When making the choice between beard or no beard there are a lot of factors to consider – from convenience, to how you look, to monetary expenses, and more. And one of those factors is what does a beard symbolize exactly? After all, why do men have beards?
The short answer to that question is that beards symbolize whatever the people who see them perceive them to symbolize. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. However, as we interact with dozens of people every day and hundreds up to thousands of people in the period of weeks, months, and years, we can’t really make sure that everyone perceives our beards in a good way. You may have grown your beard for one reason, but your college may interpret it as something entirely different.
So, what’s the actual symbolism that is most often attributed to beards?
The scientific view on a beard’s symbolism
So, what does science have to say about clean shaven vs beard looks on men? The social sciences have been conducting a lot of research on the matter such as this Barnaby J. Dixson, Robert C. Brooks study or this Aurelio José Figueredo study. And the conclusions most such studies have reached are very simple and straight-forward:
- Facial hair, from a thin stubble to a bushy beard, in the eyes of most people, will always symbolize maturity, dominance, and aggression.
- The lack of facial hair or a clean-shaven face, again – in the eyes of most people, will always symbolize health, cleanliness, and sociability.
Of course, no one is saying that these things are actually true and are related to facial hair – this is just how people perceive men with beards. The reasons behind those perceptions are quite numerous. For one, beards are directly linked with the presence of testosterone in men and testosterone itself is linked with male aggression. And even though it only takes a normal amount of testosterone for a man to be able to grow a bushy beard, and even though that testosterone is in no way a guarantee for aggression, that perception persists.
The maturity symbolism of beads is also quite easily understandable – a man’s beard grows as the man gets older, ergo – beards are associated with a grown man. Add the physical fact that beards hide the smoothness of our faces’ skin or lack thereof, and it’s easy to see why we view men with beards as more mature than they might actually be.
Cleanliness and health are two symbolic meanings that mostly arise from the physical appearance of beards and how people intuitively interpret them:
- “If he has a beard, then he’s too lazy to shave. If he’s too lazy to shave, he’s too lazy to maintain good hygiene.” Never mind the fact that a beard actually takes quite a lot of effort to maintain.
- “If he has a beard, then he’s trying to hide a double chin.” This one is more situation as it depends on the body and weight of the particular person. Nevertheless, the association between facial hair and lack of cleanliness persists.
Sociability is the last of the major factors associated with beards or their lack. Clean shaven people are perceived as more socially adept because we intuitively view beards as attempts to “hide” someone’s face where a clean shaven face is “open”. And there is a bit of merit to that – a lot of people grow beards because they don’t like their narrow chin or another feature of their face and they attempt to hide it. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make them less social but that’s how the human psyche works.
So, science has uncovered the nature and causes behind these several major symbolisms people prescribe to beards but that’s not all the full extent of the topic. There are multiple other symbolic meanings that people attach to facial hair that aren’t caused so much by our intuitions but by the culture around us.
The cultural implications and beard meaning
A man with a beard in most Western cultures, as well as in many others, has typically been associated with wisdom, erudition, and knowledge. The reason behind that is most likely that soldiers in most modern and pre-modern societies have typically cut their hair and beards so that they don’t obstruct them in combat, while learned men that have spent most of their time indoors haven’t had that problem.
Religion could easily be another cultural reason why beards have often been associated with wisdom – all three of the Abrahamic religions, as well as many others, have typically valued facial hair as an important accessory for their practitioners.
Of course, in some cultures, the reverse is often the case. In Buddhism and in multiple other Eastern religions, for example, clean shaven faces and heads are a symbol for clarity of vision and wisdom, while beards and abundant hair – not necessarily.
Most literature, however, both Western and Eastern, and both secular and religious, usually views facial hair as a symbol of knowledge and erudition. For many of the reasons, we’ve mentioned above. Beards are often romanticized in literature, they are viewed as parts of men’s character.
Christopher Oldstone-Moore, the author of the book Of Beards and Men, for example, says that “the history of men is written on their faces”. He explains in an interview for Esquire that “Facial hair can be seen as an index to changing ideas over time of what it means to be a man. Over time these kind of shifts are uncommon; they’re big shifts that happen periodically throughout history.”
The subjective conclusions of most people
As you can see, the symbolism of beards can vary greatly depending on the point of view of the person who’s looking at it. Some people like men with beards, some don’t. Some view them as wise and mentally strong, others view them as socially awkward and physically unclean. If you want to successfully convey the positive symbolism you attach to your beard to others you don’t need to just grow a beard – you need to make sure that the rest of your being – from your non-verbal communication to your actions – all speak in tandem.