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Beardology: This Medical Researcher Will Study the History of Facial Hair

"Beards are always closely linked with how men feel about themselves."

by Emiko Jozuka
Aug 4 2015, 3:35pm

Image: Giovanni/Flickr

What causes the boom and bust of beards? Is it just that men get bored of certain styles, or do innovations in healthcare and technology also influence the whiskers men sport on their faces?

Alun Withey, a medical historian and associate research fellow at the University of Exeter, will tackle those questions during a three-year research project that examines man's evolving relationship with facial hair. The project is supported by global medical non-profit the Wellcome Trust.

Starting from September 2015, Withey will focus his investigations between 1700 and 1918, and will investigate British beard evolution within a medical and technological framework. He will look at a wide range of sources including pictorial depictions of beards in drawings and photographs, medical records, and mentions of facial hair in adverts, diaries and letters.

"Beards," Withey told me over the phone, "are always closely linked with how men feel about themselves." In Tudor times, the beard, said Withey, was a visible and outward symbol of men's masculinity and virility. To pull at a man's beard back then was a heinous insult against his manhood. But fast forward to the 17th century, and beards had almost completely lost their appeal in Britain.

"If you had a weak straggly beard, you were seen as a naturally sick person."

"The 18th century was the time of the Enlightenment (the Western European intellectual movement between the 1620s and 1980s that challenged authoritarian rule), so it was all about neatness and elegance—about opening up to and understanding the word. If you shave off a beard, you are opening up the face," said Withey. "The new ideal of how a man should look was clean shaven."

Withey explained that in the 1700s, facial hair was also closely tied to old ideas of the body, which emphasised the body's association with the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile). So beards themselves, said Withey, were treated as things to be eliminated or clipped—much like nails.

"If you shave a beard off, you get rid of a waste product," said Withey. "Over time, it was also seen as an indicator of health. So if you had a weak straggly beard, you were seen as a naturally sick person."

Aside from the health ideas revolving around facial hair, Withey said that the development of technology played a key role in beard upkeep or eradication.

"The 1750s really sees the start of new, sharp, cast steel razors, and men started to shave themselves," said Withey. "So there's a question to be asked: Did the new razors make men want to shave more, or is it the fact that men have already shaved and the new razors are the result of men wanting to shave?"

While facial hair may have fallen out of vogue in the 1700s, it wasn't long before beards made a massive comeback. During the Victorian era, as British explorers returned from expeditions abroad sporting rugged beards, they set off a new wave adoption during the "beard movement."

Victorian explorer John Hanning Speke. Image: Southwell Brothers, National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia

"The Victorians used to emulate explorers, who used to disappear off to the wilds. They wanted to look rugged and manly," said Withey. "They also saw beards as helpful against germs, as the beards would catch all the nasty stuff before it gets into your throat."

In the past, facial hair may have been associated with deep-set health, technological, and social-cultural trends. Yet Withey remarked that nowadays, men had become more flippant with their beards.

"It's interesting that whereas beard trends used to last for decades, over the past century, and particularly the last 40 and 50 years, they seem to go on for just a few years," he said. Withey attributed these changes in beard trends to globalization, and the rapid-fire mix of advertising and imagery that people are currently exposed to. "Everything changes much more quickly than it would've done hundred years ago."

Withey admitted that his choice of research topic was quirky, and tended to cause smiles all round when he mentioned it to people. But he was quick to point that the academic study of facial hair is a serious endeavour that reveals much about society.

"When you look at beards and facial hair in the past, we realize how closely they are linked to the body and medicine," said Withey. "It's not a joke project—though it might have elements of that in it—but something that tells us a great deal about the body, masculinity, and how people have changed over time."