The real reason men grow beards
You might think all the facial hair you’re seeing on the street is a way of attracting a mate. It might not be so simple.
What is the point of a beard, evolutionarily speaking? Children, women, and a whole bunch of men manage just fine without one. But take a walk down some streets these days and you’ll be confronted with all sizes and shapes of groomed (and less groomed) facial hair – from designer stubble to waxed moustaches and hipster beards.
When we see men paying attention to their appearance, it’s easy to assume that they’re just angling for partners. But our research on beards and voices shows that beards probably evolved at least partly to help men boost their standing among other men.
Compared to males and females of many other primates, men and women on average look very different from each other – partly thanks to men’s facial hair. And when we see differences between males and females, the explanation often boils down to evolution through sexual selection – the process that favours traits that boost mating opportunities.
Researchers have therefore suggested that a second type of sexual selection may hold the answer. To reproduce, it’s often not enough to simply be attractive. You also have to compete with the same sex for mating opportunities. The funny, shy guy at the back of the bar isn’t going to stand a chance when competing with his bolshier brothers otherwise. And there’s evidence that beards evolved to help men do just that.
A man’s ability to grow a fulsome beard isn’t actually neatly linked to his testosterone levels. Despite this, a number of studies have suggested that both men and women perceive men with beards as older, stronger and more aggressive than others. And dominant men can get more mating opportunities by intimidating rivals to stand aside.
This is something that holds true both in modern times and throughout human history. Dominance can provide a staggering short-cut to mating opportunities: genetic evidence indicates that about 8% of the male population of Asia today is a descendent of Genghis Khan and his family.
A study by the appropriately-named Nigel Barber linked British facial hair fashions between 1842 and 1971 to the ratio of men to women in the marriage market. It found that in times with a greater proportion of single men competing for fewer women, beards and moustaches became more fashionable.
To help trace the evolutionary origin of beards and voices, we tested whether they were seen as attractive, dominant or both. We asked 20 men and 20 women to rate the dominance and attractiveness of six men who were video-taped on four occasions as they let their facial hair grow. We then used computer software to create four versions of each video where the men’s voices had been changed to sound higher and lower-pitched.
We found that male voices that sounded deeper than average were rated as the most attractive. Really deep or high pitches weren’t as popular. In contrast, men’s voices were perceived as increasingly dominant the lower they were. Beards didn’t affect a man’s attractiveness rating consistently, but those who let their facial hair grow were perceived as more dominant than others – in line with previous research.
Of course, most of this research has been carried out within western populations. Make-up use, average body composition, and even the very ability to grow facial hair all differ enormously across the world – meaning we could get different results elsewhere.
But the point is that, whether it’s facial hair or something else, we often see this pattern of competing requirements leading to differences in appearances. Think you can please everyone all of the time? You can’t.
From being unhygienic to ageing, 6 reasons beards are bad for you
Has facial hair had its day? With new claims beards are unhygienic, let the backlash begin.
Thanks to the celeb set, including the likes of Jamie Dornan, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Beckham, full facial hair (the longer, the better) has been “A Thing” for far too long, moving beyond the hipsters to proper mainstream.
Some days, you can barely walk down a street without running into a beard.
Forget sports cars, beards are the new and very visible indicator of machismo – even Jeremy Clarkson grew one last year after the kerfuffle in Argentina.
But enough is enough and now experts are warning they’re breeding grounds for bacteria and can even spread bugs.
So, if you’re wondering whether to have a close shave in time for spring, read on…
They’re germ traps
According to consultant trichologist Carol Walker from the Birmingham Trichology Centre, coarse facial hair traps germs and food, with things like dairy products going rancid.
Men with beards also tend to touch them a lot, transferring dirt and grease from their hands to their mouths – and all this gets spread when they kiss, Walker told the Mail Online.
They’re a joke
Yes, we’re talking Roald Dahl’s Mr Twit, whose beard was full of leftovers like cornflakes, sardines and stilton, which he could snack on later.
“By sticking out his tongue and curling it sideways to explore the hairy jungle around his mouth, he was always able to find a tasty morsel here and there to nibble on,” wrote Dahl.
While some men like to stroke them when they reach the “soft phase” (whatever that is), from my personal experience, there’s nothing soft about them. The only time my other half grew a proper one, I came out in a rash on my chin. In the name of good relationships, it’s advisable to use your razor regularly gents.
They’re not sexy
Every single male celebrity (perhaps with the one exception of “he who can do no wrong” George Clooney) who has ever grown a full beard – not just designer stubble, which IS sexy – has looked better without it. End of.
This is partly our explanation for the above, but some of the beards that we’ve seen, including Andrew “Spidey” Garfield’s mini hedge, and anyone’s who grows a little salt and peppery, make men look older. So if you’re a baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe that might be a good thing, if you’re Joaquin Phoenix, maybe not so much.
They’re not magic