The true meaning of the hipster beard, according to an evolutionary biologist

A fashion choice that speaks volumes.
A fashion choice that speaks volumes.
Image: Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff
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As a clean-shaven man, I’ve looked with astonishment at the renaissance of beards in the 21st century. Hirsute hipsters dominate the young and trendy enclaves of London, New York, and Sydney, while many of my own friends and neighbors seem to be taking their grooming cues from Vikings.

And yet, as an evolutionary biologist, I know I’m the strange one. As the resplendently bearded Charles Darwin argued, facial hair is the human equivalent of the peacock’s train or the stag’s antlers—a conspicuous signal for males to deploy in the competition for mates. In hundreds of experiments on all manner of animals, from guppies to grouse, when biologists trim or dim these masculine traits, males lose out on mating opportunities. They either lose contests with other males, or they simply become invisible to females.

And so why would men voluntarily remove the most prominent signal of their own masculinity? Outside of religious contexts, why has the popularity of beards, moustaches and sideburns waxed and waned throughout human history? These questions have animated my colleagues, notably Dr. Barnaby Dixson and I, for several years now.

Over several studies, involving thousands of subjects, we have found that beards certainly influence men’s attractiveness to women—but not in a way that’s simple enough to provide clear directive to men hoping to maximize their appeal. If any grooming habit can be considered most attractive, it is the “heavy stubble” of roughly 10 days’ growth. But several factors make today’s grooming question—to shave or not to shave—much more fraught.

First, the answer depends on the type of face you have. Growing a beard enhances the attractiveness of men with very masculine or feminine facial features much more than it does for men with more attractive, average faces. Beards also obscure other facial irregularities, like a weak chin, so men might wish to base their grooming decisions on the quality of the raw material they are working with.

Second, a beard’s attractiveness depends on the beholder. Big bushy beards, well-groomed growth, stubble, and smooth faces each have their fans. That said, preferences do tend to vary depending on geography. In a big Internet survey we conducted across 87 countries, women from lower-income countries were more inclined to prefer beards than women from wealthier places. That’s not unexpected: in prosperous countries, men don’t compete as aggressively with one another, and there may even be a strategic advantage to men who back off on machismo and other overt displays of masculinity.

In the same paper, we also harnessed Facebook’s global reach to survey differences in facial hair trends among 94 cities in 37 countries. Hungarian Facebook users were the least hirsute nation, with 68% of men going completely clean-shaven, and only 8% wearing full beards. A mere 800 kilometers away, Italians embrace the beard more than the other nations surveyed, with only 28% going smooth.

New York City, despite its hipster reputation, houses the highest percentage of clean-shaven men (60%), while San Antonio, Texas, has the lowest (9%) of the eleven American cities we sampled. And the US is a true melting pot of facial hair: more than any other nation, it embraces moustaches, goatees, soul patches, and various combinations thereof. One American man in four wears one of these styles, three times more than elsewhere in the world.

Scholars of the beard have also drawn attention to facial-hair trends throughout history. From the resplendent wavy beards of Babylonians to Victorian England’s “mutton chop” sideburns, fashions have come, gone, and come again.

As ancient Rome grew in power and influence, for example, so its citizens, and especially its leaders, shaved or plucked out their facial hair with a mania never before witnessed in human history. From Scipio Africanus until Emperor Hadrian, smooth-skinned men presided over the Republic, and then the Empire, for nearly 350 years. As Republic subsided toward Empire, Julius Caesar employed slaves to pluck out his facial and body hair. Neither beauty nor world domination came without pain.

Most explanations for this lengthy period of fastidious Roman depilation suggest it had something to do with improved iron razors, and a snobbishness about their hairy Italian neighbors and enemies. (Carthaginians, Celts, Goths, Visigoths, Gauls, Huns, Vandals and all manner of Barbarian enemies of Rome wore and embellished their bushy beards.) The swerve back to beards with Hadrian is attributed to the emperor’s Spanish ancestry, his love of all things Greek, and rumored unsightly facial scars. Yet this hardly explains why most of the next 43 emperors over nearly two centuries wore beards, or why the clean-shaven Constantine the Great put Rome back on a largely hair-free path again.

Britannia rules the shave

In the 20th century, vast improvements in razor safety and effectiveness certainly made shaving easier. But why did men want to shave in the first place? One strong contender is the state of the mating market. Analyses of British facial hair and mating market trends between 1842 and 1971 show that facial hair is more popular when the number of marriageable men exceeds the number of women, and that men take up their razors again when outnumbered by women.

A male surplus amplifies competition among men for status, respect, and wealth. The signs of amped-up competition appear in rising theft, violence, risk-taking, and even in the probability of war. A trend toward beards doesn’t look too bad by comparison.

The link between competition and beards suggests that men’s shaving habits are about other men far more than they are about directly appealing to women. While evidence suggests beards have equivocal, weak effects on attractiveness, studies unite on the point that bearded men look more masculine and more mature than men who shave. It is no coincidence that the playoff beard finds the most enthusiasts in hockey—that most aggressive of North American professional sports.

The hipster beard fashion, which began about 10 years ago, coinciding with the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, is still going strong. The tanking economy at the time may well have intensified competition among men. Our Facebook study also shows, overall, that the bigger the city, the more likely men are to grow beards. When young men flock to financial and commercial centers, they skew both the sex ratio and economic inequality, piling on the competitive pressure and dampening the incentives to shave.

Famously competitive yet clean-shaven, New York City provides the obvious counterexample. But then one needn’t be a Sex and the City fan to know that the Big Apple has long had more men than women. In the rest of the country, expect to see continued fondness for facial hair in the South and the Rust Belt—areas that are dealing with economic stagnation and intense competition for jobs. The beards are in Trump country, not where his hotels and resorts are built.