As the 1970s were ushered in, the 60s counterculture became mainstream. At that time, there was hardly a home without a lava lamp, mood rings, or at least a pet rock. America’s youth was dressing, speaking, and acting differently than previous generations. It was a time of sexual liberation for women and psychedelic experimentation. It was the era of free love, disco, and bellbottoms. Even in corporate America, one could find employees dressed in leisure suits and often sporting facial hair. Mustaches and beards could be seen in every walk of life. It was a veritable facial hair epidemic that swept across America through the 70s and into the 80s. Moustachery was in vogue and celebrities such as David Crosby, Billy Dee Williams, and Burt Reynolds wore them with pride.

To this day, Burt Reynolds is readily identified with his ‘stache, almost as much as Tom Selleck is with his. In fact, Tom Selleck’s iconic mustache is so intrinsically linked with his celebrity that when a reporter asked if he would ever get rid of it for a role, he replied, “Yes, I was born without it.” When asked about his current role, he joked, “I thought perhaps it would be nice to have a fresh start without it. That idea lasted about half a day before the network told me they definitely wanted the moustache.”

In the 90s, men traded in their ‘stashes and beards for a clean-shaven, youthful look. This was the predominant style for about 2 decades. However, in recent years, there has been another facial hair revolution. Beardedness has once again taken America by storm and it may be more popular than ever. Now there are beard and mustache societies and even beard and mustache contests. The US has been a powerhouse in the World Beard & Mustache Championships for the past 5 years. However, unlike during the 70s and 80s, an average beard and/or mustache just won’t do. If ones’ whiskers are a little thin, a quick trip to the doctor may help. Facial hair transplants are becoming a lucrative business that caters to every group, from hipsters to advertising executives. Sometimes they’ll come in with a photo of a celebrity they want to look like, or a prospective client may want a fuller look. Either way, many men are willing to shell out $3000 to as much as $8500 for their desired look. 

Is It Just a Fad?


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With so many people jumping on the bearded bandwagon, a couple of questions arise. First, how long will all this beardedness last, and second, besides personal preference, is there any other reason to grow out one’s facial hair? Interestingly, there may be answers to both these questions.

Decades of research have found potential correlations between facial hair and perceived attractiveness, masculinity, and intersexual selection. The prevailing wisdom tends to focuses on sexual dimorphism and masculinity based on female sexual preference. It’s a complicated concept but, simply put, sexual dimorphism is an obvious physical difference between the sexes. Clearly, human mate/sexual selection is not solely determined by one sex. It is a mutual choice with many contributing factors other than individual physical attributes. However, there is a school of thought that suggests that evolution plays a major role in the selection process. There are 2 main evolutionary theories related to mate selection: Fisher’s runaway process and the “good genes” theory.

Some researchers have suggested that sexual preference based on physical characteristics is a kind of survival of the fittest and, over time, that process has weeded out inferior genes (eg, males with lower testosterone may indicate immunological problems). This theory is called the good genes theory. In short, with regard to masculine characteristics, they are a sign of good genes and in turn good health and social dominance. Evolutionarily speaking, females choose mates based on masculinity so that their offspring may also enjoy good health. However, there’s a tradeoff. Heightened masculinity may also indicate lower paternal involvement, a greater likelihood of abandonment, and other negative traits such as coldness and dishonesty, which females may not want to pass down to their children.

Other than primary sexual organs, secondary sex characteristics in humans are not as pronounced as they may be in other species. For instance, in the animal kingdom, many species have distinct gender-based colorings, such as the bright plumage of peacocks or the distinctive coloring on ducks. The males and females of some species may differ in size or possess other ornamental characteristics, such as antlers on bucks, all of which are akin to a Fisherian process. Humans have more subtle secondary sex characteristics. Males typically have greater muscle mass, more prominent jawlines and cheekbones, and deeper-set eyes. They typically have larger noses, narrower lips, and wider faces and foreheads. An argument can be made that as physical masculinity increases, so does a resemblance to Paleolithic men. All of this supports the concept that beards are highly masculine. Not only may a full beard indicate higher levels of testosterone, it also frames one’s face and gives the appearance of more prominent jawlines and cheekbones. 

Current research does indicate that both women and men rate bearded individuals as more attractive than men without facial hair. However, it is not so cut and dry. In order to remove potential bias, several studies have attempted to control variability by using images of the same person in various stages of beardedness and including female participants with similar circulating hormones. 

