Monday, October 12, 2009

The Merits and Demerits of Facial Hair

I have never really given facial hair much thought, except as a nuisance to be removed daily since I was around 17. My father, being a former Army reservist, seems to have picked up a military dislike for facial hair. I don't recall my mother or sister liking facial hair, either. In any case, I tried a mustache when Disney finally allowed them. Being mildly vain, I removed it the day after someone mistook me for my mother's spouse. And truth be told, the mustache looked pretty cheesy. I didn't have a grooming kit, so it was a thick, bushy thing that matched the grey on top of my head. I dispensed with the notion of further growth, and went back to clean-shaven. I also recalled Ayn Rand's comment that a person wearing a beard was concealing something.

Then I took this European vacation. I had three weeks off to try a full beard...or at least a Van Dyke (what most Americans mistakenly call a "goatee"--I was corrected on this by a fellow beard wearer). Like the aforementioned mustache, this thing came in grey, and even a little white. But I thought, what the heck, I'll come back with it and see what kind of reactions I get. I was a bit surprised that people reacted so positively. It added age to my face, but also apparently a bit of "gravitas." Some ladies don't like facial hair of any kind, and have made their opinions quite clear to me. However, they're outnumbered, so it'll stay for the time being.

Do a little digging, and you find that facial hair has differing connotations in different places and times--of course so do different styles, but that's a whole 'nother issue. "Greybeards" at NASA are usually older subject matter experts (who, given NASA's early history, were mostly men). In some cultures, beards convey maturity, wisdom, or even sacredness. The Greeks wore beards until conquered by the clean-shaven Macedonian Alexander the Great, who feared that soldiers might hide weapons in their facial hair. The medieval Japanese considered beards to be something worn only by barbarians. In some "bearded cultures," a clean-shaven face conveys boyishness, immaturity, or effiminacy. Beards made a comeback in the U.S. with the Beatniks and Hippies. I recall an old '50s TV show--possibly The Donna Reed Show--where her husband came back from a business trip with a mustache. The missus was horrified and wouldn't speak to her husband until he shaved it off. The American political and military cultures favor clean-shaven faces (some of this is practical for the military--facial hair can collect lice and interfere with a soldier's ability to get a smooth fit/seal on his gas mask). No American president has worn facial hair since William Howard Taft, though President Obama wore a five o'clock shadow to give his speech to the Arab world.

As for me, I'm just sticking with the masculine/maturity/wisdom angle. Any "edge" an English major can get in a roomful of engineers couldn't hurt. And if the ladies like it, far be it for me to complain. Still, it amuses me how much something like facial hair can affect one's perceptions of another person.

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