The End of Beards? Scientists and Trendsetters Agree That Beards May Be On The Wane
Perhaps you’ve come upon any of the recent declarations that the end is near – of the beard. In some cases, these are the same columns or blogs that a year ago told us beards were in. (Guilty) While there may be no sharp demarcation between bearded and non-bearded periods, there certainly are trends, and there is evidence that the great bearded trend of the past couple of years is ebbing. This is not encouraging news for men who’ve spent months and even years cultivating the perfect beard, and even less so for those who’ve spent thousands of dollars on facial-hair transplants to attain the hipster ideal. One theory is that hipsters themselves are on the way out and taking beards with them. But beards have been around a lot longer than hispters, so that couldn’t fully account for the decline in facila hair. What’s interesting is that the downward curve isn’t just another fashion forecast coming from zealots and prophets; we’re hearing it from scientific sources. Apparently scientists are very curious as to the coming and going of beards. Before we get to that, let’s have a quick review of how beards as we know them got here.
Without going back to ancient times, which we can assume were pretty hairy, the modern American beard’s legacy can be traced to the 19th century when would-be shavers had to contend with the straight razor. This paper-thin blade required expert maintenance and utilization – a simple slip of the hand could prove treacherous. Men were fearful of literally cutting their own throats, though the bigger culprit, also potentially lethal culprit was tetanus from ill-kept blades. Many men also lacked clean water, good lighting and quality products with which to shave, thus shaving was a craft best relegated to barbers. Understandably, many men avoided it altogether, and for the first time in centuries, an era of beards ensued. Aesthetic justifications soon followed the more pragmatic concerns. Walt Whitman waxed poetic about beards, and the notion of the beard being a trait of the conquering races gained popularity among the drawing-room elite. Beards were also in part a response to the women’s rights movement, a way of affirming masculinity in the face of shifting traditional definitions. They also set American men apart from cleanshaven foreigners. Overall, for the 19th-century American male, the beard became a distinguishing symbol. But with the advent of accessible barbers and more dependable shaving tools, men gradually shed their fear of the razor, and their beards in turn.
The first half of the 20th century was relatively cleanshaven. The notable exception was the 1929 stock market crash, after which there was a spike in beard growth that some social sceintists theorize was a reaction to the difficult times. After the depression, beards didn’t make a significant comeback until the 1950s with the beatniks and then flourished anew in the hippy moevment of the 60’s. In the 1970s beards gave way to big disco moustaches, with facial hair evnetually being entirely rejected by punks and new wavers. By the 90s, facial hair had all but dissapeared, and it seemed that men had been and would be clean-shaven forever. And so it largely remained – until the 2010s.
Why the recent beard boom? Beyond fashion and style, and the rise and inevitable fall of hipster chic, scientists present us with different overlapping theories. One is that the boom corresponds to male societal competition. Basically, the more crowded with men the society, the more competition, and the more flamboyantly “badges” of masculinity are displayed, beards being among the most obvious. A related theory, hinted at earlier, is that beards have made a comeback due to difficult, stressful times, and young men competing both for work and for mates turn up the masculinity.
But the ebb and flow of men's beard may ultimately be guided by Darwinian selection. According to another recent study, the pattern mirrors an evolutionary phenomenon - "negative frequency-dependent sexual selection" - or, more simply put, the advantage of rare traits. Seen in this light, men first started copying the likes of a masculine ideal like George Clooney by wearing beards. More and more men become bearded until a peak beard point is reached, beyond which the distinguishing value of facial hair begins to diminish. Accordingly, it would seem that our current cultural beard cycle has peaked, as evidenced by all the film stars, footballers and even bankers who started sporting facial hair. Assuming that we recahed "peak beard" in 2014, the pendulum has naturally started swinging back towards less facial hair. In sum, the attractiveness of either bearded or clean-shaven faces grows the rarer it is, notably in the context of mating. Translated to fashion, the more commonplace a trend, the more blah.
So what to do now that the beard you took months to grow is on the brink of becoming passé? One safe option of course is simply to keep your facial hair shorter and neatly groomed. Or if you're ready to take the plunge, just shave it all off. After all, if you wait long enough, the trend cycle will repeat itself and you can grow a beard all over again.