Why Men Grow Beards When Times Get Tough
Jim Carrey called his quarantine beard a ‘meaningless transformation,’ but psychologically it’s not meaningless at all
Jim Carrey is doing it. Stephen Colbert had something going on in that last episode before The Late Show went on hiatus. My own husband, who couldn’t grow a full beard with Rogaine and Jason Mamoa’s mandible, is currently sporting a kind of adorable patchwork-type thing. A lot of men are responding to the coronavirus crisis by swapping their ordinarily clean-shaven visages for scraggly quarantine beards.
Is it because extreme times call for extreme grooming decisions? (We’ve all seen Mad Max.)
Is it because the beard is a calendar, measuring time like tick marks on the wall of a prison cell?
Is it because beards are cozy and warm and don’t require a lot of effort? Because they’re the sweatpants of the face?
In an informal survey on social media, many of my male friends told me they’ve at least partially altered their grooming habits since the onset of isolation. Growing a full beard, skipping the beard trim but keeping up with the ’stache, letting carefully trimmed edges run wild, or going whole-hog in-country SEAL Team 6. Some said they just didn’t like shaving or were using this time to test out alternative beard looks they’d been curious about. Some hoped to please a significant other who preferred a facial hair style not sanctioned by work.
Most of them claimed they were growing beards out of a combination of laziness and curiosity. But that still didn’t explain why everyone had the same idea in reaction to the same event, or why growing a beard feels like a natural response to a temporary breakdown in social order.
So I called Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history lecturer at Wright State University who wrote Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair.
“I call it the quest beard,” he said.
Quest beards, Oldstone-Moore says, are a common phenomenon in facial hair. Soldiers and explorers once grew them as a way to bond over common purpose. The classic modern example is the sports team en route to a national championship: All the teammates on the 2013 Boston Red Sox, for example, grew their beards for an entire season in their attempt to win the World Series. Al Gore, when he reinvented himself as a climate change activist after losing the 2000 presidential election, grew a subgenre of the quest beard: the vacation beard, signifying a personal or psychological journey.
Men grow quest beards as a way to mark a period of endurance and perseverance, when success can be won or lost on commitment and will. By the end of the 2013 season, Red Sox fans were showing up to games wearing fake yarn beards in support. The Sox won the World Series. The beards worked! (Probably.)
Surprisingly, Oldstone-Moore says, bearded times are unusual in European and American history. Since Alexander the Great first shaved his face to imitate the gods, bare chins have generally been the norm in Western business and politics, with exceptions for times when people have wanted to strongly identify with manhood. In the 19th century, for example, facial hair went in vogue as male power and ownership became a dominant focus of postindustrial life. Growing a beard was a way to connect with what was then a fundamental idea of masculinity — that all men were endowed by nature with a certain status and simply needed to claim it.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we were inching beardward again. “We’re in a point of time where we’re seriously considering abolishing gender,” or at least rethinking it, Oldstone-Moore says. “The phrase ‘crisis of masculinity’ is overused, but I think there’s some anxiety about the status of masculinity.” Because beards are a way of holding onto masculinity as it’s being questioned, they have not diminished in popularity since the hipster resurgence of the early aughts. If you don’t believe me, look at literally any ad.
Growing a beard while homebound and avoiding the coronavirus may seem like a silly choice, but it is an act that has powerful psychological and social effects. In both history and Hollywood, beards stand for toughness, strength, adventurousness, and even aggression. And now is a perfect moment to play dress-up with all those qualities. We are in a time of pervasive uncertainty, when the whole country is looking to fill a void of bold decision-making and fortitude. A beard can provide a man under such conditions with a subconscious feeling that he is both prepared for and well-suited to whatever comes next. It’s the grooming equivalent of planting a subsistence garden and buying an ax.
So, what if you’ve decided to eschew the traditionally masculine, aggressive-looking beard and opted instead for a skinny mustache or mutton chops? It’s the same type of response. When work and social identity is disrupted, you can, temporarily at least, be anything you want.