“Dude’s got a beard.”
That’s a transcript of my conversations with guys about other guys. We can talk about interests or beers or sports, or what we both did on the weekend, but mostly when we talk about others, it’s about a chin. Which is fine. To be expected even, given we’re men and beards are masculine, etc. But why is that? Why is the beard our sign of masculinity, some hair follicles we are so readily split either side of?
Beardedness isn’t anything new, and men are generally pretty hairy. My ass is like a national park. However, the way the beard has been reintroduced in such a marked way over the last couple of years is worthy of analysis. But no-one’s doing it. Instead we have cringe-worthy articles copying beard puns from the last guy, in-depth critiques of celebrity stubble and the inevitable memes or Chuck Norris jokes. Our alpha bloggers post regularly on why we should all grow beards, and photographers piece together coffee-table books of beard narcissists. And the academic world’s answer? A few troublesome studies on facial hair levels for attracting (hopefully) submissive females.
Sometime last year, I decided I might as well keep my beard until the World’s Greatest Shave. Friends and family ended up raising a little over $2000, we had a huge party and I didn’t really feel any different after. I mean, I didn’t have to shampoo and condition every two days, but I was still the same.
The process of growing my beard taught me a lot about the men around me. For one, we’d all started defining ourselves against a beard. We’d talk a lot about how great mine was getting, how pissed they were they couldn’t grow one, how it made me more rugged and manly, and then it’d usually end with them running their hands through it. Even if it was jokingly, my beardless peers would frame themselves as lesser men than I was. It was a strange experience, because if I’m held up as a light of masculinity (whatever that is), then there’s probably something wrong with our bigger picture.
Valuing and devaluing ourselves based on a single characteristic is pretty common for most men. Nowadays, we can understand that masculinity is a large and complex spectrum, but part of the problem is that men are still positioned as one or two-dimensional shapes, floating out in the ether and readily split into binaries. It’s these contradictions that cloud current thinking, producing skewed perceptions of self, where embodied complexity doesn’t play ball with public representation. Can a man really be able to change a tyre AND be sensitive AND have a beard?
Gender theory is complex and often contradictory, but one way the scholar Judith Butler sees gender is as a performative act, with no ‘true’ male or female identity. The problem with beards, and the problem with broad gender identities, is that we take an external characteristic or act and take it as an internal quality of the performer, or of ourselves when we are ‘performing’.
As a performative gender act, they are perpetuated as a sign – a myth of connotative masculinity signified. A beard becomes more than a beard, in the way that it stands for a social understanding of masculinity that works outside the male subject ‘performing’ the gesture. Internally, I’m the same with a beard as without one. Externally, I am not, sitting inside a system of understanding with a narrow conception of manliness. This unequitable system of hegemonic masculinity doesn’t actually reflect real lives and real gender identities. We are complex, and we need to recognise it, but the recent reintroduction of beards as male mythology deprives us of a chance for that recognition.
So how did beards become an overarching male ideal? There’s no easy answer for the recent trend: men trying to assert themselves in a post-GFC world, a response to the feminisation of men, a declaration of authority and wisdom, or because it looked alright on George Clooney and Ben Affleck. Moreover, beards have always had fluctuating levels of growth throughout history, so the trend might just be an inevitable return. That return can’t go unquestioned though. The beard has undoubtedly become appropriated by ‘the man’ – a manliness that is bigger than us plebs. It marks a resurgent masculinity (or male dominance) that was threatened with decline, in a world of broadening notions of gendered existence.
Heavy, right? It’s a lot to think about before picking up your razor in the morning. Which is exactly why the consequences of lived masculinities require attention. We need to be able to accept men as falling between extremes, not on them, and to grasp masculinity and femininity as two intricate but not exclusive concepts. Then broader, outside ethnocentric and heteronormative boundaries. We should be questioning why Western beards are met with appreciation, and Eastern – and Middle Eastern – men with beards are often met with detraction.
Arguably, we’re now sitting at the climax of beard culture. But the relics will be a few memes and a UNSW facial hair attractiveness study – conducted when an oscillating trend reached a peak in popularity, made sweeping, blog-ready generalisations and was fraught with issues of size-limitation, restricted demographics and heterosexual preferencing. Welcome to the modern world, where we keep affirming a dichotomous understanding of males and females. That hard (or soft) line around a chin, just for the sake of asserting manliness, means narrowing understanding of what constitutes a man.
All of this sucks, of course, when I can’t get away with not shaving just because I’m lazy. We’ve got to let it be a thing, rather than fiercely tying our masculinity to it. Real men can like sport and hard work, but also like 80s teen dramas and talking about feelings. So if you’re growing a beard to prove you’re a man, maybe have another think. I’ll be sitting around with my hairless mates, sporting a week’s artless growth, sipping on a tinny and toasting female heads of industry.
Featured image by Rebecca Lourey