One of my New Years resolutions was to blog at least once a week. Although it is was Wednesday and my productivity diminishes exponentially after Thursday, I was convinced that I could achieve this resolution (this week), because I had already started to write a post several days ago. However, I promptly realized that my post was lost in a recent desktop detox (your body is not the only thing that needs a cleanse in the New Year). That said, a recent conversation inspired me to right a blog post on beards.

*UPDATE: I did not finish this post until a week later. I’m slightly embarrassed.

“Do you think he’s hot?”…”No”…”Why not?”…”I don’t like beards”…”Why not?”…”I feel like most people with beards [like that] are just trying to mimic Leo[nardo DiCaprio] in ‘Body of Lies’ and seem like CIA operatives.”

A few observations about the above conversation. 1) I admit, that I have a tendency to overgeneralize and perhaps hyperbolize.  I have dated people with beards and generally, do not discriminate on the basis of facial hair. However, if you ask me if I like beards, don’t be surprised if I vehemently respond in the negative. 2) I often use the phrase “I feel like” to indicate what I think, rather than what I feel. This could spark an intriguing epistemological discussion; however, I’ll table that for now. 3) I appreciate Leonardo DiCaprio’s talent (although he’s no Robert Downey Jr), but I am more physically attracted to him sans beard.

ANYHOW. This brief and frivolous chat prompted me to consider and investigate why men choose to grow beards (or a permutations, such as the goatee, the mustache, the soul patch, side burns, and other facial hair variants).

Beards arrive for (most) men at puberty, thereby marking their progression from childhood to adolescence. As Allan Peterkin reminds us “prehistoric man, from the Neanderthal onward, naturally and unceremoniously sprouted beards at puberty.” However, shaving is a slightly more recent phenomenon. Archaeologists posit that men began shaving as early as 100,000 BCE, although razors were not developed until 30,000 BCE.

Records on papyrus and in tombs indicate that Ancient Egyptians believed that a clean shave was an indication of class (they perceived body hair as bestial). Consequently, they used pieces of copper or bronze to remove their whiskers. Nevertheless, Egyptian kings and queens often wore pastiches – lavish fake beards made of gold and silver. Moreover, some Egyptian kings grew long, usually square-shaped beards which were braided, painted with gold, and perfumed. The beard, a symbol of manly dignity, symbolized the Pharaoh’s “natural” superiority over his subjects.

Similarly, the Assyrians wore beard that were dyed with henna or pitch and powdered with gold-dust. The beards of the upper class required additional coiffing – their beards were arranged in three tiers of hanging curls. In contrast, Assyrian soldiers were ordered to trim their facial hair to demonstrate their deference to their leader.

The beard was also popular amongst the Ancient Greeks, who regarded it as a sign of wisdom. According to Laertius (a biographer of ancient Greek philosophers), the Greek intellectuals distinguished themselves from the vulgar by growing long beards – a practice introduced by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates. This practice ended in 323 BCE, Alexander the Great commanded the Macedonians to be shaven, lest their enemies grab their beards in close combat.

Likewise, the Romans philosophers wore long beards and hair according to Pliny. Scipio Africanus, a Roman general, was the first to introduce the mode of shaving each day and the first fourteen Roman emperors were shaven. The first shaving was a solemn ritual among the Romans, performed when the toga virilis was assumed and the first growth of facial hair was often consecrated to some god as part of fertility and fecundity rites.

In Victorian Britain, full beards spread from the social margins inhabited by radical politicians (e.g. socialists or Chartists) into the mainstream as millions of British men decided to let their beads grow. In 1852, the editors of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine announced that they were “champions of the long beard” and Henry Morley and William Henry Wills contributed to an article in Charles Dickens’s Household Words titled “Why Shave?.” These Brits believed that beards were an expression of elemental masculinity; through his beard, a man could assert both his health and vitality and his independence, hardiness, and authority.

The beard makes several appearances in religious history as well. In the Old Testament, shaving and hair-cutting has also been linked to betrayal or humiliation. For instance, Hanun shaved David’s envoys to humiliate them and Delilah sheared Samson to eliminate his powers. Jesus Christ and his apostles wore the scholarly hair of their contemporaries. However, the beard of Jesus Christ, was deracinated before his crucifixion.

The beard is regarded by some Muslims as a badge of the dignity of manhood. According the the Koran, the Muslim prophet Mohammed instructed his followers to cut their  mustaches and allow their beards to grow to distinguish themselves from the polytheists. Accordingly, the Shafi’is and the Hanabalis stipulate that removing the beard is forbidden while the Malikies prohibit shaving if it leads to disfigurement. Prior to Ramadan, Islamic leaders called for men to grow their beads to demonstrate Egypt’s adherence to Muhammad’s commands. Growing of a beard is said to be Fitrah, one of the customs observed by every prophet.

At the Anandpur festival in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh requested that his followers, true disciples of Sikhism, wear five symbols, including “kesh” – uncut long hair and beard. To the Sikhs, this demonstrates that natural appearance of sainthood and provides a sign of Sikh communal identity. It is profoundly humiliating for a Sikh man to have the hair on his face removed or disfigured. Sikh men have successfully challenged workplace interdiction on the beard on religious grounds.

