The new trend in beards raises awkward questions

Oct 21, 2009
Coline Covington

Women don’t like beards, so who are men growing them for – and why? A psychoanalyst investigates

Facial hair is 'in' for men. Designer stubble has grown into the designer beard. The list of men in the limelight who now have full beards has skyrocketed. Top of the list are David Beckham, Brad Pitt, Sting, Johnny Depp and Michael Sheen.

One explanation for the trend is that it is a good way of hiding from the paparazzi. Big bushy beards are best for this purpose but also signify "I don't work in an office" along with a back-to-nature look that appeals to the environmentalists. Whatever it is that motivates men to grow their own, the trend does raise questions about what is happening to men in our culture ­ and why this sudden assertion of masculinity?

It seems no coincidence that beards are on the rise at a time when the West is struggling with a world recession and the position of powerful men is under threat. It is arguably much tougher these days to be an alpha male ­ and what better way to stand out than with a beard? After all, the beard is a man's follicular armour and provides a visual display of physical strength and stature.

It is also a common way for men to hide their vulnerability. Men will often grow beards when they have suffered a bereavement, a trauma such as divorce or job loss, or an injury. Young men tend to grow beards in order to look older and to give them gravitas.

There is also an increasing awareness in the west of powerful women ­ in all spheres of life. There is not only the alpha female who is fast becoming a rival to the alpha male ­ especially in business, politics and the arts ­ but there is the new image of the 'cougar', the female equivalent of the playboy to contend with. The tables have turned and the cougar preys on the 'pretty boys' who become her 'arm candy'. No wonder that the clean shaven boys of the past are anxious to assert themselves as men.

Beards may also be a reaction to the fact that gender roles are not so clearly demarcated today. When women continue to take over male roles in the workforce and men are increasingly taking over domestic and familial roles ­ being stay-at-home dads - one way to establish male identity is to do it physically. And beards require no exercise.

The most striking aspect of beard behaviour is that it seems to be primarily aimed at other men. There is the famous photograph, for example, of Freud with his followers in the Vienna Circle standing out distinctly in the centre of the group, accentuated by his prominent beard ­ a hallmark of phallic power.

In a recent survey conducted by Lynx on people's attitudes to beards, 63 per cent of the men claimed that they thought they made men appear more manly and attractive, while 92 per cent of women preferred men without beards and 95 per cent of women found men with stubble a turn-off. Men with beards may be having more fun ­ but it's not with women.

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