If space aliens were to come to earth seeking the best male specimens for their collection, they might choose these four guys:
This picture was reposted with a seemingly innocent comment about how great they looked with their beards.
But there was a tang of rebellion in the compliment.
You see, these four men played football for BYU. Part of the Honor Code is that men must be clean-shaven, or at most, wear a mustache. This rule hardly mattered from the 80’s to the early 2000’s– anyone respectable was clean-shaven, so arguing against this rule was tantamount to arguing that you wanted to give the University a bad reputation. While I was there, to me, arguing against “the beard rule” looked like nothing more than asking to be a slouch about your personal hygiene.
Maybe part of that was because the first, and only, time I’ve seen my dad in a beard was when he came home from an extended hunting trip. We were thrilled when the station wagon pulled up to the house. My sisters and I ran out calling, “Daddy!” But I stopped in my tracks, aghast at the man with the giant black bush obscuring the lower half of his face who was hugging my older sister. He smelled bad, too. Shaving was just part of getting back to cleanliness.
But about five years ago, I was writing a scene where a character was growing a beard. I was trying to decide whether it was realistic for him to be handsome under those circumstances. I went to the grocery store and looked around to see if there were any men with beards that weren’t entirely scummy. There weren’t any, until I turned in to the cereal aisle, and way at the end was a fellow wearing a short beard, and he seemed okay. Satisfied that it was possible, I continued writing the scene.
However, now that I’d started looking for beards, I noticed them everywhere, and at an increasing rate. For example, at a Magic the Gathering pre-release event, out of about forty people, the only ones not wearing beards were my four children, me, two other women, and two men. Though I generally don’t mind being the only female in a group, there was this odd sense that the beards were a matter of pride, and not having one was what relegated a person to the “women and children” sphere. It put me in mind of when King David sent messengers to comfort the new king on his father’s death, and the new king shaved half the beard off each messenger’s face. But instead of just going clean-shaven, King David had them live by themselves until their beards grew back, so they could avoid the humiliation of going beardless. That was a culture where manliness was everything, and nothing screamed manliness like having a beard.
Still, in spite of friends telling me how toasty warm their beards kept them in the bitter winter wind, or how proudly they displayed the thick hair on their chins (one even decorated his with braids and Christmas ornaments), I’d guessed that beards were a short fashion trend.
But it’s stayed.
An article about the origins of the modern penchant for beards (warning: the article is PG-13) traced this facial hair trend to the U.S. special ops forces operating in Iraq. The irony was that the soldiers with the most deadly assignments were allowed to wear beards to build rapport with the locals, but the locals soon learned that the U.S. soldiers with the beards were the ones most to be feared. Within the military, being allowed (or required) to grow a beard was a visual statement that you were the best of the best. This feeling came home with the returning soldiers, and has now spread generally.
I thought the article was interesting, but it still just described a fashion choice, right? I mean, it’s just hair. Men can’t really care about it all that much, right?
A few weeks ago, just before sunrise, I was at a film shoot. There was an efficient process to get all the extras ready to go on set. Outside the last trailer, I noticed a bunch of men talking together, not quite upset, but definitely animated. It turned out that all but one of them had just had their beards shaved off. They were talking about how long they’d been growing them, how good they’d looked with them, how strange they felt without them. The one who’d been allowed to keep his was stroking it in a highly pleased way, occasionally throwing out comments about how the others’ beards obviously hadn’t been very good, or they’d have been allowed to keep them. Much later, as the sun was setting and everyone was back in street clothes, the men were still saying how unused they were to being without their beards, and wondering with more immediacy how their family members would react.
So is this simply a fashion trend? Or is it a cultural shift? If the decision to beard, or not to beard, has always had some deeply personal, even primal dimension to it, throwing off the shackles of shaving may really be the outward sign of a deeper cultural rumbling.