My face has hair growing out of it. Like, heaps of hair… and I’m allow it. I welcome it. Why? I don’t know. Why does any man do it? No-one really knows…
For the entire existence of civilised man, the question of what to do with all that facial hair has been answered in as many dynamic and changeable ways as fashion itself. Some cultures encouraged it, some mandated it, some strictly forbade it and others didn’t really give a crap one way or the other. The facial hirsute pursuit has represented many things over time – wisdom; strength; savagery; reindeer-riding gift-giving, piracy; eccentricity; rock’n’roll; authority; free love; geography teaching; vagrancy; outlawdom; indestructibility… Yet, at the end of the day, as it was at the start of the day (albeit a teeny bit longer), it’s literally just hair that grows out of your face, which is really weird when you think about it.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian men were famously fussy over their facial follicles. They decorated their beards with jewels, dyed them and even used heated tongs as rudimentary curling irons to really get it looking high-street reem. Similarly the Greeks, Celts, ancient Indians and Chinese also bestowed beards with pride and honour. It wasn’t until the Macedonians and Imperial Romans rose to power that the clean shave was popularised; Alexander the Great didn’t want to present enemy soldiers with something to yank on in battle, while the Romans were plain sick of getting unruly strands snagged in their toga clips.
For most of the middle and renaissance ages, beards were pretty much exclusive chic for pirates, conquistadors and village idiots. But in the late 1800s, the Western world went mental with beards again. It was an experimental age, when beards, moustaches and sideburns of all shapes, sizes, colours and combinations sprouted on the faces of men in a starkly flamboyant contrast to their drab, same-same clothing. Abe Lincoln, Karl Marx, Johann Strauss II, Charles Dickens… these dudes dedicated their lives to pushing political and cultural frontiers, and their faces to pushing beardly boundaries.
But, it didn’t last very long and by the 1950s, squeaky clean faces, tucked-in shirts and armpit-chaffing beige slacks were the norm. An errand follicle on the chin would certainly scupper your chances to take Suzy down to the malt bar and ask her to go steady. But of course, this suppression of will bottled up until the 60s, when rock’n’roll, peace and a preference for hallucinogens over hygiene influenced many a young man to bin the Bic razor and pick up a headband instead. But once again, another wave of social sensibilities intervened and the popularity of the beard was trimmed back, taking lava lamps and sitar music with it.
The post-millennium years have been an ongoing experiment with minimalist beardom, inspiring countless variations of goatees, chinstraps, soul-patches and the like. (Some idiot coined it as ‘manscaping’ and the ‘metrosexual’ movement, but I maintain it was the hidden effect of Y2K that led to some genuinely shit facial hairstyles). More recently, hipsters have borrowed from their late 19th century forefathers with terrible po-mo mo’s and bushranger beards. And then there’s a perennial favourite of the decade – the manageably manly; the comfortable fashionable; the studly stubble.
So, as the ebbing and flowing tides of history have washed up ever-evolving trends and fashions, so too has it shaped endless interpretations of the beard. But for all the time we’ve spent cultivating, cropping and shaving the hair on our faces, we’re still yet to come up with an answer as to why human men grow them at all.
On the face of it (ha), there is no discernible reason or evolutionary advantage to a beard. If anything, I’d assume that natural selection would’ve figured out that thousands of long, extremely flammable stands of kindling attached to your face wasn’t ideal for a species whose burgeoning existence was heavily dependent on fire.
But, we survived – beards lovingly intact.
The popular theory follows a general rule in the animal kingdom: that any physical feature not key to survival is more or less to attract a mate. Facial hair growth begins at puberty, so it probably is a mammalian signal of sexual maturity – but one completely outmoded now. I’ve read plenty of those specious ‘according to a recent study…‘ articles in the content-starved sections of newspapers that suggest beards are a primal display of virility – a kind of lion’s mane. But never have I seen a gorgeous woman sitting across the dinner table from Professor Dumbledore… so perhaps that theory isn’t so relevant today, especially not now when there are flat-brimmed caps, iPhones, mirrors and Instagram accounts to boast reproductive prowess.
Whatever its original purpose, a beard is now just another aspect of our bodies that assists us in self-expression. Quite a significant one, as Marion Dowd (someone smarter than I) points out, “The decision to wear a beard is often deliberate and may denote a man’s religious, political, cultural, social or sexual affiliation. Beards—or their removal—can serve to conceal or reveal and thus in the past may have been linked to concepts of transformation, disguise, metamorphosis or exposure.”
Simply because it’s there, a fact of our biology, we impose our manipulative will upon it and invent meaning for it. We are quite adept at that. Humans rarely see a tree and know it merely as large, leafy vegetation. We may see it as a sacred place, or a bountiful gift from mother earth, or even an elegant symbolism of the phenomenon of life itself. It has to be more than meets the eye. That’s human intelligence doing what it does best: overthinking. Because, it’s a tree. A tree. A life-form slowly travelling a path of evolution that has led it to be what it is now, a big solar-powered organism filled with chlorophyll. Similarly, we’ve assigned too much meaning and importance to the beard – which is, after all, a cluster of hair that grows out of your face, something that was probably once meant to trap flies for dinner.
Even so, facial hair is least pretty nifty even if they it’s essentially useless to us and ultimately meaningless. In all iterations, be it a dense forest of dangly hair-vines; a patchy smattering of fluffy whisps; or the neck-straddling facial moss of that guy who works in every single company’s IT department – a beard is a strange thing, and therefore a wonderful thing. It’s an odd inheritance from our ancestors, a thing that we have no idea what we’re supposed to do with. We’ve just winged it and made it up as we’ve gone along the past few millennia. And that has worked out pretty well, I think. If the beard offers me the opportunity, should I wish to make the effort, to look like a wise philosopher, or a daring pirate, or a desperately avoidable crazy vagabond – then it’s pretty awesome and not so useless after all.
I’m still yet to decide what to do with my little fledgling beard. I haven’t noticed any increased attention from the opposite sex, and no more than the usual number of pilgrims haven’t sought me out for sage counsel… so I look no sexier nor wiser with a beard. Just lazier I suppose. I could chop it back to its default stubbly setting, or I could really let it go and impress my friends and colleagues with a fierce, tri-pronged, platted forkbeard. I could go clean cut and shaven (and subsequently take advantage of 15-years-and-younger train ticket discounts), or I could even hark back to my high-school days and attempt to rock some embarrassingly abysmal patchy sideburns. Who knows?
Or maybe Ill invent my own interpretation… corn-row beard anyone? Why not – gotta do something with it!