I began to write this post some weeks ago, when the world was shaken by the news that we (or at least white Westerners) had reached Peak Beard. I was busy and it got abandoned. Then this weekend was Eurovision and I decided to return to the subject.
We watched Eurovision with my folks this year, and thus were subject to my mother's beard commentary. My mother doesn't like facial hair. She seems particularly offended by a beard on a good-looking young man because it's such a waste. Eurovision featured lots of good-looking young people with beards; beards remain very fashionable. And thus we sat through two hours of
"I like this song but not the beard!"
"I'd vote for him if he'd only shave!"
"But she'd be so beautiful if she didn't have that beard!"
Then yesterday, I heard of Russian male homophobes shaving their beards off in order to defend their fragile masculinity against the full-bearded influence of Eurovision victor Conchita Wurst.
One of several fascinating facts about men's facial hair (or lack thereof) is that the subject, when raised, provokes just as much alarm and disdain as discussion of women's grooming and appearance.
Every week, newspapers and magazines will have a news story or opinion piece about women's pubic, underarm or leg hair, women's body-shape, fitness or fatness, make-up, cosmetic surgery, bras, high-heels, corsetry and so forth. Every week, newspapers and magazines can guarantee a hoard of men and women clicking through to confirm and often share their opinions about the disgusting, unfeminine, unfeminist, shallow and lazy choices that women make about their appearance.
We've talked about this a lot - many of those articles talk about this, despite the fact that they often repeat the same messages (don't judge me for behaving as everyone should!) and play host to the same vitriol below the line. However, while there's no doubt that there's a massive gender imbalance in whose bodies and choices are being scrutinised, men's facial hair shows us that there's also something universal and ungendered going on.
Looking through the articles, comments and Twitter chat about Peak Beard (the idea that beardless men appear more attractive in a world of beard ubiquity and vice versa) we see that
1. Exactly the same arguments are used for and against facial hair as are used for and against any choice a woman might make about her own appearance. You'd think that that an argument about beards would be dynamically different from, for example, an argument about high heeled shoes. But they're not. The only difference is that there's no unfeminist choice to be made about beards, although feminism is blamed for men shaving - apparently, men who shave have been rendered fearful of their own masculinity (apart from Russian homophobes). Men who don't shave have the more rational fear of sharp objects.
2. The same arguments are made both for and against any given behaviour. Shaving isn't healthy; it causes rashes, nicks and dryness, whereas beards are breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Shaving is part of being a real man, a rite of passage to young men, the minimal requirement for smartness, whereas beards are a sign of masculinity; a real man is a bearded man and men who shave are afraid of growing up. See also women's pubic hair, dieting, bras etc..
3. Almost all arguments originate from a personal preference; I like my beard, I like my smooth face, I prefer a bearded man, I prefer a smooth face. But it has to be extrapolated to some universal truth; "Sorry guys, but women just don't fancy men with beards. None of the men I've dated in the past yea had beards. So if you ever want to get laid again, have a shave!"
And here, we begin to see what's going on. Folks are anxious. Folks are defensive about their own behaviour or preferences. There must be a right way. Newspaper columns, magazines and advertisers of all variety certainly suggest this: Do things the right way. Buy our products to avoid humiliation. The recent Veet advert suggested that if a thin female model has 24 hour's hair growth on her legs, she might as well be an overweight, hirsute bloke with a high-pitched feminine voice. Which brings me to
4. Cultural tropes around nature, gender and sexuality are then wheeled in as if they were facts. There are real men, and real women - all straight and cis gender. Real men and real women behave in a certain way and desire certain things in their partners. People who deviate are not real; women who don't fancy bearded men are lesbians, are afraid of real men and will die alone. Some men (with or without beards) talk with utter disdain about women who might not fancy them, as if any pognophobe is going to think, "Brian from Skegness thinks I'm a silly bitch for not fancying men like him. How could I have been so wrong?!"
Some straight women are compelled to share fairly graphic detail about how they like to tug on a beard during sex, or ask their boyfriends to shave mid-way because they can feel the hairs growing. Worse are the ones who are effectively negging; "Most women run screaming when they see a bearded man, but I'm able to see past that. What do looks matter? Leave all those scornful women who will laugh at you, humiliate you in front of your friends and be rude to your mother to those cleanly shaven men! Come here, beardy!"
Exactly the same thing happens with women's appearance. There's no shortage of straight men lining up for medals for their courageous tolerance of slight variations from our cultural model of conventional beauty (for a recent essay-length cringe-athon, see In Defence of Hairy Women).
It's quite easy for me to write about beards because (a) I cannot grow one, (b) nobody would expect me to and (c) I really have no particular opinion about them. Some beards look good, some not so much (a fashionable shape on an unfashionable face*) and some are quite funny (our Latin teacher, an eccentric and very skeletal-looking man had a long goatie beard that curved dramatically to one side, despite constant ponderous smoothing). People should do what they like - or what they can; some men cannot grow a beard, others struggle to shave.
It would be much harder for me to talk about female grooming. It shouldn't be too hard for me as a woman who, in being attracted to other women, knows that there are few universal turn-offs around these matters. It shouldn't be too hard for me as woman who, being a conscientious feminist hippie-type, has conducted long-term experiments in things like growing or removing leg, underarm and pubic hair. I have worn a lot of make-up and none at all for many years. I even stopped using any commercial products on my person (apart from soap for handwashing) for about eighteen months.
The only thing I've ever dismissed outright are those Spanx-type magic pants that squeeze everything together? I bought some, I put them on and then I cut them off.
However, it is almost impossible to talk about these issues in complete neutrality. And in the absence of such neutrality, it seems that culture has primed us to get defensive (I wouldn't leave the house without my Spanx. But you can't expect miracles, you whale!). And I think the beard thing demonstrates that this is nothing inherent to women, or even women's conditioning. We all need to get over the fact that other people like, want and do different things to ourselves and it's all perfectly okay.
(yeah, but if I work harder on that last sentence, I'll never post this).
* By an unfashionable face, I don't mean an ugly face, just one that hasn't got this week's bone-structure and colouring. Vaguely related to this, here is a great piece about being a young brown guy whose now-fashionable beardedness has previously been a factor in his experience of racism.