THE BLOG
05/13/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

The Beard: When Young Men Look Like Old Men

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We live in a hairy age, when stubble or hair on a man's face is thought to be a wonderful thing. Proof of this is all around: full beards on the pasty white faces of 22-year-olds; Ho Chi Minh goatees on the chins of drug dealers, the homeless, karate kids, bankers, supermarket clerks and bicycle messengers. And in that other hairy world, or the world of facial stubble, the famous five o'clock shadow has become the nearly permanent 10 o'clock shadow, proving -- as if you needed proof at this point -- that this is the season of facial hair.

If you want additional proof that in Philadelphia the beard is king, stand under the El at Front and Girard on a Friday evening as students from Penn, Drexel and Temple stream onto Girard Avenue from the El to the Fishtown bars. Try counting the number of men with beards and I guarantee your mental calculator will go off the charts as the number of beards will spin into the hundreds.

While beards look great on some people, the operative word here is some. The beard, or the 10 o'clock permanent shadow, has become a sort of conformist non-conformity badge, like tattoos and piercings. Men today grow beards whether or not they have faces that look good in hair. Only one thing matters: to have a beard! With so many faces hidden behind Jerry Garcia paste-on hair, it's as if life has become a never-ending celebration of Halloween.

"Boys across the country are laying down their razors and fighting back against metrosexual revolution. It's back to feeling like we're kissing mom's sewing needles. Now guys are proud to show their man mess in the face area," wrote a blogger named College Candy a few years ago.

I grew a beard at 22 because I wanted to emulate my college literary hero, D.H. Lawrence, who sported a beard to die for. I began with a goatee but because the goatee didn't grow in properly (think hairless gaps), I opted for a trim beard around the jawbone (as opposed to a full Moses beard). Unfortunately, the finished hairy product got poor reviews from the people I used to hang with. "You know," one friend confided, "why do you go out of your way to make yourself ugly?"

I was devastated. My jawbone beard was filled with empty spaces where hair would not grow. "Life's not fair," I thought, "why do I have beard gaps?" I wasn't thrilled when those same friends compared my beard to a "bad imitation of Abraham Lincoln."

Since that time, I've shaved every morning except during those periods when I took long or short forays into the Land of the Mustache. I never experienced any hairless gaps when I had a 'stache and in fact I even went so far as to spruce things up with various shades of mustache wax. Then they stopped selling mustache wax, and I thought, "Enough -- this is too much work, more work than shaving as a matter of fact." It didn't help matters any when I started to notice a few gray facial hairs. I'm a fan of many things in life, but gray hair is not one of them.

A recent article on philly.com cited a survey of 351 women in which the women were asked to rate a man's appearance in terms of facial hair. Are bearded men more attractive than clean-shaven or stubbly-faced men? By a slim margin, the women found that men with at least a 10-day growth of stubble were the most attractive, and that overall hair on a man's face conveyed "masculinity and maturity." In addition, most of the women thought that bearded men or even those with thick 10 o'clock shadows had potential "good parenting skills." (Yes, you read that right.) While fully bearded Moses-style men and clean-shaven guys also scored high in the survey, men with a 10-day growth of stubble won hands down every time.

Stubble, of course, is really just a beard-in-progress, and has a shelf life of about 10 minutes. Maintaining stubble means shaving it off before it reaches the Moses stage. Stubble men, therefore, are also clean-shaven men, at least for a while.

One common criticism of the full Moses beard is what can happen when you try to plant a kiss on the lips of the man hidden inside all that hair: Might those hair follicles contain remnants of yesterday's food?

My hunch is that most of the women quoted in the survey voted for facial hair because it's something wired in some females' brains, a genetic thing that goes back to hunter-gatherer times when men were mostly protectors of women and had to look big, burly and hairy.

Some men, of course, grow beards because they want to hide a weak chin or mandible. Not so long ago a strong chin used to be an emblem of masculinity. While there's little talk of strong chins anymore, a man with a pointed or weak chin can always camouflage it behind a beard. You can also hide acne scars and wrinkles behind a beard. Double chins can be hidden with neck hair.

Other men grow beards because they believe their clean-shaven faces are too feminine or pretty. Some people call this the Justin Bieber effect: "No pretty boy look for me!" When you're 22 it is not uncommon to want to make yourself look as old as possible. A beard will put on five years, maybe 10.

Beard-wearing among the hipster subculture has become a signpost of everything ironic and cool, even while a beard is hardly a sign of rebellion when everybody has one. As Hal Neidzviecki wrote in his 2008 book, Hello, I'm Special "... Non-conformity is now the accepted norm of society ... Individuality is the new conformity."

On the other hand, beards can be a good thing, at least according a study from the University of Southern Queensland as quoted in an article in the World Observer. The study found that beards block 90 to 95 percent of UV rays, thereby slowing the aging process and reducing the risk of skin cancer. As for asthma, the study suggests that pollens and dust will get stuck "in that lustrous facial hair." The study also says that "all that hair retains moisture and protects against the wind, keeping you looking young and fresh-faced. What's more, shaving is usually the cause of ingrown hairs and bacterial infections that lead to acne."

So what will it be -- beard, stubble, or clean-shaven? And what about men like me who can't seem to grow anything except the now defunct and thoroughly out of fashion 'stache? Shocking but true, a facial toupee may be the only answer!

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