Beards

A cheat sheet for the news.
Aug. 9 2001 11:30 PM

Beards

Why are they such a turnoff?

113000_113451_gore

The chattering classes have gone gaga over Al Gore's beard, which he has grown during a trip to Europe. Political consultants usually advise candidates to shave, and given the reaction to Gore's whiskers, it's not hard to see why: Gore "look[s] more like an accountant on the lam from the IRS than a White House-compatible action figure" (Time); it's "scrawny and grey-patched" (the New York Post); it "might cover up some of the added chin heft" of his rumored post-election weight gain (the Boston Herald). The only compliment came from USA Today, which suggested that the beard "helps Gore appear more relaxed and less wooden."

What is it about a beard that turns people off? They were de rigueur in most ancient civilizations up to the Greek and Roman eras, when generals began urging soldiers to shave for various reasons (beards are convenient handholds for enemy soldiers; shaving distinguishes friendly soldiers from barbarian enemies). Since then shaving has been the norm in most Western societies. Why? Anthropologist Desmond Morris thinks that shaving brings three advantages: 1) It makes you look younger (babies are smooth faced); 2) it makes you look friendlier (it's easier to read your expressions and see your smile); and 3) it makes you appear cleaner (this is of dubious medical value). Because beards are a gender signal and exaggerate the male's jutting chin, "the removal of [them] on a voluntary and regular basis must indicate a desire on the part of men to damp down their primeval assertiveness," Morris writes. (Click to learn why beards may have evolved.)

This desire to appear less assertive may not stem entirely from social pressure. Recent psychological studies suggest that women find male faces most attractive when they are masculine-looking but not hypermasculine; women look for dominant males, but ones who are still friendly enough to invest in their offspring—and they tend to see those traits in clean-shaven faces. Perhaps this is why the wife or girlfriend of a closeted gay man is often called a "beard"—she simultaneously advertises the man's masculinity and promotes his deceit.

Another problem for Gore is that a beard-wearer can't always control the perception of his facial hair. A five o'clock shadow was cool on Bogey and Don Johnson, but on Nixon it symbolized his shiftiness. Castro's beard connotes proletarian solidarity; Marx's beard, a sort of professorial absentmindedness or radicalism. Bushy beards may convey wisdom and patriarchal authority (think Charleton Heston as Moses, or any popular depiction of God or Zeus), hippie looseness (Alan Ginsburg), religious devotion (Hasidic Jews), or backwoods technophobia (Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski). Would Gore's beard soften his image as the attack dog of last year's presidential debates or accentuate his image as a beta-male softie?

It is this uncertainty, more than anything else, that may account for the absence of beards in modern politics. Not surprisingly, democratically elected politicians have tended to follow fashion trends. The first U.S. president to sport a beard, Abe Lincoln, did so only after his election in 1860, and even then it did not rise above the lower lip. (To learn the story behind Lincoln's beard, click.) Every president from Grant through Cleveland sported whiskers, but since then only Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft have. Moustaches—a compromise between primeval assertiveness and civilized cooperation—became popular in the mid-20th century (think Thomas Dewey and Dean Acheson) and unruly beards became popular in the '60s and '70s but only among the counterculture.

Last year in England, London mayoral candidate Frank Dobson wore a Kris Kringle beard that may or may not have improved his appearance, but it definitely became the focus of endless campaign gossip and satire (click here to read some) after a Labor-Party focus group concluded that it was costing him votes. The beard helped earn him the nickname "Tony Blair's poodle" and even prompted BBC TV staffers to complain that it carried germs. Some saw Dobson's refusal to shave as a sign of independence, but he lost the election. (Other British politicians play it safer: At least four former backbenchers have shaved since entering Blair's Cabinet.)

Facial hair doesn't fare much better in the United States these days. Congressman Mike Lowry once used beard-growth as a threat: He proclaimed in the 1980s that he would not shave until President Reagan balanced the budget. (The press remarked that the beard made him look like Yasser Arafat, and Lowry reneged on his promise by shaving before his unsuccessful 1988 Senate run.) There are currently two U.S. senators with beards. One, New Jersey's Jon Corzine, has the luxury of bankrolling his own campaigns; and the other, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, is a short, sincere, left-wing ex-professor who needed a masculine makeover. (He was initially elected without a beard.) Bill Clinton sported a beard on and off during his Rhodes-scholar and law-school years but shaved it before entering Arkansas politics.

Should Gore shave? Keeping his beard might demonstrate independence in the eyes of his supporters—and alleviate his beta-male problem—but it would likely amount to just another makeover in the eyes of his detractors. Still, facial hair is making a comeback, according to a February article in the New York Times style section. Indeed, a hair stylist quoted in the piece muses that "if Al Gore had a beard, maybe he would have been president."

Michael Brus, a former Slate assistant editor, is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. He is on the clinical faculty of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.