The Beard

A razor-sharp consideration of men's facial hair.


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I have never known my husband without his beard, a fact that disturbed me in the early years of our relationship. What was he hiding: a weak chin, a saber scar, a slothful nature, a psychological need for a barrier between himself and the world? But as time passed, I no longer felt the need to ask these questions. I now know my husband, and the beard is part of who he is. This seems to me to relate to the question that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson raised about the old man with the cane: Where does the one end and the other begin? Impossible to say, Bateson concluded, since the two cannot be functionally separated. A beard may seem less functional than a cane, but the choice to grow a beard has a function, though it may not be singular or simply articulated.


When I thumb through my husband’s high school yearbook and see his pale smooth face (smooth, he notes, because his spotty adolescent complexion had been airbrushed), he seems alien, but alien in a particular way. The absence of the beard, far from making him look like someone else or uncovering some hidden aspect of himself, makes him look incomplete: raw and unformed. One could say he had yet to grow into his beard, both literally and metaphorically — he had yet to become himself. For some men, a mid-life crisis would consist in growing a beard; for my husband, it would mean shaving his off.

In primitive societies, a beard was often the sign of masculinity, but in advanced societies, the hormonal equation ceases to be meaningful, sex and gender having thankfully diverged. Men now don’t need to feel bad if they can’t grow a beard, and if they can and do, they can make the beard mean what they wish. I am reminded of Robert Graves’s poem, “The Naked and the Nude,” which defines nakedness and nudity according to the attitude that accompanies these states. Although beards ostensibly cover up rather than expose, one can apply the same ideas in describing them: my husband’s short boxed beard seems analogous to Graves’s nakedness in being modest and expressing his true self, while aggressively ornamental beards like the Manchu or the Van Dyke seem akin to Graves’s nudity; they seem like vain or duplicitous accessories. Yet such a correspondence is also subject to inversion. I had a colleague once whose seemingly modest beard trumpeted his vanity — he was playing the role of the serious academic, down to the pipe and the patches on his jacket sleeves. And I once took my children to a pediatrician who had a ducktail beard with a handlebar mustache that served as a kind of self-affixed toy: my children stared at it and forgot they were getting a shot. As such, it seemed as far from a piece of vanity as one could get.

One might say that the difference between my pediatrician’s beard and my husband’s is the difference between a French and English garden. Both are tended carefully, though one draws attention to the fact while the other has an aesthetic of naturalness that obscures its manicured nature. A truly unruly beard, akin to an untended garden, strikes me as off-putting. But then, I am a city person who doesn’t like camping or hiking in the wild; my response to an unruly beard is thus limited by my experience and taste.

Beards have risen and fallen in popularity over the course of history. Greeks favored them. Romans (at least late Romans) did not. They disappeared among the upper classes in Europe in the early 17th century, then reappeared during the Victorian era, only to decline again in the 20th century. It is interesting to think of the many great men in history who had beards: Socrates, Christ, Lincoln, Freud, Lenin(the first two represented at least as having them). Imaginary figures like Santa Claus and Father Time — beneficent, wise, and elderly — are represented with beards; angels, in being androgynous and young, are represented without. Almost all movie stars since the beginning of the medium have been beardless in their offscreen image– Brad Pitt, seen recently in People with a bushy beard, is an exception, though this seems intended to oppose his movie star image and underline his seriousness about Third World issues and familial responsibility. Madison Avenue advertisers in the mid-20th century can be credited with popularizing clean-shaven male jaws (Noxema Medicated Shaving Cream was perhaps most influential with its “Take it off. . . take it all off” exhortation). The counter-culture of the late 1960s brought beards back into public view, at least in oppositional mode. Al Gore grew a beard at the height of his environmental activism but also after his political career was over. The beard seemed to express both his purity of vision and his obsolescence (he also got heavy). One cannot imagine a serious politician these days wearing a beard.

