In April 2014, a study was published by a team of researchers at the University of New South Wales, giving the results of a set of experiments relating to the attractiveness of man’s facial hair. A group of people were shown images of men with various types, thicknesses and styles of facial hair and asked to rate them. One of the key suggestions of the study was the notion of “negative frequency dependence”. Put simply, the more popular beards become, the less of an impact they would make. At a certain point, they would begin to decline as the trend weakens. This tipping point was dubbed “peak beard”.
Almost immediately the story hit the press across the world. “Hipster Beards are not long for this world” declared the Washington Post in the same month, a headline reminiscent of many similar in newspapers from the UK to Australia. The phrase took hold. Nearly two years after the study the phrase is still in common currency. Every so often a fresh crop of articles appears in which the imminent fall of the beard is confidently predicted, and yet it seemingly continues to go from strength to strength. Worse still, some of these predictions have been wrongly attributed to me! (For the record, I DON’T think that beards are going to disappear anytime soon). Indeed, the remarkable staying power of facial hair over the past three years is attested to by the rise of a whole new market for beard care products. Men, it seems, are increasingly prepared to shell out on all manner of oils, lotions, and moisturizers for their facial hair.
If beards are so popular then, why do the print media seem determined to talk them down? Is this a new phenomenon? In fact, if we look back over the past thirty years or so, it isn’t; the press has often had a chequered relationship with the beard. In January 1985, beards were making the headlines in Britain when it was reported in the Times that management in several major organizations, including Vauxhall Motors and GCHQ, were banning male staff from wearing beards. The Times correspondent was firmly on the workers’ side: “Since a man’s gestures of facial topiary are among the most eloquent aspects of the front that he presents to the world…some will be reluctant to be parted from their beards”. This was, hinted the writer, discrimination. Nevertheless, later the same month, the Financial Times reported that a ‘No Beards Deal’ had been agreed, with the offending contractual paragraph changed from ‘banned’ to ‘discouraged’!
But the rise of ‘designer stubble’ in the mid 80’s raised hack’s hackles. Reporting, in March 1986, on the popularity of stubbly chins thanks to Don Johnson’s rumpled appearance in ‘Miami Vice’, the Daily Mail reported on a new type of Wahl hair clippers, which allowed facial hair to be trimmed close. ‘What slaves to fashion will do for style’ sniffed the disgruntled reporter. Three years later, in March 1989, under the headline the ‘Youthful Taste for Scruffiness’, John Taylor (then editor of the British Style magazine) vented his spleen about the ‘sordid syndrome of dirty denim, shapeless blouson, uncleaned trainers and the curious self-degradation of designer stubble’!
Even the next decade seemingly brought little in the way of respite for pogonophiles. In March 1993, under the headline ‘Why there’s something weird about a beard’, Jessica Davies of the Daily Mail did not pull any punches. Evidence from a study claiming that American political candidates generally attracted 3% less voters was enough for her to declare that “beards, be they stubbly or flowing, have always been associated with failure”. Just to hammer home the point she carried on “We understand that a man with a beard is usually riddled with insecurity: He might just as well wear a sign on his forehead reading ‘I’m a wimp’”. Even the end of the millennium saw the campaign continuing. Although lighthearted in tone, Keith Waterhouse’s 1999 call for a ‘blanket ban on beards’ in the same newspaper, nevertheless drew on common stereotypes to deride beard wearers.
What has caused this sustained attack by print journalists on facial hair? What is it about beards that upsets journalists…and Daily Mail journalists in particular?! There is probably no straightforward answer. One possibility is that beards are set up as a marker of difference. They are represented as a binary, an ‘other’ between shaven and bearded men, despite the fact that there are many different levels of ‘beardedness’. At what point, for example, does stubble become a beard?
Equally, even in a beard trend such as the one we’re in now, not all men have them. In fact many (I’ll go out on a limb and say probably the majority of) men in Britain today do not have full beards. In this sense the bearded look is indeed ‘different’, despite its ubiquity.
Hidden within the barbs, could there be some echoes of the arguments made throughout history that beards are dirty? One longstanding argument has been that beards harbor germs and are unsanitary. The recent furore about beards allegedly being as dirty as toilet seats contains elements that can be traced to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (See my blog post on ‘dirty beards’ here) Some people dislike the aesthetic feel of facial hair, while others feel that they make men look unkempt, scruffy and, commonly, older. In this sense, journalists may simply be appealing to enduring popular fears and stereotypes, which, after all, make for good copy.
Whatever the case may be, the question of how long beards will last continues to enthrall the media. My own opinion is that they’ve become embedded into masculine culture to a degree that makes their disappearance unlikely. In fact, I would argue that the past few years have seen facial hair become acceptable in a way that it has not been for quite some time. Whatever happens, these are interesting times for a beard historian!
About the Author:
Alun Withey is a medical historian and Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, currently working on a three-year project “Do Beards Matter?: Facial hair, health and medicine in Britain, 1700-1918”, funded by the Wellcome Trust. To connect with Alun and learn more about his work, visit his blog.