Ever since King C. Gillette’s 1903 safety razor, the beard has mostly slept in the halls of academia or temples, or in back alleys.
Perhaps from its elitist and vagrant reputations grew the old saying, “Never trust a man with a beard.” And maybe that’s why Canada hasn’t had a bearded Prime Minister in 119 years. But the beard resurgence of the past few years has businessmen, band members and David Beckham alike, challenging this assumption.
“From a fashion perspective, I’d say beards have made a huge comeback, largely due to the overriding theme of ‘heritage’ in men’s fashion in the past few years,” says Jordan Singer, president of Henry Singer and the third-generation company’s first owner to sport a beard.
Psychology is on his side. A 2010 Journal of Marketing Communications study showed that, in everything but underwear ads (don’t tell Beckham), bearded men are perceived as more credible and trustworthy. And, when it comes to social situations, a 2012 Behavioral Ecology article showed that, even in cultures as disparate as New Zealand and Samoa, both males and females perceive bearded men as older and of a higher status.
But I’ve known all this since the day someone older asked me to bootleg for them.
If you opened my junior high yearbook, no one would blame you for thinking the janitor snuck in front of the Jostens background. Actually, the chin-strapped ninth-grader is me. For as long as I could, I’ve had a beard, and, for as long as I’ve had a beard, I’ve enjoyed its benefits. From social situations to job interviews, its instant aging effects gave me a boost, as long as I kept it neatly trimmed and diligently tamed, though I could go from Obama to Lincoln in a matter of weeks.
Often though, I’d find myself, clippers in hand, wondering what it might be like to make like actor Zach Galifianakis, he of the truly bushy beard. Would I feel like how I presumed I’d look? Like my own boss?
So, with my wedding four months away, I pledged to stop shaving until the morning of June 23. That’s when my father would shave it off as part of an Arab tradition of finessing the groom before he’s delivered to his bride. I wanted to give them something special to mow, but I quickly learned that giving it up would be much harder than anticipated.
By week three, facial hair-deficient men ogled me in malls, while others of all cultures flung compliments at me. The most telling moment was when three Muslim missionaries, sporting serious beards themselves, stopped me on my bike with an invitation to their mosque. “Brother, what a beard!” shouted one as he crossed the street with a leaflet.
It would seem the look was also an invitation for strange men to fondle my chin like there was a Ferrari on my face. My fiancée, Janae, who compared these idle hands to women’s primal attraction to pregnant bellies, grew irritated with all the positive male attention.
This thing on my face had suddenly become a huge presence in our lives, emotionally and physically. As it grew longer, itchier and foodier, Janae joined the ranks of most women who, at least according to a 2009 Lynx survey in the U.K., are turned off by beards. Only eight per cent think they make men more attractive, compared to two-thirds of men themselves.
I shared my story with Paul Vasey, a University of Lethbridge sexual psychology professor and co-author of the Behavioral Ecology article.
“It’s consistent with what we found in our studies, that beards seem to be more important signals for other males than females,” he says. “We know that women don’t really like them. They rate clean-shaven guys as more attractive. Guys with beards are rated as more aggressive, and aggression is not a trait that females value in male mates.”
So why then, if not for women — and in the age of central heating — do we grow these things? Vasey says men tend to favour hierarchies and, like the lion’s mane, it’s an “exaggerated secondary sexual characteristic” used to intimidate other males.
“We used to be able to tell a man’s class, rank and even political allegiances from his facial hair,” says Allan Peterkin, a mustachioed Toronto physician and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. “Nowadays, you can’t know what it means for a man to have a beard unless you ask him.”
So that’s exactly what he did for his second book, The Bearded Gentlemen: The Style Guide to Shaving Face, co-authored with Nick Burns. Though he didn’t find “I use it to remove sexual competition from the gene pool” in the list of common answers, looking older, appearing more masculine and, of course, “the playoffs” were up there.
For this scarf-wearing writer, however, it was the feeling of channelling my inner Ernest Hemingway. Without lifting a razor, let alone an axe, I was giving off the same adventurer aura as men that I envy. Men like Mike Lang, a Calgary thrill-seeker who really earned the red mop hanging off his jowls.
The one time the 29-year-old attempted to remove it, he was travelling through Kathmandu. As soon as the razor nicked his throat and drew blood, Lang’s manliness unravelled as he passed out in the barber chair. A lesson learned. But the next threat to his beard was much scarier.
In 2008, a routine asthma checkup turned into a cancer diagnosis. Lang was ready to lose all his hair during chemotherapy. He watched it fall to the bathtub floor, follicles from his head, arms and legs running for the drain. But his beard stayed put and became a symbol of his perseverance.
“My doctor thought it was pretty funny,” Lang says. “We were joking around about how it was the secret to my powers because I tolerated chemo pretty well.” In truth, it was his active lifestyle, but the beard did have a power of its own. It let him dodge awkward existential conversations when he’d run into old friends. “Even though my head was bald, I didn’t look like a cancer patient, I looked like a bad ass.”
Lang is married now, so clearly he found one of those women in the small percentile who dig beards. “There is a subset of women who are not as averse to beards as others,” says Vasey (who, it’s worth pointing out, is gay and, yes, prefers his men hirsute). But my bride-to-be was not one. As the altar neared, I doubted I was ready to give up the random high-fives I’d become accustomed to. I was stuck between being the man or her man, but I couldn’t be both. It was not an envious situation, and yet facial hair-deficient men were fawning over it.
Darian Vander Vliet is one of these men. Every winter, the 28-year-old Edmontonian tries to grow a beard thinking it will be different than the last time. It never is. “I usually make it about two weeks in before I have to shave it off. It just looks dirty,” he says. The best he can do is grow something so patchy it looks like a child mowed it.
A history buff, Vander Vliet says, “Beards are a sign of wisdom. You want to be a big man? You need a big beard.” But his “pangs of jealousy” also have much to do with his fondness for his father’s full-beard. “Part of hugging him was the smell of tobacco and the beard rubbing against your face,” he says.
For men like Vander Vliet, the full beard is like Everest, an aspiration for its own sake. For me, it was a calling card. But, on the morning of my wedding, that beard met its maker — my dad — and was left for dead, trampled under the feet of dancing, ululating women. Without even asking, I finally understood what this ancient tradition was about.