Male humans grow hair on their face. Not their entire face - mostly the lower half, around the mouth and nose, and up the sides of their cheeks. Some hairier fellows grow the stuff up to their eyes. Some female humans also grow hair on their faces, but prefer not to talk about it. This hair is known as a 'beard'.
Components of a Beard
There is wiggle-room when defining a beard. Technically, if a guy lets his face grow out completely, he is said to have a beard. But his 'beard' actually consists of several parts:
Sideburns - These are the hairs on the side of the face, growing from in front of the ears down almost to the chin.
Moustache - These are the hairs that grow just above the upper lip.
Beard - Hairs that grow around and under the chin area have no name but 'beard'.
It is possible to have a moustache alone, sideburns alone, or even a beard alone but when all three are worn together it is known, for the sake of simplicity, as a 'beard'.
Purpose of a Beard
Since the dawn of time, men have been scratching their faces over what to do with the stuff. The popularity of beards has fluctuated throughout history, but there are some general rules that stick.
Like fur, facial hair is warm. Full beards are a very economic way for men to warm their faces. This is why such a disproportionate amount of northerners, Iditarod racers and polar explorers sport beards. (In the latter two cases, the simplicity of not-shaving may also be a factor.) In fact, beards were all but a necessity in Russia before Peter the Great realised that nobody in Western Europe wore them, and began to tax facial fuzz. An unusual amount of Russians preferred to pay the tax rather than part with their beards.
There is something intimidating about hairy faces. Babies have been known to burst into tears when confronted with a face full of bristles. Japanese Samurai warriors wore masks with pointed beards and moustaches added to make them look more frightening. Interestingly, the Amish believe it is the moustache that is warlike, and sport beards sans the hairy upper lip. They may have a point - Amish men certainly don't look scary. Moustachioed Mafia bosses, on the other hand, usually did. Then again, ancient Spartans wore long beards and hair but no moustaches, and if anyone was militant, they were.
Wise men always seem to have long, grey beards, so people who want to seem sage usually grow one. At least, the wise men of Islam, Judaism and Greek Orthodox Christianity - the Pope is clean-shaven because Roman Catholic clergy shave as a sign of celibacy. Confucius had a beard, and he was wise too. The Bible has a commandment against shaving - actually, against touching razor to face - so Jews who religiously observe the Bible don't touch razor to face. Luckily, in modern times, it is perfectly possible to shave without a razor touching the face, and many do. Muslims disagree over how important beards are, so some wear them, and some don't. Sikhs don't cut any hair, so the beard sort of happens by default. Amish shave until marriage, and then grow a beard and sideburns.
A beard was traditionally a sign of manhood, and way back when in diverse lands, young men would hopefully stroke the thickening hairs on their upper lip trying to turn it into a moustache. In some parts, moustaches are still sported by the young and masculine.
The fact is, that since men discovered things sharp enough to cut a hair, they've been cutting them. Beards have been in and out of fashion for as long as there has been fashion. They've been cut in a variety of creative ways, and keeping up with the trends was often a life-altering necessity. Abraham Lincoln reportedly won the presidential election only after growing a beard on the advice of a female admirer.
Men with weak chins, double chins, round faces and wobbly jaw lines often grow beards to disguise these defects.
The History of Beards
Beards have a long history more complicated than that of a king's mistress. They've been in and out of favour as often as two to three times a century. Ancient Egyptians didn't like beards much, though their Pharaohs wore a fake one as part of the regalia. In much of Asia, beards were admired and cultivated. Persians greased and curled them. Greeks liked beards and thought they made the wearer look smart. Philosophical, like. Alexander the Great imposed mandatory shaving on his troops for safety reasons, and the style caught on around the Hellenistic empire. The Romans didn't catch onto shaving for quite a while, but eventually it became a rite of passage to dedicate one's first shavings to a god.
During the Dark Ages beards abounded, probably due to lower standards of personal grooming, but during the Renaissance they were again consigned to the shaving cream. Roman Catholic clergymen stayed clean-shaven, so a newly-convinced Protestant would often grow a beard, a long one if he wanted to make a statement. Henry VIII decreed the wearing of a beard a taxable offence, which was hypocritical, since he wore one right into the grave. Queen Elizabeth continued to tax beards, because she didn't much care for them.
