Over the past few years, and mostly because of boredom, I’ve been experimenting with my facial hair. I grew my first beard by accident: there I was writing my dissertation and the next thing I knew I had a beard. So when I say I’ve experimented with different facial hair lengths, I should also say that I’ve done so without any particular bias to any particular beard length, and that my beard growing, at first, could mostly be attributed to a sort of indifference to not having a beard.
For any young man, it’s hard to navigate your way through society’s abundance of mixed messages about beards. Enter into any debates via the usual routes online and you’ll see that the beard is a topic with many 2D opinions and little general consensus. In 2017, The New York Times published an article entitled “Are Men With Beards More Desirable?”, which responded to a couple of other publications (namely Mashable and Vice) heralding that the beard was now out of fashion. The NY Times article went on to provide an overview of research from various studies that more or less concluded that facial hair is a good thing to have.
One of the reviewed studies found that men with facial hair were, by and large, found to be more attractive by heterosexual women and gay men. But while many people are ok with beards, there are many people who find them abhorrent. According to Huffington Post, beards are actually secret safe havens for faecal matter. For Time magazine, beards are purportedly good if you want respect from other men, but if you want to attract a mate, a beard won’t help you. Overall, across the articles, an equation emerges between beard and masculinity: the more facial hair you have the more “macho” you are.
Is there any meaning behind the seemingly conflicting narratives on the beard? In my experience, not exactly. But it’s complicated. I am someone who frequently rotates my way through the stops on the beard-cycle, and who looks pretty different at each. When I am clean shaven, I look quite young (partly because I am not very tall). And when I am fully bearded, my face is a generous provider of a bountiful harvest of dark, thick hair (partly because of my Mediterranean blood). But overall, my experiences are a little different to what you might expect given the media narratives.
When I do have one, I feel my full beard prompts a mixture of responses among strangers. I also hear myself being referred to as “the man” more often than “the guy”, in those strange situations in public life where it is necessary for someone to refer to you. Yet, I seem not to be the object of question when I have a full beard. Naturally, people who don’t know me seem to think I’m older than I actually am. No surprises there. (Someone I worked with even went some months thinking I was 27 when in fact I was 22.) Being bearded in customer-facing jobs, people seem to want to challenge me less. When I am advising those customers, I feel they trust me more. No one outright finds bearded-me disgusting and says so. The only time my beard has ever been pointed out was by a group at a pub who were trying to work out at what point stubble becomes a beard and who wanted my opinion.
Just as men with beards can look older, men without them can look younger. In my experience, I get asked for ID more when clean shaven. Somehow, despite the supposedly precarious position they hold in society, it is without a beard that I feel I am more likely to experience people paying me less attention or treating me with more scepticism. In points of contact with strangers I don’t seem to be as convincing: customers are more demanding in various jobs I’ve had; strangers seem to treat me less as an adult in working life and more as a student.
While, in my own personal experience, there are clear pointers to facial hair having an effect on people’s perception of a man, I feel these experiences do not reflect the media narratives mentioned above, nor do they have anything to do with being macho. In my case, having a beard may support an illusion that I’m slightly older and more mature and may therefore have had more life experiences and should be questioned less. And being clean shaven may support an illusion that I am young and maybe relatively immature. It is probably likely that people act according to their split-second perception of my age rather than just whether or not I have a beard. Fortunately, meaningful relationships are not formed on the basis of split-second judgements.
So, does facial hair affect the way you are perceived? Yes, but the effects are superficial.