Does The Beard Make The Man?
But beards are still here — at the Oscars, parading down catwalks and on regular guys. Could it be that beards are more than a fashion statement?
Science suggests that facial hair — from scruffy day-old stubble to full Grizzly Adams — is imbued with social messages, and can play a significant role in a man’s love life.
Last year, researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia decided to explore male facial hair to determine what role, if any, beards play in sexual attractiveness, masculinity and short- and long-term relationships.
The team gathered data from 8,520 women, who were divided among three groups. Each group of women was shown pictures of men with varying degrees of facial hair. The images, which had been manipulated by the research team to show the same men more or less bearded, showed the men with clean shaven faces, light stubble (five days of growth) heavy stubble (10 days of growth) and a thick beard representing about one month of growth.
Next, each group of women was asked to mull a different question about the man’s sex appeal.
The first group rated the men’s beardless-to-bearded faces for overall sexual attractiveness.
The second group also rated the photos, but this time they were asked to score the pictures based on short-term attractiveness: Which of the men seemed most desirable for a fling or a one-night stand?
The third group rated the men in the photos as long-term prospects: Which of the men had a face that suggested he might be a good candidate for marriage and commitment?
The answers, which were published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, varied depending on what the woman was looking for. Overall, the women said the sexiest men were those sporting heavy stubble, followed by short stubble. Men with full beards and clean-shaven men were rated the lowest on the overall sexiness scale.
What kind of man is most attractive to a woman looking for a short-term fling or one-night stand? Men with light stubble won that contest, closely followed by men with heavier stubble, suggesting that the scruffy look appeals to women looking for fun, but not commitment.
But when it came to choosing a long-term partner, a guy with whom a woman could have babies or settle in for the duration, the more facial hair the better. Men with heavy stubble and full beards were the clear winners on this question, suggesting that men who are ready to commit might do better if they shave less often.
The authors of the study theorize that for women who are looking for a long-term mate, beardedness may be more attractive as it “indicates a male’s ability to compete for resources.”
Barnaby Dixson, a human behavioral ecologist at the University of Queensland and a co-author of the beard length study, has been researching mate preferences for a decade. He explains that both sexes judge men with beards as older and more masculine, and describe them as generous, sincere, industrious and self-confident.
But Dr. Dixson, who sports a full beard, says research has also found that facial hair is associated with some antisocial traits, such as aggression and social dominance. While these traits might not be pleasant if you’re looking for a fun fling, they might be alluring if you want an alpha male to support your family and fend off predators.
It’s not just women who prefer bearded alpha males — men also prefer men with facial hair.
Dr. Dixson and colleagues asked 1,577 men and women from Brazil and the Czech Republic about facial hair. Compared to heterosexual women, gay men had stronger preferences for men with more facial hair.
“Homosexual men preferred hairier stimuli than heterosexual women, supporting past findings that homosexual men have strong preferences for masculine traits,” the authors reported.
Brazilians preferred bigger beards than Czechs. Homosexual men preferred men with beards similar to their own. Czech women preferred men with beards that were similar to the beards their fathers had during their childhood.
The study, published in March in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, also found that men often preferred thicker facial hair than their real partners actually had. The authors noted that the fact that people don’t end up with their “ideal” — at least in terms of his beard — may be because their ideal is not readily available, so they “compromise.”
Not every man can grow a beard naturally. More men with hairless faces have begun seeking hair transplants, according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery. In 2014, the latest year for which data are available, 13,956 men around the world had hair transplants to enhance their beards, up from 4,707 in 2012. More than 3,100 of the men were in the United States. Beard transplants are most popular in Asian countries, where nearly 4,200 men had the treatment in 2014.
Whether men choose to grow beards may also depend on the context in which they live. A 2016 study found that beards are more common in crowded cities where average incomes are lower. In this environment, where money is scarce and there is more competition for mates, men may feel they need to ramp up their masculinity. On the flip side, “when competition in the social environment is reduced and the need to signal dominance is of less importance, men may dial down their masculinity through shaving or grooming their beards,” Dr. Dixson wrote in an email. Which may be why beards seem to be less common in the less populated suburbs.
Another factor that influences whether men decide to grow some stubble is the frequency of beardedness around them. “When beardedness becomes too common, it is less attractive than when it is rare,” Dr. Dixson wrote. “This may explain why fashions and trends in beardedness fluctuate over time.”
Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author of the 2015 book “Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair,” maintains that history more than biology establishes meanings for facial hair. “I wonder if the positive effects of beards are a matter of the current cultural preference for beards, and perhaps the idea that bearded men are more mature, confident and reliable is because that is what we are tending to associate with beards these days,” Dr. Oldstone-Moore, a senior lecturer at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, wrote in an email. “Whenever masculinity is redefined facial hairstyles change to suit.”