Beards virtually disappeared among Western nations in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Small, neatly-trimmed beards slowly came back in thanks to the painter Van Dyck1 and much later, Napoleon III. Americans remained wary of the hairy; a clean-shaven face was the sign of a gentleman. When Joseph Palmer, a Massachusetts member of an experimental utopia, grew a fine bushy specimen, his neighbours were scandalised and downright hostile. Things came to a head when Palmer was jumped by local citizens armed with razors and shaving cream. Palmer defended his beard with his pocket knife, for which he was thrown in jail2.
Lincoln emancipated bearded men when he became president, and American men brought out their best in sturdy moustaches and bristling mutton-chops; sometimes both in combination. During World War I, soldiers were required to shave, because a gas mask would not seal against the face properly if there was a beard in the way. All the soldiers went home and stayed clean-shaven, and by World War II a little toothbrush moustache was the only fashion for facial hair. In the 1960s and 1970s, hippies went 'natural', which usually included letting all their hair grow as long as it pleased, and beards went rampant. More recently, rap stars have popularised a beard shaved so narrowly that it seems more like an outline of the facial features. At the turn of the 21st Century, full beards are the territory of biker dudes, mountain men and the religiously inclined, whereas short, closely-cropped beards have become a rather trendy and mainstream accessory.
Growing a Beard
For most men, growing a beard is simpler than not growing one. By simply ceasing to shave, they automatically grow a beard and can also sleep longer in the morning. There is some peculiar gene prevalent among some ethnicities such as Native Americans and Mongols that prevents them from growing much by way of beards, but this doesn't trouble most men. Some men's beards don't match their hair colour; brown- and blond-haired men have grown red beards, and the reverse.
Those who know recommend letting a beard grow for a solid four weeks before even looking at it. The average beard grows about five inches each year, so it shouldn't take much longer to grow some fine whiskers. Depending on how quickly the beard grows and how bristly the hair is, some time around the second or third week the hairs will begin to curl under and the grower will begin to scratch and wish he hadn't started with this stupid idea to begin with. It can take a week for the itchiness to go away, but using conditioner on the cheeks can help minimise the irritation.
While the beard does its thing, the grower needs to decide on a style, or lack thereof. If the hair grows in patches, the grower needs to choose a smallish, chin-centric style. Those who sprout hair all over have more options. When the beard-grower does finally take the scissors to his growth, he needs to snip with care. There are a few things to keep in mind:
Neckline - Unless the beard is going to be a full-length doozy, the beardee needs to decide where on his neck it's going to end. It is probably better to err on the side of closer to the chin than farther, but some recommend getting a professional to do the first trim.
Cheekline - If the wearer intends to keep the sideburns, he'll need to decide where to limit them. Letting a beard grow right up to the eyes is rarely advised, unless you're trying to scare people in back alleys or hide from a particularly tenacious ex-girlfriend.
Length - Once the beard is shaped and styled, the newly-bearded needs to figure out how long he can let it grow before it starts looking scruffy. Cutting it too short can also make it scratchy for a partner or child to kiss.
Cutting the Beard
It isn't wise to trim a wet beard. Wet beards look different to dry beards, and a beard trimmed to perfection when wet may shock unpleasantly once dry.
If using scissors on a longish beard, comb the hair out and snip the hair on the outside of the comb. Err on the side of too long, because that's correctable. Start by the ears and move down toward your chin on one side, then repeat for the other. This will keep things from getting too lopsided. Unless you live in a bachelor's flat, clean out the sink afterwards. If you don't trim into the sink you will have other issues to discuss with your partner.
If using an electric trimmer, make sure to adjust the trimming guide. It's the same as with scissors - start at the ears and trim down to the chin. Don't overdo it.
Men with bushy beards need to trim around the mouth occasionally, otherwise food gets tangled in the growth and the result is simply unpleasant.
Caring for and Wearing a Beard
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said: 'It's just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard.'
- Edward Lear (a bearded fellow)
A would-be beard-wearer needs to invest in a few important items. One is a good, narrow pair of barber's scissors. Another is a beard-trimmer. A comb will come in handy; consider a wider-toothed one for a longish beard or a narrow-toothed one for a short beard or moustache. A mirror is not optional.
