The growth of beards 257



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Some men do and some men don’t; some women like and some women won’t.

Once again, the prickly subject of beards has arisen and, if popular media is to be believed, male facial foliage is once again in the ascendency.

When I was a kiddie back in the 1950s, I cannot recall any grown-up who had a beard. In fact, the first person I ever saw with a beard was Jesus whose lovely painting adorned the walls of my Sunday School. Indeed, God himself had Santa-like plumage if we can believe the bearded Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel.

The biblical film epics always portray the great heroes with beards – be they Charlton Heston’s Moses to Russell Crowe’s Noah. This is understandable as they didn’t have electric razors back then or even shaving cream although I have always suspected that beards can cover a multitude of chins.

I’ve never had a beard – I once tried growing a moustache back in the 1970s but it looked like a dead insect on my upper lip and people fell around laughing.

An ever-growing list of men now has beards – David Beckham, Brad Pitt, Sting, Johnny Depp and Michael Sheen. Designer stubble has grown into designer beards.

A recent survey by Lynx – the men’s deodorant outfit – revealed that 63% of men believed beards made men look manlier and attractive, 92% of women preferred men without beards and 95% of women found men with stubble a turn-off. If men with beards are having more fun, then it’s not with women.

We can rely on Australia’s universities to study really important things and when it comes to the study of beards, they have not disappointed.

Dr Cyril Grueter and his colleagues from the University of Western Australia have recently published their important research finds in the journal, “Evolution and Human Behaviour”. They concluded that men grow beards because they are feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look more aggressive.

This team argued that the popularity of facial fuzz among British men from 1842 – 1971 arose when there were fewer females in the marriage pool and beards were judged to be more attractive. Very obviously, the Lynx survey quoted above was not done in 1891.

Meanwhile at Queensland University, Dr Barnaby Dixson, a psychologist, and his colleagues have written a paper, “Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair” for the “Biology Letters” journal.

This trail-blazing paper is summed up in the abstract: “Negative frequency-dependent sexual selection maintains striking polymorphisms in secondary sexual traits in several animal species. Here, we test whether frequency of beardness modulates perceived attractiveness of men’s facial hair, a secondary sexual trait subject to considerable cultural variation.”

Now, that makes it all perfectly clear, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps, not.

Dr Dixson and his colleagues discovered that both women and men “judged heavy stubble and full beards more attractive when … beards were rare than when they were common.” For his sake, I hope beards don’t become more common than they are because Dr Dixson sports a very nice full beard. Presumably, the day he shaves it off we can assert that there are too many bearded men and that the clean-shaven look is once again more popular with the ladies.

Their paper also included an historical review of male facial hair based on photographs appearing in the “London Illustrated News” from 1842 to 1972. “… sideburns peaked in frequency in 1853, sideburns and moustaches in 1877, beards in 1892 and moustaches from 1917 to 1919.” I just knew you couldn’t get through your day not knowing that.

Psychoanalyst Coline Covington has argued that beards are “a common way for men to hide their vulnerability” and that “beards may also be a reaction to the fact that gender roles are not so demarcated today. When women continue to take over male roles in the workforce and men are increasingly taking over domestic and familial roles being stay-at-home dads, one way to establish male identity is to do it physically. And beards require no exercise.”

I’m thinking of testing this theory the next time I see a heavily bearded bikie. I think I will shout out at him, “Yah, you great big secret sissy. Who don’t you get home and do the dusting and washing up? Your missus will be home soon” and then laugh derisively.

Then again, perhaps I won’t. I wouldn’t want my handsome clean-shaven face beaten to a pulp.

What do you reckon? Do you prefer clean shaven or a full beard?

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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. Whatever …but i dont like them too long and bushy …you end up with too much hair in your mouth …haha haha

  2. speaking as a female I don’t mind either, it depends on the man, some don’t have faces that look good with full beard, others do

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