What does facial hair say about men?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from howstuffworks.com.

Molly: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Cristen, are you ready for a question?

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: What do Santa, Vincent van Gogh, Willie Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, Ho Chi Minh, and Charles Darwin have in common?

Cristen: I wish I could think of a really funny, witty response to that, Molly, but I'm gonna guess beards.

Molly: That is true.

I guess you did your research this weekCristen: I did.

Molly: That's very handy for our conversation that you've read about beards.

Cristen: It helps on weeks that I read things.

Molly: So true. As you have probably guessed, we are going to talk about beards today. This one is for the guys. Men who are always writing in asking why we never talk about things that your mom's never told you, here's one about beards. But, ladies, don't worry, you're gonna learn lots of secrets about men that they don't even know about themselves.

Cristen: Yeah. Because Molly let's not pigeonhole ourselves to beards only. We're gonna talk about stubble, mustaches, maybe a mention of a soul patch here and there.

Molly: Muttonchops.

Cristen: Muttonchops.

Molly: Sideburns.

Cristen: Guys, this is for you. I think I specifically emailed Molly with an article saying let's do one for the guys.

Molly: All right, guys. Whether you are bearded or not, it turns out you're making a statement about yourself. Before we get into what you're saying, let's do one of our favorite things here on the podcast and go back in history.

Cristen: Back in time.

Molly: Now, this information is coming from a book called One Thousand Beards.

Cristen: Yes. Molly, remind me of the author's name if you don't mind.

Molly: Allan D. Peterkin.

Cristen: Allan D. Peterkin. Now, Allan D. Peterkin tells us that the history of mail facial hair is actually the history of disappearances in serendipitous rediscoveries, which I love.

Molly: Yes. That I will say just this about the entire podcast, there are some great quotes out there about facial hair. Things you do not even think about. But, yes, they come into vogue, they come out of vogue.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: As Peterkin does, you can tell the history of the world through what the men were wearing on their faces.

Cristen: Right. Let's talk about the ancient Egypt. The Egyptians loved their beards. Well, upper class Egyptians loved their beards. They viewed them as status symbols and they were normally square shaped. The bigger the better. They would braid them, they would paint them, they would dust them with gold, they would oil them, and perfume them. If you were a slave, you had to be clean-shaven.

Molly: Right. Basically, whenever we talk about what the upper class is doing, just reverse it for what they made the slaves do. When beards go out of vogue, they immediately make their slaves grow them.

Cristen: Then a little fun fact, an upward pointed to curl on the end of the beard was reserved for god's. Yes.

Molly: Now, Cristen, have you ever heard of barbarians?

Cristen: Well, in fact, I have.

Molly: They are always trampling through history causing problems for people. Barbarian simply means bearded ones.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: So that, I think, shows that after the Egyptians there was some fear of beards.

Cristen: Yes. Beards go out of vogue and then we have them come back in the Middle Ages, usually as a sign of allegiance.

Molly: Right. For example, allegiance to the church. The medieval Christian Church was very anti beard. It was seen as demonic. Despite the fact that in the Bible, in Leviticus, it says don't touch your beard. So we've got some religious groups growing beards out and you've got some people shaving them off to show allegiance with Christ. You can walk down the street and see what a person believes based on their beard, which I think is still true today, but, also, how you feel about your country. Did you know how many wars have been fought over beards? I was not aware of this.

Cristen: It goes back for - even back to ancient Persia. The Persians actually fought the Tatars, when the Tatars tried to force the Persian men to grow specific type of beard. Persians were not having it. They were like let's just get rid of these Tatars.

Molly: It was too much of an affront to say here's what you do. They were not the last people to order how a beard would be worn.

Cristen: Oh, certainly not.

Molly: Because one of my favorite, Henry VI, forbids mustaches in the 1400s.

He just does not like mustachesCristen: If I were king, I might make the same decree today.

Molly: The thing is, they always seem to make their decree based on whether they can or cannot grow the hair in question. If we fast forward a little bit, Louis XIII, he wears a wig to hide his baldness. Then everyone else has to wear wigs. Then he cut all of his follower's beards off and he leaves them with this mustache and this small little tuft of - I guess left them with a soul patch.

Cristen: Old school soul patch.

Molly: Everyone started wearing that because that's what the king had said, but really Louis just couldn't get any hair growing anywhere.

Cristen: Some guys it will come in, the full beard will come in, and other guys just have little patches.

Molly: Yeah. You're right on. It's kind of funny.

Cristen: We'll get into that.

Molly: It is kind of funny.

Cristen: Unless you probably have that patchy problem, in which case it's okay.

