Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Of Beards and Men

Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair
Christopher Oldstone-Moore
Sociology, history

[Warning: long and long-winded.]

Of Beards and Men is a humanist book in empiricist clothing. While it is indeed a "history of facial hair," it's also an academic's thesis about the meaning of facial hair. Oldstone-Moore says as much explicitly: "The most significant myth to be set aside is the notion that changes in facial hair are the meaningless product of fashion cycles."

When I call Of Beards and Men an academic's thesis, you might infer a certain . . . turgidity . . . of writing. Happily, that's not true in this case. The book doesn't have the level of levity and wit that one might expect from the title, but it's written in clear plain prose that's no trouble to read. The scholarship and research are excellent, and the illustrations are particularly apt. On the empiricist side, I have no quibbles.

Nor do I quarrel with the general thesis. Beards and shaving represent two different kinds of masculinity: "The clean-shaven face . . . has come to signify a virtuous and sociable man, whereas the beard marks someone as self-reliant and unconventional." That's a plausible high-level assessment, although it would be a stretch to apply it to every individual case.

Oldstone-Moore gets himself into a hairier (hah!) problem when he gets down to brass tacks, though. For one thing, this is a tremendously skewed volume. It could have been subtitled "The Revealing History of Facial Hair Among Western Cultural Elites." There's no mention of Africa, no mention of India, no mention of the Far East.

The class bias is forgivable when talking about ancient Sumeria. It's less forgivable by the time we reach the European Middle Ages. There are a good many period images of people who were not churchmen. For example:
Look! Some bearded peasants, some non-bearded peasants! Almost as if beardedness is an individual choice, or even the meaningless product of fashion cycles. For that matter, even kings get short shrift; Oldstone-Moore barely touches on the nobility, whom you'd think would be significant in any discussion of beard-as-masculine-signifier, even though their shaving habits changed markedly over the period.

It's not that Oldstone-Moore doesn't have written evidence. He does, and it clearly shows that some people started thinking differently about beards at some points. His error is to assume that the difference in thinking prospectively caused a difference in behavior. It's just as likely that the difference in thinking retrospectively reacted to a difference in behavior.

The problem becomes especially obvious in the 19th century. Oldstone-Moore's arguments tend to suffer from the fallacy of reversibility. A case in point is his assessment of the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published an 1829 anti-beard rant. Of Beards and Men would have it that facial hair was radical--so radical that even a fire-breather like Garrison couldn't stomach it. But if Garrison had published a pro-beard rant, I'll bet anyone a dollar that Of  Beards and Men would have explained that facial hair was radical--so radical that it could only appeal to a fire-breather like Garrison. Heads, facial hair was radical; tails, facial hair was radical.

Then we get to the contention that "It was no mere coincidence that the era of beards [in the mid-19th century] corresponded closely with the emergence of the women's movement." Beards, according to Oldstone-Moore, represent a kind of masculine backlash. As women pushed into traditionally male preserves, men got hairy as a defensive measure. This is a classic reversible argument. No matter what happened to women, men, or facial hair, you could explain it equally well:

Long BeardsShort Beards
Women Gaining Power"Male facial hair was an attempt to assert masculinity in the face of a threat.""The growth of shaving reflected the increasing acceptance of feminine norms in the public sphere."
Women Losing Power"Male facial hair reflected the increasing dominance of the untamed and unfeminized male.""Men's beards were not required, because the disempowerment of women did not require a further assertion of masculinity."
Once you've posited that hirsuteness is an expression of masculine identity, in other words, you can find "evidence" for your argument no matter what's actually happening.

Among us soul-less reductionist left-brained narrow-minded empiricist types, there's a test for this sort of thing. Namely, you take your hypothesis and you make a falsifiable prediction. In this case, Oldstone-Moore's hypothesis would prima facie seem to predict that the 1910s and 1920s, with women's suffrage (and associated causes, such as temperance) a vigorous and ever-strengthening and occasionally even violent force, men should have felt even more threatened and grown even more luxuriant locks in response. Only . . . well . . .
Woodrow Wilson
Calvin Coolidge

Herbert Hoover
(Images hosted at biography.com)

So there's room for considerable debate about the humanist side of this book. On the other hand, that's what a humanist book is for. I think Of Beards and Men gets some things quite wrong, and I wish it had gone outside its very narrow geo-social worldview. All the same, it was a decent read and it gave me some things to think about--including, specifically, the parts where I disagreed. That's a win in my book.


  1. This seems to be an attempt at academically codifying a pop-psych meme I saw going around last year; I remember articles about the "lumbersexual", a man challenged by threats to his masculinity who responds by growing a mountain-man beard and wearing plaid flannels. It doesn't sound like the book made a more convincing case.

    1. The "lumbersexual" meme (as well as the "metrosexual") gets mentioned in passing. The book is better than that, particularly in its historical aspects. I think it's probably true that the waxing and waning of beardedness on the gross cultural level often has something to do with ideas about masculinity. I just don't think it's as simple or as specific or as universal as Of Beards and Men wants it to be.

      An area where I liked the book, for example, is in its discussion of beards and beardlessness in ancient Greek art. There was a transition point--in the 300s BC, if memory serves--after which shaved faces became the norm in depicting noble men (except for philosophers). Oldstone-Moore argues that this is rooted in an emulation of Apollo, who was the one god who was always depicted as youthful and beardless.

    2. That's interesting. It reminds me of a line from the novel _The Mask of Apollo_ by Mary Renault (which I loved, by the way.) It's set in Athens and Sicily during the mid-300s BC, and the narrator, seeing Dion of Syracuse after a long absence, says "He had shaved his beard, perhaps to try and look younger, as aging leaders must if they can."

  2. +1 on Mary Renault! I read The Bull from the Sea at an impressionable age.

    That's the kind of thing Of Beards and Men is concerned with, at least in its better moments. For another example, Oldstone-Moore cites a medieval source urging monks to "cultivate the inner beard" as evidence that there was at least some association between shaving and religion--and, by implication, between facial hair and secular masculinity.

  3. Quite a long and thoughtful essay JT! As a demi-bearded person, what did the book say about goatees? I can't commit? ;)

    1. Disappointingly, the author has little to say about variation within the hirsute classes. Although I must admit that the word "dapper" comes to mind.

    2. That is too bad. I do feel like (say) the singer Prince was saying something different with his razor-sharp mustache than the rapper Jidenna is with his bushy sea-captain lower-face beard, but I'd be hard put to say what.

    3. Did you watch "Luke Cage"? I felt like the difference between Cage's let-it-grow prison beard and afro and the thin well-trimmed goatee and shaved head he affects as a free man was important.

    4. @MP: Yes. I think the book is onto something when it talks about beards--very generally speaking--as indicating the "rough, untamed, self-willed" variety of masculinity, with shaven chins representing the "reliable, straight-arrow, England-expects-that-every-man-will-do-his-duty" variety.

      It's not too much of a stretch to extend that to variations of beard styles. You could argue plausibly that the goatee--which requires neatness and precision--is a compromise. It's similar (perhaps) to the classic European "military mustache" tradition, which the book does treat at length: here is a man who is uncivilized enough to have facial hair, but civilized enough to look after it carefully.

  4. I recall an Isaac Asimov article from the sixties where he remarked that if the Establishment was really that concerned that young men wearing beards would erode the moral fabric of society, then the simple answer would be for President Nixon to grow a beard, since that would make the hippies shave all their off right away.