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Do real men have beards?

11:30 Tue Mar 13 2012
Hugh Wilson
Do real men have beards?
Do I shave, or do I let my beard grow?

New research says women don't like them, but are beards the ultimate symbol of manliness?

Whether you sport a goatee or the full Santa, we're afraid the news is not good. According to recent research released, women are not attracted to men with beards.

And the research discovered that not only are beards unattractive to women, they also make the wearer seem older and more aggressive. As far as the respondents were concerned, beards didn't have much going for them at all.

Which is a bit strange, when you think about it. Most physical traits that are specific to one gender or the other are at least partly associated with attraction. Breasts may help feed babies, for example, but they also help attract males.

So if women don't like them, it begs one fundamental question: why do men have the capacity to grow beards at all? Do real men really sport facial fuzz, or is the height of modern masculinity invariably clean-shaven?

The research
According to the research, men don't (or shouldn't) grow beards to attract women. The Canadian psychologists who carried out the study photographed 19 men from Samoa and New Zealand with full beards (defined as six weeks of unmolested growth) and then again clean-shaven. The photographs were then shown to over 200 women.

The result was conclusive. The women rated the clean-shaven look as considerably more attractive. When the photographs were also shown to other men, the researchers found that both sexes rated the bearded men as older and angrier looking than the same men clean-shaven.

Let's face it, looking old and angry is hardly likely to up your chances with women.

This chimes with research published in the journal Ethology and Sociobiology in 1996, which found: "Men with facial hair were perceived as more aggressive, less appeasing, less attractive, older, and lower on social maturity than clean shaven faces."

So if it's not to attract women, why on earth do men have beards?

Hair today
The problem with modern research is that it can tell us what women today find attractive, but not what women in our evolutionary past found attractive. It could be thatwhen we were all running around after woolly mammoths, beards caught the female eye like a Calvin Klein waistband does today.

But why would a beard be attractive in the past? Experts suggest that a beard may have been a sign of a healthy immune system.

And that's because body hair attracts potentially disease-carrying parasites. If a man can grow extra hair on his face (and particularly round his mouth) and stay healthy, it suggests strong disease resistant genes that will then be passed on to a couple's children.

Other experts have suggested a simpler explanation. When every day was a fight for survival, having the biological resources to grow something so extraneous as bushy facial hair showed just how fit and well you were.

Caroline Blanchard of the University of Hawaii recently advanced another intriguing theory for beard growth. She suggests that a bushy beard helps protect vulnerable parts of the face and neck from attack, much like a male lion's mane.

"These areas are front and centre in aggressive confrontations and may be especially vulnerable to blows when weapons are not used or to blows from the 'blunt force' weapons that have been available throughout much of evolution," Blanchard argues.

Man v woman
Blanchard's theory is controversial but does hint at something many researchers would agree with. Even the bushiest beard would have been no use against the razor sharp teeth and claws of mankind's early predators, but that's not what it was for. It was a protection against the fists and blunt tools of our fellow men.

Not everyone agrees with that, but there is increasing evidence that men don't grow beards directly for the sake of women, they grow them for the sake of other men. In Blanchard's theory, beards are a physical protection. In other research, including the latest study, beards can be seen as more of a psychological warning.

The Canadian research found that bearded men were deemed to look aggressive. That might not directly get you the girl, but it might scare off rival men. And the study found something else, too. Both sexes rated bearded men of higher social status. Beards may not be aesthetically pleasing, but they do suggest you're not to be messed with, either because of your own physical prowess or because of your elevated position in the tribe.

"Thus, the beard appears to augment the effectiveness of human aggressive facial displays," say the report's authors.

Stubble theory
At the moment the consensus seems to be that beards evolved as part of a signalling system between men. Beards are suggestive of testosterone, and testosterone suggests good health and aggressive tendencies. Mess with me at your peril, a man's beard once said.

And there's some evidence to suggest that, though modern women (in general, of course — some modern women love beards) no longer go for men with beards, their evolutionary biology has not let them ditch a preference for male facial hair altogether.

Recent research from psychologists at the University of Northumbria confirmed that women didn't tend to like full beards on men, but also found that the most attractive look wasn't a clean-shaven one. Men who sported a bit of stubble were considered most attractive, whether the women were looking for long-term love or short-term sex.

So do real men have beards? In our caveman past, the answer was almost certainly yes. Beards told women that you were healthy — and told men that you were prepared to fight to defend your mate and your status.

And today? Not so much. Many women no longer find an aggressive or domineering man attractive, but they can't escape biology altogether. A little stubble that helps to define a masculine jawline can still make some women swoon.

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