Molly: It's fine. I have no problem with it.

Cristen: No.

Molly: Now, probably one of the best examples of the decree to do something about your facial hair is Peter the Great because he wanted to show that Russia was like the rest of the Western world, so he orders all of the nobles to shave their beards off.

Cristen: Yeah. The Russians used to sport these really amazing full beards and then, like you said, it was finally time to shine up their image on a global scale, so they cut off those beards.

Molly: And you faced taxes if you didn't. Many leaders over time, Henry VIII, he taxed people with beards. So it was a money raiser for some. Now, Cristen, you sent me this really interesting article by Susan Walton and it's called From Squalid Impropriety to Manly Respectability, The Arrival of Beards, Mustaches, and Martial Values in the 1850s in England. I think this paper was a really good case study of how exactly beards have gone in and out of vogue over time by focusing on this specific period in England.

Cristen: Because at the time when the paper, I guess, in the early 1850s beards were not in vogue at all.

Molly: Only among poets and artists, people that no one respectable would want to be like.

Cristen: Yeah. More of the working class. Then the British government realizes that it needed to build up its military ranks. Now, the reason they needed to do this was because in 1854 war was declared in Russia and, hence, we had the beginning of the Crimean War. Suddenly you start having these images floating back to the British homeland of these bearded tough looking soldiers on the front lines and they slowly start to get this association building between these masculine soldiers and their wartime beards.

Molly: But they also made a good argument, a health argument. They would say if you don't have a beard then you won't have anything to filter out all of the dangerous things you're gonna encounter out on the battlefield. By which I mean you might catch a cold, you might get a toothache. Clearly God has given us beards to protect us from these outwardly germs and diseases. That was a real argument that they made at that time.

Cristen: Yeah. Like a natural surgical mask.

Molly: Yeah, exactly.

Cristen: Like some people wear on public transit and it really freaks me out sometimes.

Molly: So, yeah, they made the argument first that, hey, this will serve a sanitary function. This is for public health. You need to wear this beard.

Cristen: Now, one thing that we haven't mentioned that's really important in this whole rising beard popularity is actually a year before war is declared in Russia, in 1853. While the British military is really starting to rustle up some excitement, trying to get some new men into the fold, they set up this fake battleground, battle camp at this place called Clapham.

Molly: Yeah. They're gonna do some field exercises for the public.

Cristen: Kind of like when we have Civil War reenactments is how I imagine it.

Molly: Well, except that this was before real war.

Cristen: Yes. So exactly different from the example that I just gave.

Molly: But, yes, it was a group of men getting together because you've got to know at the time - we probably haven't given enough background on this, but at the time Britain was anti-military. They did not have much of a military, but they've got this growing conflict outside of the country they've got to get involved in. So one thing they've got to do is persuade the British men that they're manly enough to fight. So part of this argument is going to be showing them how fun shooting guns is and then to persuade them that they're manly enough by growing the beard. So tell them what happened at Clapham.

Cristen: Well, Clapham really became this public spectacle. People would come out and just to see these soldiers out in the fields, see their skirmishes, the ladies were very taken with these rugged outdoorsy soldiers.

Molly: Who doesn't love a display of masculinity?

Cristen: Another podcast at another time, Molly. One thing that these skirmishes at Clapham popularized was the beard.

Molly: Right. Because the papers of the day sent reporters who drew pictures. Whether the men had beards or not, they were all drawn with beards and the reports would say things exactly like you were saying with those women. They'd be like, man, the women sure loved these men with beards fighting. So it was using beards as part of the propaganda to get England ready to fight this war.

Cristen: Right. Do you want to be a handsome, desirable, young man in Britain? Well, you should grow a beard and join the army. Then for a while the British army required their soldiers to have facial hair on their upper lips. They couldn't shave at all for a long time. Mustaches were basically required if you were gonna be in the ranks.

Molly: If you want to bring it back to our own country, Cristen, think about the Civil War. Most men, when you see pictures and paintings of the day, they had facial hair.

Cristen: Or some really great chops, the muttonchops.

Molly: Not just because they were at war and couldn't shave, it was the sign to your enemy that I am ready to take you.

Cristen: And it's probably also a bit more terrifying, maybe, on the field if you encounter this kind of grizzly man with a huge beard and muttonchops than maybe a clean shaven, more pubescent one.

Molly: Cristen, you have just provided the most amazing transition to what we're gonna talk about next, which is what beards actually mean because you're all ready starting to say what does a beard mean.

Cristen: The symbolism of facial hair.

Molly: The symbolism.

Cristen: Men, you had no idea of the politics that you're wearing on your face.

