eccentricity and Satanism

Darwin himself posited that beards “evolved in human ancestors via female choice as a highly attractive masculine adornment”. But then, he might have been a little biased:

Charles-Darwin-1

Beards and Biological Warfare
Do you have a beard? Do you work in a lab containing dangerous microorganisms? Do you worry that your facial appendage may harbour microorganisms that will endanger your family and friends? Well, we’ve got just the study for you. Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men, published in Applied Microbiology all the way back in 1967, sought to “evaluate the hypothesis that a bearded man subjects his family and friends to risk of infection if his beard is contaminated by infectious microorganisms while he is working in a microbiological laboratory”.

One wonders where exactly this concern came from. The authors kindly fill us in, noting that:

After many years of absence from the laboratory scene, beards are now being worn by some persons working with pathogenic microorganisms

Heaven forbid! What ensues is a rather bizarre study and a series of amusing photographs. In short, the study involved spraying some pathogens on some bearded guys faces (specifically 73 day old beards), washing the faces using one of two methods (figure 1), and then collecting some beard dust to see if the pathogens were still there (figure 2).

beardwashing

Figure 1: “each man lathered his beard with a soap containing 2% hexachlorophene and then rinsed it by one of two beard-washing methods:(i) a splashing method, by cupping the hands to catch the water and then splashing the water across the face; or (ii) a shower stream method, by placing the face directly under the stream of water from the shower head.

Figure 2:

Figure 2: “techniques for recovering microorganisms from beards”.

Finally, the study tested the pathogen-infested beards on chicks using a creepy human-beard-mannequin, resulting in what is surely one of the strangest photos ever published in a scientific paper.

Figure 3: "Each of three 6-week-old chickens was held with its head alternately nestled in the beard and stroked across one-third of the beard (one chicken on each side and one on the chin) for 5 min".

Figure 3: “Each of three 6-week-old chickens was held with its head alternately nestled in the beard and stroked across one-third of the beard (one chicken on each side and one on the chin) for 5 min”.

After much contamination, washing, and the needless death of a few chickens, the authors find that a beard would only pose a risk following a “recognizable microbiological accident with a persistent highly infectious microorganism” or if the wearer was “engaged in a repetitious operation that aerosolized a significant number of organisms”. Or, presumably, in the event of biological warfare.

Beards and the Sun
So that lovely beard of yours may harbour a few pathogens, but could it protect your precious face from the harmful effects of the suns UV rays? Fortunately, a bunch of Australian researchers already conducted a Dosimetric investigation of the solar erythemal UV radiation protection provided by beards and mustaches to answer this pressing question. They even went as far to consider different beard lengths and the angle of the sun!

More unusual apparatus from the world of beard research.

More unusual apparatus from the world of beard research.

They conclude that some protection is provided, but not all that much. Probably best to stick to the sunscreen.

This Incredible Academic Beard from 1973

Bearded Women
Finally we bring you this thesis, on How Facial Hair Influences Women’s Everyday Experiences. An unusual thesis topic though this may be, the work does raise some salient points about body image and gender. In this vein, the author starts of with a bold dedication, which we shall end this post on:

bearddedication

Bonus reading

  1. OK, not really. Actually just the personal experiences of some bearded dude living in South Korea (http://www.grantkien.com/2012/12/27/beard-stories-signification-of-facial-hair-in-and-out-of-south-korea-grant-kien-2005/). But it sounds much better with Aristotle.
  2. Presumably bearded men should simply refrain from pulling faces.