Beards and the Champions Who Don Them: Perspective from a Beardless Man
"There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. This period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard." - Jean Cocteau (Ironically un-bearded French auteur)
*In Danish, skaeg means both "beard" and "fun." Never forget this, dear reader.
As a true Irishman, I descend from hairy male stock. My grandfather had to shave daily to combat his veritable man-scarf, my father has a glorious goatee that predates my existence, and my brother was sporting a weak, yet admirable, mustache by the tender age of ten. I, on the other hand, have been cursed with a patchy network of little more than sparse whiskers of various red and golden hues since the dawn of my post-pubescence. For someone who was longing for (and expecting the eventual emergence of) a triumphant imperial in the second grade, to say that this is a bummer would be an exercise in the subtle rhetorical art of the understated.
If I could clench my eyes and teeth and will a beard into existence I would. I would value it as my most prized physical asset; I would caress it; I would nurture it. Above all, I would treat it with the respect a beard commands. Alas, my eternal adolescent countenance is beyond my control. I have never (nor will ever, it seems) have the follicle capacity for true beardery. As such, I'm left admiring other gentlemen's facial cultivation.
In much the same way that I will never be the starting shortstop for my beloved Detroit Tigers, I will likewise never sit in on the keyboards for ZZ Top. However, despite my lacking facial hair, I have and will always value the beard as a symbol of virility, power, and wisdom. In doing so, I hope to celebrate all the beardiful men (and women) who have come before me, as well as all those who are still nothing more than a twinkle in their father's beards. The way I see it, just because I can't be part of the club, doesn't mean I can't support everything that the beard stands for.
Sadly, most men take their beards (or any such iteration thereof) for granted, never fully realizing the inherent power their sprouting roots afford them. Facial hair has the imposing ability to vanquish would-be tyrants and the raw masculine strength to ensnare the most beautiful members of the unsuspecting fairer sex into it's love nest of scratchy seduction. For these obviously self-evident reasons, the beard should be respected, admired, and adored by all.
With this in mind, I'd like to take a brisk stroll through the wondrous follicle gardens of history to examine the notion of beardliness as manliness.
The Origins of Pure Masculinity
As we'd expect from the greatest naturally occurring accessory in the history of nature or accessories, the beard has an extensive, rich narrative. For instance, all of the great civilizations of antiquity held facial hair in the highest esteem. The Egyptians valued the soul patch as a status symbol and fashioned intricately adorned facsimiles replete with golden threads and amber dyes that were worn by both noblemen and women alike. In India, the beard signified dignity and wisdom and could be used as a form of currency to settle a debt. In fact, they placed such a premium on their facial hair that a common punishment for sexual crimes was to cut the beard off of the offender. Early Gaelic cultures considered clean shaven men as contemptible vermin, affording them little social respect. During the Medieval period, grabbing a man by the beard was grounds for a duel (This seems like a practice that should still apply today. Who grabs a man's beard?)
Sadly, after thousands of years of beard enthusiasm, a select few just had to ruin the fun for everyone. If you're searching for someone specific to blame for the decline in the popularity of the beard (as I am), look no further than 17th century Western Europe. During this period, beards became synonymous with a barbarous, uncivilized lifestyle. Peter the Great, attempting to mimic the more cosmopolitan beauty aesthetic of other European cultures, actually went so far as to ban facial hair by levying a tax against bearded citizens. Sadly, this sort of censorship still exists on the campus of BYU today, despite the fact that the university's namesake often donned a beard himself.
Despite a brief rise in popularity during the mid 1800s (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), by the turn of the century, voluminous beards had again fallen out of favor, but the era did see a rise in facial manscaping that had a lasting effect on future generations of imperial enthusiasts. Prominent cultural figures of the time proudly sported their luxurious mustachios in the name of global conquest, and the first generations of blue-collar workers packed their lunch with thick mutton chops on their faces and thick mutton chops in their pails. The sophistication with which we were now waging war, manufacturing material goods, and traveling was now matched by our ability to enhance the appeal of our rugged faces through obscuration - a visual paradox that remains true today.
Around this time, the great philosophical minds and political scientists of the modern age such as Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, and Valdmir Lenin began styling their beards into a variety of distinct designs. Popular follicle expressions of the time included the Balbo, the Garibaldi, the Chinstrap, and the Hulihee, and most of these are still seen on hippies and hipsters alike. These innovative styles are the result of thousands of years of social evolution, and should be studied and understood by anyone hoping to contribute to the betterment of posterity.
Now that we've brushed up a bit on the social conventions of our bearded forefathers, let's examine more closely some of the more influential and dynamic facial manipulations they inspired.
Inhumane genetic manipulation of billions of fowl notwithstanding, Colonel Sanders was one rad hombre - as evidenced by the pristine tufts of unicorn-white hair resting softly in a vertical fashion below his lips and horizontally above them. A more delicately fashioned ancestor of the "Mark Twain," Sanders took the goatstache to the next level and made it his signature look.
Perhaps the most important, if not interesting, facet of The Colonel's facial stylings lies in the interdisciplinary undertones of this magnificent amalgamation of previous designs. Never in the grand history of our planet has a fast-food magnate been so simultaneously in tune (seemingly) and out of touch (obviously) with the youth movement. Officer Sanders didn't don this ridiculous follicle fashion because he wanted to be well-regarded by the counter-culture; he wore his beard this way because he knew it was amazing and that he had the masculine fortitude to do so.
This timeless beard design will forever be associated with the ultimate poultry slayer, but is currently being revived by a select few of my hipster neighbors. I'm not sure why they feel they can pull off such a singularly complex style, but I guess ripping off other people's identities is kind of their thing, so... there you go.