Molly: So let us leave the past behind and move back into the present. All right. We're back in the present and - well, I'll stay in the past for just one second. Yesterday is when I read this paper that now we're gonna talk about. Of all of the things I read to prepare for this podcast, Cristen, I don't know if I love anything as much as I love this paper.

Cristen: Molly really did love this paper. She kept sending me just snippets throughout the day of her favorite sentences from this paper.

Molly: All right. This paper is called "I'm sick of shaving every morning: or, The Cultural Implications of 'Male' Facial Presentation." It's by Michael John Pinfold who is at the School of Media and Design at Cheltenham and Gloucestershire College of Higher Education in jolly old England, which, by the way, is the home of the handlebar mustache club.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: So England has a long and storied history of wonderful facial hair.

Cristen: Now, just to lay the foundation for what we're about to toss y'all's way in terms of beard symbolism, may I present this sentence from the introduction of Pinfold's paper.

Molly: I hope you will.

Cristen: The whispering wisps of men's beards contribute to a symbolic system, which acts in contingency with the cultural implications about masculinity as a concept in male subjectivity as a construct. Now, you guys probably thought that Molly and I have gone way out there in terms of deconstructing this symbolism of different women's fashions and the way we adorn ourselves and all of that. Well, guys, you can do it too as Pinfold handily proves.

Molly: Right. Because Pinfold takes the beard and just goes through it whisker by whisker in terms of every single thing it means and things that you may or may not agree with.

Cristen: Well, I think the most obvious argument that he makes, I think that we can all agree on, is that a beard is a display of sexual maturity.

Molly: Yes. You've gone through puberty, you have the ability to grow hair on your face which probably means you've got it other places, it symbols I am here, I am ready to mate.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Which is why Pinfold argues that, sort of, the main thing that you're gonna see when you see a beard, much like you were talking about on the battlefield, Cristen, is you're seeing a virile man. You're seeing - there's no doubt when you're seeing a person with a beard that you're seeing a man. But we will get to later how people subvert that imagery because sometimes people will use a beard to show that they are not a man.

Cristen: Now, Molly, what about Pinfold's point that he makes about the art of shaving? Not necessarily the art, I should say the practice of shaving the beard.

Molly: The ritual of it.

Cristen: If they have this display of full maleness and we are speaking in very heteronormative terms I would think -

Molly: True.

Cristen: - we could say right now.

Molly: Okay. We're in heavy, heavy scholarly lingo at this point.

Cristen: Yeah. Just hold on for the ride. Pinfold makes an interesting point about how he believes that the act of shaving is really a man's opportunity to exercise his inner femininity.

Molly: Yes. Because, think, if your stereotypical female task is being in the mirror and primping, putting on makeup, looking at your face, then shaving is the closest thing that men have to that where they get to lather up, look themselves in the mirror, and just spend ten minutes just focused on their appearance. Now, he says that that's a very female thing to do and that by removing the facial hair he calls it a little bit emasculating because they are shaving away the very thing that makes them a man.

Cristen: Yeah. He also claims that it's men with beards who have "ruled the world, both real and mythical, from Abraham Lincoln to Neptune." Now, but the thing though that he doesn't really take into account is the fact that in modern day culture that hasn't been the case at all. When was the last time we had a bearded President?

Molly: Not since Benjamin Harrison I believe.

Cristen: Yeah. Beards have kind of come back into popularity, I would say, a lot to do with the recession, which we'll get into in a minute, but I'd say for the latter half of the 21st Century beards were a sign of you throwing off the power structure.

Molly: But I think Pinfold does address that a little bit, Cristen, because think of the world of high finance or a lawyer.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Those people are required to be clean-shaven by and large. It's a little bit taboo to go into Wall Street with a big beard. I think that makes sense that that's why our presidents probably are clean-shaven because it might denote laziness or something.

Cristen: However, though, Molly, Ben Bernanke sports quite a beard. I mean, I'm just saying. Continue.

Molly: Foiled again by Bernanke. All right. He says that when men grow beards it's part of a counter culture movement. Think about how many hippies, for a lack of better word, grew beards to show that they would not go to the military as part of Vietnam, that they were not part of the status quo.

Cristen: It was more of the beatnik look as well.

Molly: And so Pinfold makes this really flowery language to argue about how when men today don't shave they are rejecting this modern world that they themselves have built. The skyscraper is a symbol of the modern world. Not shaving is a rejection of the skyscraper, so that when the man stands next to the skyscraper it's like whoa don't look at me, I didn't build this.