Science Weighs in

Spanning 4 categories (clean shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble, and full beard), both men and women were asked to rate attractiveness, parenting skills, health, and masculinity based on facial hair. The level of agreement on masculinity was nearly identical for both men and women. Basically, as the amount of facial hair increased, so did their ratings of masculinity. Clean shaven was rated by both males and females as the least masculine, whereas full beards were rated as the most masculine. In terms of attractiveness, women rated heavy stubble as the most attractive, while men rated clean shaven, heavy stubble, and full beards as more attractive than light stubble. Both men and women rated full beards as healthier than clean shaven, light stubble, and heavy stubble. However, with regard to health, women rated light stubble and heavy stubble much higher than their male counterparts. The most interesting aspect was how both males and females rated parenting skills based on beardedness. Both men and women gave the highest ratings to individuals with full beards. Women gave full beards a significantly higher ranking than men, followed by heavy stubble, while men rated full beards first and clean shaven second.

In a follow-up study, researchers attempted to discover if circulating hormones during various phases of women’s menstrual cycle may influence their perceptions. Using the same criteria as before, they separated the female participants into groups of high or low fertility as the only independent variable. Again, women rated full beards as the most masculine. However, answers did vary based on fertility levels. Higher fertility was linked to higher ratings of masculinity compared with lower fertility. There was a level of agreement across all categories, with the exception of masculinity. Both high- and low-fertile women agreed that heavy stubble was the most attractive. And once again, full beards were associated with better parenting skills and better health than light stubble. Oddly enough, across all studies, full beards were rated as the most masculine and associated with better parenting skills. These results complicate the good genes theory. According the theory, the more masculine the father, the greater the likelihood of abandonment and low paternal involvement. Yet full beards were consistently rated as the most masculine and, in effect, indicated the best parents.

Holes in the Good Genes Theory

Another blow to the good genes theory is the logic behind natural selection and passing down masculine/feminine characteristics and overall attractiveness to one’s offspring. Essentially, just as more masculine men have superior immunological health, more feminine women also possess superior immunological health and are attributed with greater fertility. Thus, when extremely masculine men and feminine women couple, they should produce equally idealized offspring, thus propagating good genes through the next generation. Generally speaking, they choose each other because evolution compels them. However, research demonstrates only a very small correlation between a mother’s attractiveness and a daughter’s attractiveness. Furthermore, more masculine men do not produce more feminine daughters. This fact alone undercuts the theory because daughters born from this kind of coupling would not fare as well as their mothers and would be forced to find an inferior mate. There is a correlation between paternal masculinity and the masculinity of male offspring. However, there is no correlation between a fathers’ attractiveness and a sons’ attractiveness. Moreover, it seems that attractive feminine women tend to choose feminine-looking husbands. This is in direct opposition to the good genes theory, as well as the fact that there is no correlation between a husband’s masculinity and a wife’s facial characteristics. In short, the good genes theory doesn’t hold water, and it seems that human sexuality is far more complicated than an evolutionary dictate. 

Peacocking and Fisher’s Runaway Process

Fisher’s runaway process attributes female selection to elaborate male ornamentations and secondary sex characteristics. Just as male peacocks display ornate, colorful feathers to stand out and attract female mates, beardedness may be a form of the Fisherian process. However, there is a wrinkle. If everyone has a beard, then no one stands out. This is why some scientists believe that beardedness may have run its course. In a study published in Biology Letters, the authors link facial hair attractiveness to the prevalence among peers. Essentially, they found a statistically supportive correlation of perceived facial hair attractiveness with the prevalence of facial hair in a group of people. As the beardedness of a specific group increases, the perceived attractiveness decreases. Simply put, when facial hair and beards are novel, they are perceived as more attractive to women. However, as that style becomes common within that group, they become less attractive to women

Reference

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  3. The Garden State Beard & Mustache Society. Facebook website. https://www.facebook.com/GardenStateBMS.
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  7. Solomon S. Facial hair transplants growing amid hipster beard craze, doctors say. DNAinfo website. February 25, 2014. http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140225/williamsburg/facial-hair-transplants-growing-amid-hipster-beard-craze-doctors-say.
  8. To beard or not to beard. The Royal Society website. April 16, 2014. https://royalsociety.org/news/2014/to-beard-or-not-to-beard/.
  9. Tom Selleck: I wasn’t born with this moustache. Metro website. December 4, 2013. http://metro.co.uk/2013/12/04/tom-selleck-i-wasnt-born-with-this-moustache-4211531/.