Neil Young (c. 1976)
Unlike many of his contemporaries that have since faded from memory, Neil Young's musical impact is still resonating with the rock and roll artists of today. Thankfully, for the rest of us, so are his mutton chops. While Neil clearly looks phenomenal in the photo above, he actually owes a significant debt to one of America's all-time morons for initally blazing the trail for Young and other proponents of lazy shaving.
As you can see, mutton chops are a not-so-distant relative of sideburns, the etymology of which can be traced to disgraced Union General Ambrose Burnside. Ambrose's ridiculously long facial hair extended below his temples to the point just above the jaw before making a sharp 90 degree turn inward on both sides of his face, eventually crossing the land bridge that he called an upper lip, where everything was then seamlessly connected.
Viewed as a rising star after a series of minor military successes, Burnside accepted command of the Army of the Potomac in 1862. Given the widely accepted historical viewpoint that Mr. Burnside was either a stupendous idiot or a homicidal sociopath, this proved to be a poor choice. After carefully planning an attempt to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, he ran into Robert E. Lee at the infamous Battle of Fredricksburg and, after repeated (and I do mean repeated) exposed frontal attacks on the city, Burnside and his men had to retreat just four days after the battle began. In all, The Battle of Fredricksburg cost the Union over 12,000 casualties, well more than twice that of the Confederacy. Needless to say, Burnside's military reputation was basically decimated, but despite his homicidal lunacy, his innovative facial design remains as a masculine testament to the socially apathetic.
Sadly, Neil has since shaved the hair steaks plastered to his face, but the dream is still alive and well as evidenced by Mr. Handsomepants himself, Liev Schreiber, Wolverine, and the ugliest man alive, Lemmy from Motorhead.
For those of you unfamiliar with the transcendent satirical genius of South Park, Randy Marsh is the father of Stan Marsh, one of four boys around whom the show's basic plot structures generally revolve. As his goofy everyman personality has become more appreciated among the show's vast fan base over time, his character has grown to the extent that he is now arguably one of the most beloved figures in American television.
At first glance, Randy appears as your standard non-descript small-town family man, but he's so, so much more. Randy is currently unemployed, but he used to work as a poorly qualified geologist. He's known for his exceptionally crass exploits as evidenced by his obsession with Wal-Mart, affinity for creme fraiche, occasional unintentional racism, and his brief time as a member of a boy band. He's even been awarded a Nobel Prize, although it was later stripped from him after it was discovered that the method he had previously used to solve a worldwide crisis had actually caused the Global Warming phenomenon.
Randy is usually seen wearing a light blue shirt with twin breast pockets holding a small collection of pens and a pad of note paper (he is, after all, a geologist). However, his true strength lies in his luscious body hair, particularly the thick mustache he consistently sports that is known in hillbilly circles as the "Chevron" - implying an unflattering yokel connotation. This brand of thick mustache has been around for centuries, but it really came to prominence in the '70s. Reasons for this vary, but scholars maintain that the free love movement was likely a major contributing factor in its popularity... well, not really, but I do.
As you can see, the hair above his upper lip is plush, but also well-kempt. No one ever mentions his radically retro facial hair, but I know that, for me, it has always made the character feel more relateable. It's also clear that a good portion of Randy's identity is wrapped up in his 'stache. Even after suffering from a nearly fatal bout with a DUI causing him to shave his head to due his alcoholism, the mustache remains a permanent fixture on Randy's upper lip suggesting a true love affair with his facial hair.
Randy is following in a long line of distinguished gentlemen who have neglected to shave their upper lip in an effort to appear nonchalantly at ease with themselves. Today, hack comedian Jeff Foxworthy, left-turn expert Richard Petty, and purveryor of paranoia and unethical journalism Geraldo Rivera all sport admirable Chevrons, but none compare to the awe-inspiring radiance of Randy's.
Teach Me, Unite Us
So, what does it mean to be bearded in the modern age? How do we quantify the qualitative attributes that are seemingly linked to matured whiskers? These are extremely complex questions, but they can be broken down and examined from several different aspects.
- Does facial hair necessarily lead to an ascribed status as a sex symbol? In most cases, yes. Tom Selleck as Magnum P.I. was far more desirable than Ted Danson as Sam Malone on Cheers. This has nothing to do with bone structure and everything to do with mustaches (and the latter's lack therof).
- Is there any truth to the notion that bearded individuals are intrinsically more intelligent than the rest of us? This depends heavily on regional demographics, but, in all areas outside of the southeastern United States, most likely. Think of the most brilliant men in the history of civilization: With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre basically everyone from Socrates to Shakespeare had excellent facial hair. I assure you, this is not a fluke.
- Facial hair naturally lends itself to a sense of dignity, is this a visual anomaly or an established truth? Mankind is inherently depraved, there is no such thing as dignity. However, according to a recent study released in the Journal of Marketing Communications, bearded men were deemed more trustworthy. You may yourself may be suspicious of this research, but it nevertheless points to the beard's ability to paradoxically mask man's more savage nature while externally presenting our mammilian features.
As previously discussed, the beard has traditionally signified a sense of manly purpose, reverent wisdom, and supernatural strength. And I believe that all of these attributes still apply just as much today as they did in Ancient Carthage. However, as our society has "advanced," the onus is now on the bearded to teach the rest of us the way. It's not so much that the non-bearded pupil can never reach noble heights, but that they will likely only do so under the sage-like tutelage of a hairy, hairy individual... or a woman.