Cristen: But I would say though, Molly, the many frustrating things about beloved Pinfold's paper is that he finds meaning in it, whether you're shaving or you're not shaving. So where does that really leave us? We have either you shave and you're part of the system or you don't shave and you're not part of the system. But at the same time, I would argue with the resurgence of the beard in popular culture, especially starting in 2008 when you had the Writers Guild strike and you had Conan and David Letterman both growing beards as a sign of allegiance to the writers. With all of that going on and then with the rise of things, such as the hipster mustache. We could not get through this podcast without mentioning the hipster mustache. Then if you go in Esquire there's a lot more articles that I ran across published recently about manscaping the beard, what different types of beards say about men. They're really - it seems like they're really paying attention to, I guess, more the fashion of it than whatever, like, culture symbolism.

Molly: Well, I think Pinfold's trying to say that even if you're growing a beard just because you're too tired to shave and you don't like it - I mean, remember the title of his paper is Too Tired To Shave Every Morning. You'd think that you're just being lazy, but it's actually some sort of statement. I remember after the writer's strike Letterman was just like I don't like shaving every day, but everyone else took that as a symbol of solidarity because of what was going on. I think that this is a problem that women face all of the time. Think about our tattoo conversation, Cristen, how there was no way a woman could win if she got a tattoo.

Cristen: Right. Because it's a symbol no matter what.

Molly: I think that rightly or wrongly I do think that Pinfold is saying that this is probably the equivalent for men. I mean, men don't have to have their bodies as politicized as women do, I don't think.

Cristen: I would agree with that.

Molly: But beards are the one thing that we will read maybe too much into.

Cristen: Yeah. Because since the beginning of recorded history really, according to One Thousand Beards, the book that we referenced earlier, men's facial hair, in particular, has been used as some kind of political symbol. Whether it's allegiance or divinity or status or what have you, there's always been some kind of meaning behind it. As silly as this conversation might sound to a guy who just says, well, I just don't want to shave sometimes or I look better when I have a clean face, I don't think that you can deny the fact that there is a lot of symbolism in it. But, Molly, I think now is the time for maybe us to pull away from all of this and the deeper meaning and let's get down to just basic attraction.

Molly: Okay.

Cristen: We talked a lot about the men, what beards say about men, but what does men's facial hair say to - and, again, we're speaking in the very heteronormative space today. What does men's facial hair say to the ladies?

Molly: Well, there was a study published in the Telegraph in 2008 that will answer that question for us. All right. So they used British women 18-44, now, again, they're British so they are used to probably some wacky facial hair, if I may make a mass stereotype.

Cristen: Although, Molly, I think that stereotype is wrong because according to the World Beard Championships, the United States is now the facial hair powerhouse. Just saying.

Molly: But those championships were won for many years by -

Cristen: That's true.

Molly: - the British. They get us again. All right. So they asked these women - basically they took these 15 male faces and then computer altered them so that they were clean-shaven, they had stubble, they had full beards, they had mustaches, and they went crazy with the computer generation. They asked the women which one do you prefer and they asked them to rank them in terms of aggressiveness, attractiveness, powerfulness.

Cristen: Masculinity.

Molly: Yeah. So they rank all of these men and guess which style the women preferred.

Cristen: Well, Molly, I know for a fact -

Molly: You did your reading this week.

Cristen: I don't have to guess. The men with light stubble were actually rated as the most attractive and the ideal romantic partner for both short and long-term relationships.

Molly: Right. They asked the ladies who would you like to have for the rest of your life and who would you like to have just for tonight and stubble won both times.

Cristen: Stubble, it's a win-win fellas.

Molly: So the researchers who were analyzing this study thought that stubble, to use the words of the paper, offered women the best of both worlds because it showed that they were mature, they had that masculinity within them, they had the potential to grow a full beard, but they were not too masculine. Not too aggressive. Because the men with beards were rated as very aggressive.

Cristen: Very aggressive and very dominant.

Molly: Whereas the clean-shaven men were rated the opposite. They were seen as not as aggressive, not as masculine, and not as dominant.

Cristen: The clean-shaven men actually finished at the bottom for almost all of the attractiveness characteristics. The interesting thing about this is that in another Time magazine article that Molly and I found, the author notes that, according to some survey, two-thirds of women prefer for the men that they're in relationships with to be clean-shaven. Molly and I kind of put our heads together and theorized -

Molly: Having read Pinfold.

Cristen: Having read Pinfold. Post-Pinfold. Theorized that women who were all ready in a relationship with a guy might prefer him to be clean-shaven because it, according to Pinfold, emasculates him somewhat and removes him from the sexual market place a little bit.

Molly: Exactly.