Beards need to be washed, like any other hair. Some use shampoo while others prefer soap; it probably doesn't matter, so long as it's difficult for lower orders to set up civilisations among the easy cover. Many use conditioner on their beards.
It is socially unacceptable to use the beard for storage of pens, toothpicks, glasses, cutlery, paper clips or anything else. Male librarians are restricted to tucking their pens behind their ears.
Men should be aware that, as with dogs, their muzzle will give away their age first. Beards are usually the first hairs to whiten, and sometimes they do it unevenly, and in peculiar streaks. The skunk-like double white line is a very common pattern. A beard will also turn white with alacrity when its wearer is heavily stressed.
Things That Can Go Wrong
Beard dandruff is not another word for breadcrumbs caught in the beard. It is an actual condition in which the skin under the beard flakes. Thankfully, most men don't have a problem with it. Dandruff is caused by dry skin, but a regular dandruff shampoo doesn't always help. There are dandruff shampoos made specially for beards, but a good moisturiser or moisturising conditioner may do the job just as well.
Men look different when they have beards. After growing a beard you may have to reintroduce yourself to several acquaintances. On the flipside, should you ever decide to shave it off, warn family members in advance. You don't want your children running to mummy because there's a stranger in your clothes.
Where It Gets Complicated
Many of the armed forces discriminate against beards in the name of safety and uniformity. In the UK, the Army and RAF servicemen can have moustaches but not beards, except Muslims, who can have beards but not moustaches, and in the Navy, servicemen can have a full set (beard plus moustache) or nothing.
In the USA and Canada they keep it simpler, banning beards (but not moustaches) across the board, unless health reasons require one.
Fun Things to Do with a Beard
Braid it like Johnny Depp.
Use it to lift 130lb of women, like Antanas Kontrimas.
Grow it really long, like Hans Langseth who died at 81 with a beard 17 feet and 6 inches long.
Enter the World Beard and Moustache Championship.
Shape a long beard into a faux necktie. Alternatively, use it to wipe your brow after a workout or to clean the windscreen on your motorcycle.
The coarse texture of a beard makes it perfect for washing dishes, while its absorbency makes it fair for drying them. Obviously, it can't do both in one wash cycle.
Stroke it while thinking to look smart and to buy time.
The Dangers of Being Bearded
See my beard?
Ain't it weird?
Don't be skeered...
Just a beard!
- George Carlin
The British Home Office recently submitted prejudice against beards for consideration as a form of discrimination. It is a sad but very real fact that men with beards are looked down upon in modern Western societies. A United States survey found evidence that bearded politicians receive fewer votes than their clean-shaven opponents do. The same may apply across the pond; when Frank Dobson was running for mayor of London in 2000, his strategists recommended that he shave off his beard. He refused to, and lost. Many beard-wearers say they face needling about their facial adornments, particularly around Christmas time. The Beard Liberation Front (BLF) calls the anti-beard sentiment 'beardism', and its members consider it their duty to discourage discrimination and fight for beards wherever required. For example, the BLF lodged a protest against the Harry Potter movies, because the Hogwarts professors wore obviously fake and exaggerated beards, perpetuating the stereotype. Beard-growers should be aware that they place themselves into an unrecognised minority group, and may suffer some consequences.
Famous Bearded Men
Despite discrimination, bearded men have proven themselves numerous times throughout history. William Shakespeare is believed to have had a beard. It is very probable that Jesus did too. Leonardo da Vinci did, as did Charles Darwin, Charlemagne, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E Lee, WEB Du Bois, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw. More recently, Billy Connolly, Ned Kelly, Rolf Harris, Brian Blessed, Fidel Castro, David Bellamy, Bill Frindall, aka the 'Bearded Wonder', Salman Rushdie, Terry Pratchett and Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken have all sported beards. The ZZ Top musical group wear impressive beards with grace3. There are many beloved fictional characters with beards as well: Santa Claus, Captain Haddock and Captain Birdseye are also bearded. Others who may be less affectionately held in the mind are Roald Dahl's Twits, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (when he emerged from a spider hole after being in hiding for weeks).