Nowadays facial hair is a fact of life – men have to either embrace it or put up a daily fight. But have you ever stopped and wondered why that is? Does face fur actually serve a biological purpose?
The question becomes even more intriguing when you realize that most primates actually have the inverse situation with hairy bodies and smooth, bare faces. So, what is it with humans that makes male facial hair necessary, desirable, or even possible? How come, at some point in our evolutionary history, we lost most of our body hair but men retained (or acquired) facial hair?
We all pretty much have the same logical first thought – it’s to keep our faces warm. But then why don’t women have it? And why is facial hair generally sparser in some northern populations (like northern Asia)?
Fortunately (for our curiosity’s sake) evolutionary theorists are masters at explaining our modern traits as something that must have given our ancestors a survival and/or reproductive advantage. Those trying to explain facial hair are generally divided into two different theoretical camps:
1. The beard displays a threat or dominance to other men.
2. The beard advertises something positive that attracts women.
So the question has been reduced to the age-old gender war - are beards meant to impress men or women?
Theory #1 says that beards convey a man’s dominance or signal a threat to other men. In other words, a beard just looks powerful.
This is pretty easy to see - even nowadays, a big, burly beard can inspire awe or trepidation. It may be that a beard makes a man appear bigger or more intimidating, or a beard might obscure a man’s expression so we can’t tell what he’s really thinking.
A beard also simply signals maturity and masculinity. Only adult men grow beards, and adult men typically have more cunning, experience, and status than young men and boys. Since beard growth is linked to testosterone, a beard may also suggest other manly traits such as physical strength, aggression, dominance, etc. And all of these things can lend to an image of power and leadership.
Some modern psychology studies have shown that people do indeed rate photos of men with beards as more aggressive or higher status (compared to the same men without beards), lending weight to this theory. And, as we’ll see in part II of this miniseries (exploring the cultural history of beards), for much of documented history kings, rulers, gods, and other high status men were depicted with full, luscious, styled beards (in contrast to the lesser-bearded common folk).
But we'd be willing to bet that most of you bearded gents don't grow your beard out just to impress other guys. After all…
Darwin himself postulated that beards were ornaments used to attract women, in a classic example of sexual selection – traits are propagated not because they directly increase “survival fitness” but because they lead to more reproductive opportunities. Think: peacocks.
Men’s extra facial plumage could advertise plenty of positive qualities to women, including:
It takes nutrition, health, and a lucky set of genes to grow a thick, healthy beard. Just think of how a scraggly, ragged beard can make a man appear sickly, homeless, or careless, whereas a full, lustrous beard practically screams “vitality.”
And again, only mature men can grow a full beard. For the ladies, a beard separates the men from the boys and shows which guys might make (and take care of) strong, healthy babies.
Or, women could simply like how beards look. (Hey, ladies want what they want.)
The contemporary studies related to this theory are somewhat mystifying. Some studies show that women actually find beards unattractive (as if) while others show that women like beards. The most interesting study concluded that there is actually a "peak level" of beard that women find attractive, with anything less or more resulting in lower attractiveness ratings. This suggests that women like the display of masculinity put forth by facial hair, but the positive effects are undermined when the beard becomes unkempt. If he can’t take care of his beard, how’s he going to take care of her? Or the children?
We’ll dive into this idea of peak beard attractiveness a bit more as we continue to explore bearded history, including interviews with modern women to see what they really think. But for now, let's get to the bottom of this.
Who’s really in control of beards, here – men or women?
While both sides of the debate bring up some interesting points, neither of them satisfyingly explain the origin (and prevalence) of the beard - because any bearded man can tell you that his facial hair garners respect, conversation, and admiration from both sexes.
So we've pondered it, and noticed that both theories point to one very clear commonality:
A beard has meaning to us. It may mean one thing to other men, and something completely different to women, but either way a beard makes a statement to other people. And this statement piece has been so important in human history that the beard has established itself as an unavoidable aspect of modern men's lives.
Whereas ancient beards may have signaled core features like masculinity, health, and status, modern beards advertise all of these things and more. A beard today can represent style, woodsmanship, worldliness, self-care, irony, solid musical opinions, and on and on. The way a man grooms and displays his beard is an unspoken statement to the world about who he is.
That's why beards are here to stay. And that's why we’re all about keeping beards handsome.
We’re going to continue exploring the cultural significance of beards in future posts, including beards of the gods and what modern women really think.
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