Friday, November 13, 2009

The Beard

One of the most interesting sexual differences between the sexes is the male ability to grow beards. Of course the ability to grow a beard varies from person to person and among some groups of people male facial hair is sparse or nearly nonexistent. But generally most of the world’s men have facial hair and this has given rise to a whole host of attitudes and reactions.

Just why for example most men can grow some sort of beard is a bit of am mystery; after all it certainly is not to keep our faces warm or to shield them from the sun. The most likely explanation is that the trait is linked to sexual selection in some manner.

For example it is possible that in the past women selected as mates men who had the most impressive amount of facial hair linking the beard with some sort of proof virility and ability to be a good mate. Possibly it was linked to making the male look more threatening by making his jaw and chin look larger. There is some evidence that facial hair does in fact make men look more threatening and in control.

Certain studies have for example indicated that beards make men look more authoritative and serious. Certainly from talking to younger men who look babyish; that they have told me they are taken more seriously if they have a beard.1

However Beards have often taken on a negative quality. It is of interest that much of the time the popular media associates beards with letting yourself go, and having difficulties. Further beards are often associated with being unclean and dirty.2

Exactly why this phobia emerged is of interest and why the tidal shifts of beards being in fashion and then not in fashion occur. However the horror against beards in the West has a long history.3

An example of the phobia against beards is the rather absurd example of Joseph Palmer, (1791-1875 C.E.). Now Mr. Palmer was a bit of a celebrity, abolitionist and all round did not take shit from anyone character. Not a great deal is known about his early life. He was a veteran of the war of 1812 and he was a farmer who had a small farm near the town of Fitchburg Massachusetts. Mr. Palmer was married and had a son. And sometime during his life he grew a truly magnificent set of whiskers. When in 1830 he moved to Fichburg he had a truly Patriarchal beard.4

Joseph Palmer’s Tombstone

Why he grew it and when for the first, (and last) time is not known, however what is unpleasantly known is the truly disgusting way in which his neighbours reacted.

Now this time period was one in which virtually the entire male population of the USA, with again virtually no exceptions was clean shaven and like far too many communities Fichburg was very intolerant of anyone who was “different”. The result was that Mr. Palmer was subjected to a rain of abuse that is truly sickening. The whole thing would be funny given the truly stupid reason for the persecution, except for the fact that Mr. Palmer and his wife and son had to endure this abuse for years.

So when in 1830 Mr. Palmer moved to Fitchburg what happened? Well the evidence indicates that Mr. Palmer was an honest and kind man but also a man of unbending principle and that included the right to wear a beard.

Aside from his wife and son being harassed, the windows on his house were repeatedly broken and he himself was publicly ridiculed by his “good” neighbours. A local reverend, George Task attacked him for his beard. Mr. Palmer replied by quoting the passages in Leviticus forbidding men from trimming their beards. Others openly said he should be prosecuted for wearing a beard. On his occasional visits to Boston crowds followed him poking fun at him.

As time went by in 1830 things got worst. Once at communion during a Church service the Pastor ignored him. Deeply wounding the very religious Mr. Palmer. He stopped attending Church. Not long after 4 men tried to shave his beard. They seized him and tried to do so forcibly. Mr. Palmer fought them off with a jackknife despite being injured in the assault. Mr. Palmer was charged with an unprovoked assault, arrested and fined. He refused to pay it and was jailed. He was in jail for over a year.

Mr. Palmer smuggled out letters describing his jail conditions, and anything else he had on his mind and of course complaining loudly that he had a right to wear a beard. Several attempts were made to forcibly remove Mr. Palmer’s beard while he was jailed. They all failed. His letters, which were published in newspapers made Mr. Palmer a celebrity and deeply embarrassed the good people of Fitchburg. He was finally told to just get out. However being a curmudgeon and very angry he refused to leave until he got an apology and the charges dropped and it was publicly proclaimed it was alright to wear a beard. He proved so difficult that eventually they were forced to lift the chair he was sitting in and move him and the chair out into the street outside the jail.

Afterwards Mr. Palmer became a sort of minor New England celebrity much involved in literary, Abolitionist and Temperance circles. He also lived along (1875 C.E.) enough to see beards become fashionable.5

Now what does Joseph Palmer’s rather bizarre story have to do with beards today? Well despite the amount of time that as past since this rather absurd series of events. There are large elements in our society that when they see male facial hair go EEEEEEWWWWWW YUCK!!! Men with beards are accused of “hiding” their appearance, of being unclean etc. Often a beard is described as an affectation. This is of Interest since if anything is an affectation it is shaving it off, which can be described as a form of bodily mutilation. Since having a beard is “natural” for most men, shaving it off is clearly “unnatural”, and that is the affectation.

The period of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century during which beards were fashionable did not last and beginning with the first world war and after beards declined and then almost completely disappeared and in fact by the 50’s even moustaches were rare among North American men. Of course this time period was also a period of truly stifling conformity in terms of looks. What with similar, haircuts, dress and all clean shaven men looked very much alike.6

So the beard fell into disrepute and even movies during this time period had hirsute individuals from history clean shaven. A classic example of this is Charlton Heston’s clean shaven Judah Ben Hur from the movie Ben Hur. It is highly unlikely that a believing, Palestinian Jew of the 1st century C.E., would NOT have a beard. Of course Jesus had to be shown with a beard because that is part of the iconography of the image of Jesus. That it is also correct is basically an accident.7

Now I know from people I’ve talked to that and from working with job finders that it is recommended that when you are looking for work that you shave off the beard because a lot of people react negatively to beards.

The arguments that beards are unclean sort of ignores the fact that shaving rips the skin of your face to shreds. The itch that many guys feel after stopping shaving is usually their skin healing!8

As to why men in today’s society grow beards? Well in my case it is because I can’t stand shaving. I would grow a full beard but I cannot, so I have this goatee. I still get people who tell me that I would look better if I shaved it off. Well I can only say is you can take my beard off after I’m dead; as far as I’m concerned it is staying on until then.

The Author

This lingering phobia about beards which goes with a lingering phobia about body hair in general is a rather deeply entrenched dislike which I think is rooted in attitudes towards cleanliness and death. Body hair being associated with un-cleanliness and filth and hence death.9

If a beard is good enough for Jesus; it is good enough for me.

Jesus Christ

1. Muscarella, Frank, & Cunningham, Michael R., The evolutionary significance and social perception of male pattern baldness and facial hair, Ethnology and Sociobiology, V. 17, No. 2, 1996, pp. 99-117.

2. Locke, Philip, Male Images in the Gay Mass Media and Bear-Oriented Magazines: Analysis and Contrast, The Bear Book, Editor Wright, Les, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1997, pp. 103-140, at pp. 106-108.

3. Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Woodsworth Editions Ltd., London, 1995, pp. 346-353.

4. Holbrook, Stewart, The Beard of Joseph Palmer, The Bear Book II, Editor Wright, Les, Harrington Park Press, New York, 2001, pp. 95-102, at p. 96. Originally published in The American Scholar, v. 13, No. 4, (Autumn 1944), pp. 55-58.

5. IBID, pp. 96-102.

6. Brian, Greg, Growing a Beard, Here.

7. Shaving in Judaism, Wikipedia, Here.

8. Shaving, Wikipedia, Here.

9. Locke, pp. 104-108.

Pierre Cloutier

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