People love beards. Beards are so popular that they have their own dating site, a gigantic, obsessive fan base (we’re looking at you, pogonophiles), and a starring role in some of the world’s biggest blockbusters (would Dumbledore be hailed as the king of wizards without his enormous chin carpet?).
So, it’s no secret that love for beards is absolutely rife. But the question is: why?
We delved deep into the science behind the extraordinary attraction to those shaggy bristles. Let’s dive in.
Why do men have beards?
First, why do men even grow a supposedly useless bush on their chin? And why don’t women grow beards too?
Physically speaking, men grow beards because the hair follicles on their faces are stimulated by a derivative of testosterone: dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Despite a reputation that lags behind the original hormone, testosterone, DHT is extremely potent and influences bodily functions in several ways. In men, the hair follicles’ aggressive response to DHT results in a bushy beard.
But when it comes to the biological function of a beard, scientists are perplexed. Unlike eyebrows (that protect your eyes from sweat) and eyelashes (that protect your eyes from debris and dust), the hair on your chinny-chin-chin is biologically useless.
So, beards must have evolved for some other reason. That brings us on to the socio-psychological reasons why men grow a beard...
Why are beards so attractive?
The main indication that beards have a socio-sexual purpose comes from the fact that beards are a male-specific trait. When we look at sex differences in the animal kingdom (just look at the wildly fluorescent feathers of a peacock compared to the dull-toned feathers of a peahen), the purpose is usually to attract a mate.
By this theory, we should expect to see that women find men with a feathered chin as more attractive than men without. Indeed, augmented attraction to facial hair is sometimes the case, with a study on the female perception of men with beards revealing that women rated heavy stubble as the most attractive, ahead of full beards, light stubble and clean-shaven faces.
But the evidence is inconsistent.
As with most phenomena, the question of nature and nurture teases our understanding of beard attractiveness and may be partly responsible for mixed results. A study on various ethnic groups (Europeans from New Zealand and Polynesians from Samoa) found that participants’ ratings of attractiveness did not correlate with beard growth - meaning clean-shaven faces were rated as just as attractive as bearded faces.
Although these results perpetuate more confusion around the role of beards, intersexual attraction isn’t the only purpose for gender disparities. There’s another innate human instinct that resonates with men: intrasexual competition. Basically, man-to-man rivalry.
Despite inconsistent links between beards and attractiveness, studies have repeatedly found that beards do alter perception in some way.
In scientific studies, men were rated higher for the following:
- Age: Men with beards were perceived as older than men without beards.
- Social status: Bearded men were presumed to have a higher social status.
- Aggressiveness: Men were judged as more aggressive when they had a beard.
- Parenting ability: Both genders rated parenting ability higher in bearded men.
- Healthiness: Bearded men were judged to be more healthy.
- Masculinity: Increased beard growth was directly related to an increased perception of masculinity. In a bid to understand the influence of women’s hormones on perception, participants were also asked about their menstrual cycle. They found that women were more likely to judge men with beards as masculine if they were in the fertile stage of their cycle.
These socio-sexual attributes, particularly aggressiveness and masculinity, could be perceived as tools to fend off competition from male counterparts. The same study that scrutinised female perceptions of beards also asked men to rate beard attractiveness. They found that men rated beards and heavy stubble as more attractive than light stubble and clean-shaven faces, suggesting beards are a desirable trait among the male population and may serve a competitive purpose.
So, beard love is layered with social, cultural and evolutionary complexities. Whether men use it as a tool to assert their dominance, or women seek a man with greater parenting abilities, is still up for debate. Either way, one thing’s for sure: people love beards.
Why can't some men grow beards?
There are several reasons why luscious shaggy bristles can't be achieved by every man. Most commonly, unfortunate genetics prevent a man from growing a beard. It can also be down to hormones, stress, age and diet.
The bottom line
Beards seem to serve no biological purpose which brings our attention to the socio-psychological reasons for a beard. Although studies present conflicting evidence when it comes to the attractiveness of beards, facial hair is consistently shown to augment perception in some way. Beards increase ratings of characteristics such as age, social status, aggressiveness and masculinity. A possible theory is that beards serve an intrasexual purpose where the perceived aggressiveness associated with a beard helps to fend off competition from other men.
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