Alexander the Great presumably forbade the growing of beards in his army; he was concerned that the enemy would take hold of the hair for leverage. Few professional athletes have beards, perhaps for the same reason, though I notice a rise among football players these days, particularly linemen. It seems to me that a beard belongs on a baseball player, given the pastoral aspect of the game. George Steinbrenner presumably banned beards during his ownership of the Yankees, but then the Yankees wear pinstripes; they are the corporate incarnation of the sport. I’d like to see a baseball team that embraces its bucolic associations (and oppose the Yankees) by having all its players grow beards.

Jews have always had an interesting relationship to beards. Being of this ethnicity, I can report first-hand the odd and often circuitous turns this has taken over the generations.  The Orthodox of the religion have traditionally worn beards because the Bible (Leviticus) states: “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard” — hence the wearing of sidelocks or peyot as well as beards. But in the Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Bible, the subject undergoes clarification and, predictably, grows more murky. The Talmud limits the prohibition to touching the skin with a razor, and since scissors have double blades so that cutting occurs within the instrument, trimming with scissors is permitted.  This Talmudic fine point is said to have opened the way for electric razors, which function on hair follicles as scissors do and allow for a trim that doubles as an actual shave. Still, many in the religion feel this is splitting hairs (so to speak) and prohibit electric razors. (No doubt a rabbinical debate is raging on the subject as I write.)

The sons of Jewish immigrants in America, bent on assimilation, abandoned beards as a way of opposing both religious orthodoxy and the shtetl mentality associated with their fathers. Look at Al Jolson as compared his cantor father in 1927’s The Jazz Singer. That movie, which introduced sound to motion pictures, dramatizes a break with old ways, both in content and form.

In the ’60s, my father grew his sideburns to laughable lengths. He wanted to oppose the ’50s clean-shaven ideal and show solidarity with the counter-culture without embracing the beard of his grandfather (he failed to realize, of course, that long sideburns were a stylized version of the Old-World peyot). My husband, however, distanced enough from the ancestral beard, was able to grow one without compunction. Yet his beard, though it rejects the clean-shaven jaw of his and my father’s generation, has none of the unruly plenitude of the Talmudic scholar. It is a short, neat beard; professional, not rabbinical. One could say that my husband chose to grow a beard much as he chose to buy a Victorian house in a Quaker town — his beard was a return to an old way, but someone else’s old way. I should be thankful, I suppose, that he didn’t grow an Amish beard.

My son, at 25, sports something that alternates between a five o’clock shadow and a two-day stubble. I personally am not crazy about this; it looks as though he has forgotten to shave. But I suppose this is the point — the look is an affectation of forgetting to shave, not a real forgetting. As I think more about it, the shadow/stubble carries interesting resonance. Unlike my husband’s clipped boxed beard with its sense of modesty and stability, my son’s quasi-beardedness is more whimsical, more a self-proclaimed mask. It also announces its transitory state unequivocably: No sooner is it achieved than it is erased in order to be begun again. This seems emblematic of our current Internet culture which is ephemeral and continually in need of updating. My son’s quasi-beardedness may also reflect a slowing of the progress from childhood to maturity, what sociologists, referring to the years between 20 and 30, have dubbed “emerging adulthood.” This state of being is further reinforced by the current depressed economy. When my son is working (or has a job interview), he can shave his stubble and appear fresh-faced and corporate; when he isn’t, he can let the stubble grow so as to affect a full slacker look. The growth, however, is never so long as to risk confusion with his bearded father — that is the asymptote not to be reached. If a beard does anything, I have concluded, it defines a man against his father.

In the end, I think we need to look beyond men to women in understanding what my son’s shadow/stubble means. Women, let’s face it, give mixed messages about what they want — and male facial hair is no exception. Shakespeare’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing put it well in describing our difficulty in settling on a preference. She notes: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth and he that hath no beard is less than a man.” If today’s young men have figured out how to resolve this double bind, I applaud them. • 23 November 2010


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.