The beard has also been associated with revolutionary periods. In the nineteenth century, Francis II of Naples forbade beards because they allegedly conjured the revolutionary principles of Giuseppe Garibaldi. At the end of the twentieth century, men in Tajikistan wore a beard to express their political support for the Islamic opposition. Castro, Marx, and Lenin decided to wear beards. Marx and Engels wore beards to express their opposition to the clean-shaven bourgeoisie. “The Beard Theorem” dictates that the size of one’s beard is directly correlated with the radicalism of an individual’s socialist views.

Without razor blades or straight razors in the wilderness of the Sierras, the Cuban revolutionaries had to let their beards and hair grow. However, beards became a symbol of Cuban Revolution when reporters called the guerilla fighters “los barbudos” – the bearded ones. To infiltrate their ranks, a mole would have to have a six-month’s beard growth.

Today, beards can be very rapidly spotted in hipster-heavy neighborhoods on the faces of indie rock fans and vegans. The authors of the Hipster Handbook claim that a full beard expresses the hipster’s concern with the profundity of life (he cannot be distracting with meaningless shaving rituals). Alternatively, a “chin shrub” indicates that the hipster is enigmatic and mysterious. In both cases, the beard should appear ironic. Interestingly, the Hasidic Jews who inhabit hipster havens like Williamsburg also refrain from cutting their beards.

And lest we forget, several of the Occupy movement protesters have embraced the revolutionary tradition of Marx and Castro by wearing full beards.

Which is not to say that conservatives and even neo-cons cannot sport beards. Individuals may choose to wear a beard for purely superficial reasons too. According to Rodney Cutler, men may grow a beard to accentuate or diminish certain features. A thick mustache  or a long, full beard can minimize the appearance of a large philtrum (i.e. midline groove in the upper lip that runs from the top of the lip to the nose) A short, scruffy beard can improve the appearance of men with skinny faces (by filling their lean visages with hair) while a square beard can enhance the looks of men with fat faces (by hiding their double chins). A goatee can also elongate a round face.

At the end of this post, I have to address a metaphysical issue – primarily, to convince myself that blogging is an intellectual pursuit (if I wore a cloak and beard, would I be a philosopher?). So my less-than-transcendent argument is that beards highlight an interesting aspect of decision-making.

Hair grows upon the chin and cheeks of most pubescent and adult men. Since 5a-dihydrotestosterone is responsible for the follicles characteristic of men, including the beard, men cannot choose not to grow facial hair (without hormonal intervention). Consequently, it is fallacious to state that a man decides to grow a beard. To be more accurate, we should specify that a man decides not to shave.

Most decisions have been modeled by economists and mathematicians as a finite set of well-defined, mutually exclusive alternatives (e.g. courses of action) for an actor (or set of actors) and a corresponding payoff matrix. At first glance, one could specify that an actor chooses to shave his beard (A) or he chooses not to shave his beard (~A). However, in most “real world” situations, a finite set of alternatives does not exist. When a man arises, he may choose to shave his beard (A) {by implication, he also chooses not to shave his beard [~(~A)]}, brush his teeth (B), eat breakfast (C), or shower (D), etc.

When a finite number of possible alternatives exist, a decision can be easily modeled as the maximization of a value (utility) function.  However, when an infinite set of alternatives exists, an actor must generate a restricted number of explicit alternatives based on his objectives, goals, priorities, and constraints. Understanding our objectives, goals, priorities, and constraints is difficult, but critical to our success. Whether or not we can perform this assessment in a rational manner, remains unclear. At least to those who are still trying to comprehend multi-objecting programming and goal programming (I am certainly among their ranks).

So to conclude this post, I will plagiarize my original ending:

1) Grow a beard or…

2) Do something better

The “experts” on beards:

How to Grow a Beard (Rodney Cutler for Esquire)

The Modern Man’s Guide to Beards (from GQ)

Of Beards and Marxism (David Weigel for Slate) 

How Not to Grow a Beard Month (Michael Harrison for Wired) 

Beards for women (not bearded women):

Clockwise from top left: Punk Logic Hipster T-Shirt (From the MoreEverything Etsy Shop, $15);  Megababe Mustacio Tank (Wildfox; on ShopBop, $59); Movember Shoes (Toms, $58); Behind Every Clever Girl is a Guy with a beard and Glasses T-shirt (From the Eggagogo Etsy Shop, $20)

I attempted to finish this blog after a “girls night on the town.” I am including the text of my initial effort as a warning to readers: do not drink and blog.

Alternative ending: When you elect to engage in action, you simultaneously elect not to engage in an infinite number of activities. So, you’re shaving you’re beard rather than learning banjo so you can play back up for Alabama? or study Afrikaans or a click-based language or become an expert in curling? Any decision that we believe that we make consciously is actually the sum of all the decisions that we do not make subconsciously. Which we cannot even calculate. Because how can we imagine engaging in an activity that doesn’t even exist. And can we even imagine not engaging in anything? Non-existence confounds and frightens us while existence seems like a concrete activity rather than a random activity.So for now, I’m going to make an uninformed decision to be ignorant. It’s bliss – and if I don’t do so, I’m not going to finish this. And everyone wants to meet their new years resolution so:

1) Grow a beard or…

2) Do something better


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