The History of This: Men’s Facial Hair Acceptance

by Steven Arbuckle

There comes a time in every investigative journalist’s career when they must come face to face with the specter of total, abject failure. Sometimes it is as simple as blowing a deadline, other times it is as harrowing as protecting the identity of a whistleblower in an earth-shattering exposé. In my case, I have to admit that I have tackled a subject that is too broad, too complex, and too subjective to fit neatly into this space.

It all started at a job interview. To set the scene, you should know that my shaving style could be accurately described as “sporadic”. At times I have sported a full beard, though I always kept it closely cropped. I always have a goatee, which is usually quite short, but sometimes grows a bit shaggy. And as for my cheeks, I prefer to allow some stubble to grow, opting to shave them clean only for shock value, weddings, and funerals. And so I sat across the desk from my prospective boss, listening as he worked his way through descriptions of the various amounts of fuzz he had seen on my face, before he concluded by saying that he doesn’t “approve of facial hair” in the workplace.

I simply couldn’t help myself: as he said it, my eyes snapped directly to the large, puffy mustache that bushed out mightily above his upper lip. Somehow, for this man, facial hair is a no-no… but mustaches don’t count?

My own father has said that a man with a beard “obviously has something to hide”, and while his military career was further incentive not to sport any hair on his mug, I clearly recall a time or two that a modest mustache graced his otherwise smooth countenance.

One of these men is just short of his 70th birthday, and the other slightly past it. One can fairly be described as liberal, and the other as quite conservative, so I thought that it must be a matter of age, and that persons born later simply don’t subscribe to this opinion. Imagine my surprise, then, when a co-worker in her 20s informed me “a man with a goatee is not to be trusted.” When I pressed for details, I was informed that it was “just a fact.”

Is it true? Am I moved to shroud my chin cleft solely because of some sad and shameful skeletons in my closet? Am I to believe that clean-shaven men are inherently more trustworthy? Certainly not, so I must assume this opinion must be more emotional than factual. The question is clear: where does this attitude come from? Here, my dear reader, is where I confront my failure: I cannot figure that out.

Since this seems to be an issue of popular culture, I tried turning to pop culture for answers. Beards abounded in the television drama Deadwood, but surely the lack of running water and scarcity of mirrors and electric lights have something to do with a hairy, scary Wild West. Fast forward to the 50s and 60s with Mad Men, and whiskers are only to be found on the super-successful, self-assured elders and the youngsters experimenting with marijuana cigarettes – what could they have in common with each other? What’s more, the philandering, manipulative liars all show cheeks as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Jump forward again to the hyper-masculine, outlaw biker soap opera Sons of Anarchy, and you’ll find a dizzying array of jaw-sculptures affixed to men who are all too willing to shoot their rivals in the face with large handguns at close range – but these guys also lean strongly toward family, brotherhood, and authenticity of action. On the other hand the duplicitous, the deceitful, and the Nazis on the show all seem to shave daily.

Speaking of Nazis, it is said that Adolf Hitler adopted his below-the-nose style after being ordered by his superiors in the trenches to trim back his much larger mustache so that his gas mask could seal properly to his face. Previously, he and many other men had worn the “Kaiser” style, with longer whiskers turned up at the end and sprinkled with perfumes, named after the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. In the early 1900s though, many more men started embracing this shorter “Charlie Chaplin” (or philtrum, toothbrush, or soul ‘stache) until Hitler’s sick worldview drove it out of style.

Currently, in the Pacific Northwest especially, it’s not hard to find a lush Kaiser or a fanciful Handlebar all twirled and waxed, and many women are quite vocal about being in favor of seeing a long, full, rich, and expansive beard on a man. But at least one local twenty-something has gone the other direction: his beard was “very attractive” according to his girlfriend, but he cut it all off to avoid looking “like all the other bearded, IPA-drinking men” in the area – though “he does love IPA.”

Here we have yet another man disapproving of facial hair, for yet another, very different reason. What do we make off these divergent viewpoints? And what do we say to the people who work with, live with, and love (or hope to love) these men, the people who are taking up an equally diverse variety of positions: in favor, disapproving, wishing for less, and yearning for more? I have no answer.

If you were hoping for an educational walk through history – an explanation that first this happened, and then that, and the reasons why – I’m sorry to disappoint you. And I’m sorry that, after a long weekend spent happily cultivating whiskers, I must now go out and fork over part of my paycheck to the Babyface Industrial Complex, to buy razors in hopes that I can inspire that much more confidence in the people that I deal with at work tomorrow.