Cristen: Whereas if we were just out there looking for guys, it's the stubbled ones who catch our eyes the most. So, of course, you don't want -

Molly: You're keeping your man off the market by making sure he has no stubble. Like, yes, there's a practical concern in that kissing stubble can be a little painful sometimes.

Cristen: Stubble burn.

Molly: But if women do find stubble most attractive, then you don't want your guy walking around in his most attractive state.

Cristen: Just to confirm the results of this stubble study, I sent Molly a series of three photographs of one of our favorite actors, Madmen's Jon Hamm, possibly the most attractive living man. There was one of him clean-shaven in a tux looking great, stubbled, can't even describe it, and then one when he grew out this fantastic full beard. I asked Molly which Hamm she preferred. Molly, what did you say?

Molly: I liked stubbled Hamm.

Cristen: Yeah. It's good stuff.

Molly: It was a really great picture.

Cristen: Maybe, Molly, just to prove though that different cultures, not surprisingly, might perceive facial hair in different ways, there was another story from the Washington Post that came out pretty recently about how Indian women actually prefer clean-shaven men. Typically, Indian men would grow out full, long facial hair, but now the most recent facial hair fad for younger Indian males, and you'll see it a lot in Bollywood as well, is to be clean-shaven. They think this is a sign of the men embracing more of the globalization, Westernization that has sort of taken hold of the more industrialized parts of India. I thought that that was kind of an interesting contrast to all of the Pinfold and psychological studies we've been talking about.

Molly: Well, I also liked how in the article they said something like it shows that these men are now listening to the women in what they prefer and that maybe they don't prefer to kiss a face full of hair, so it's very interesting.

Cristen: So, now, guys, it is time for us to hear from you because, obviously, Molly and I can't sport beards. We can't display our sexual maturity with a handlebar mustache or a five o'clock shadow. So we want to know what you think. Is this crazy talk, do you -

Molly: Down with Pinfold, up with Pinfold?

Cristen: Yeah. Do you feel like you're a little more masculine if you sport a beard? Do you think you're more attractive?

Molly: Do you feel emasculated every time you take a knife to your face?

Cristen: Yeah. Let us know your thoughts.

Molly: And if you've got cool pictures of awesome beards and mustaches, we'll take them.

Cristen: Yes. Send them to our e-mail address. It's momstuff@howstuffworks.com. Now, we will do a little bit of listener mail.

Molly: All right. I have an e-mail from Kristen, another Kristen, not our Cristen. This is from an old one, our Cristen, but I thought we should share it. Remember when you told that story about how you were on steroids?

Cristen: Oh, yeah. For poison ivy, guys, not to pump up.

Molly: Yeah. For poison ivy. I think that you mentioned, according to this listener, that it ramps up your immune system to fight off poison ivy. So Kristen is a Physician Assistant and she says that it actually does the opposite. The reaction to poison ivy is your body's immune system going crazy in response to the oil touching your skin. Steroids are prescribed to hinder this response and also works to decrease the inflammation. The reason that she wrote about this is because there are a lot of people who are on these type of steroids regularly for conditions such as asthma or autoimmune disorders like Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and these peo ple should be aware of the side effects, like decreased immunity, not increased immunity. So thank you, Kristen.

Cristen: All right. Well, now I've got an e-mail here form Laura and this is about ballet and the Baby-sitter's Club.

Molly: Right. You may remember that we got an e-mail that said - you may remember we got an e-mail about the Baby-sitter's Club's Jessi who was a ballerina and who was Black. The listener was, like, why didn't Anna Martin write about this conflict of diversity in the ballet world. So now read the e-mail we got.

Cristen: And Laura from Toronto says that she, in fact, did. She says one of the books did deal with a specific case of ballet racial prejudice against Jessi. I think it was called Jessi's Secret Language. When Jessi was cast as the lead in Capalia she ended up being harassed by some of the other dancers in her class who didn't like the idea of a non-white Capalia. Jesse wins them over with her talent and finds out that the queen bee of the mean girls was jealous that she hadn't gotten the lead and they ended up as friends. All right.

Molly: BSC to the rescue again.

Cristen: Thank you, Laura.

Molly: So, guys, we'd love to hear your thoughts on beards or anything else. The e-mail address, as always, is momstuff@howstuffworks.com. Now there are a host of new ways to get in touch with us. You can follow us on Twitter, our Twitter name is momstuffpodcast, all one word. We're also on Facebook now, so you can become our fan there and leave us comments and we will respond to them. For Facebook, to find that, you just type in Stuff Mom Never Told You. No funny names there. Lastly, we have a brand new blog where you can leave us comments. It's called Stuff Mom Never Told You. You can find it on the blogs at howstuffworks.com.

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