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Fear not the hipster beard: it too shall pass

Beards are back, baby! Juan Luis/Flickr

If you haven’t been outdoors in a few years, you might not have noticed that beards are back. Back in such a big way that apparently many New York hipsters are paying north of US$8,000 for “facial hair transplants” to embellish their patchy beards.

While the hipster subculture appears to be ground zero for the latest swerve toward beardedness, men who would not be seen dead in skinny jeans or thrift-shop cardigans are letting the whiskers grow in a way that hasn’t been fashionable for decades.

Why are beards sprouting from the unlikeliest faces? And is there anything that might make them stop?

The advantage of rarity

Today in Biology Letters we provide experimental insights into why beard fashions come and go, and why there is no single optimum pattern of facial hair. By we, I mean my former Honours student Zinnia Janif, my colleague and Zinnia’s co-supervisor Dr Barnaby Dixson and me.

We speculated that a phenomenon called “negative frequency dependence” (NFD) might help explain diversity in facial hair patterns. Negative frequency dependence simply means that rare traits enjoy an advantage.

In evolutionary genetics, NFD selection is an important force, favouring rare genetic alleles over more common ones. In guppies, for example, males bearing rare combinations of coloured spots are both less likely to be preyed on and more likely to gain matings in the wild. So a rare colour pattern can spread very rapidly until it becomes so common it attracts attention from predatory fish and starts looking like old hat to female guppies.

A sample of male guppies, caught from Alligator Creek, North Queensland, where they occur ferally. The size and placement of colour spots in male guppies is among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Rob Brooks

The selective advantages enjoyed by rare colour patterns explain why guppy colour patterns are among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Could more subtle forms of NFD selection explain why so much genetic variation persists in most traits, even though natural selection is expected to remove genetic variation by eliminating “bad” genes. Under NFD, “good” or “bad” depends on how common the gene is.

What if, we speculated, rarity also operated in the world of fashion? In this case, what if rare patterns of facial hair enjoy an advantage purely on account of their rarity?

Experiment

To test this idea we set up a simple experiment using a suite of photographs of 36 men. Each man had been photographed when clean-shaven, with five days of growth (we call this light stubble), 10 days of growth (heavy stubble) and at least four weeks of untrimmed growth (full beard).

One subject displaying the four levels of beard: clean shaven, five-day growth, 10-day growth and full beard. Barnaby Dixson

Subjects, recruited via our research group webpage (where we are always seeking subjects and Facebook - thanks IFLS for the traffic), each rated 36 faces – one of each man. Over the first 24 faces we manipulated the rarity of beard types. Subjects either saw all 24 men clean shaven, all 24 with full beards, or six men from each of the four levels of beardedness.

We then analysed how subjects rated the same – last – 12 pictures comprising three from each beard level. In line with our prediction, when clean-shaven faces were rare (among the early 24 pictures) they enjoyed a significant premium in attractiveness ratings (in the last 12) over when they were common. And when full beards were rare or when the four levels of beardedness were evenly distributed, full beards enjoyed significantly higher attractiveness than when full beards were common. Five- and 10-day stubble did not really vary in attractiveness across the three treatments.

What this means is that, under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen. But it suggests that beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular. And that innovative new styles may enjoy a premium while they are still rare.

I couldn’t go past musician William Fitzsimmons sporting the same look as South African cricketer Hashim Amla in this video for his song ‘Lions’. Especially when YouTube served me an advert for shaving products at the front end. Oh the irony, the irony.

Fashion and facial hair

Negative frequency dependent choices might well be an important ingredient in changing facial hair fashions. The current fad for facial hair is just the latest development in a long history.

Dwight E. Robinson went to the trouble of scoring the facial grooming of all men pictured in the London Illustrated News between 1842 and 1972. In the 1890s, more than 90% of men pictured had some form of facial hair, a figure that dropped to below 20% by 1970. Sideburns occupied the news in the mid-19th century, whereas full beards reigned from 1870 to 1900, only to be replaced by moustaches.

Negative frequency dependence might play a role early in an establishing fashion.

The New York Times reckons the current beard trend emerged among local hipsters in late 2005. I’m not sure the NYT would notice anything that happened or – heaven forbid – started outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. But suffice to say the current fashion has been almost a decade in the making.

Noveau-beard has been propelled along the way by various sportsmen, movie stars and musicians. But the fashion has now spread to the point where astute commentators reckon the tide of hipster cool has turned. When Buzzfeed breathlessly lists the “51 Hottest Hollywood Beards”, it’s time to seek higher ground to avoid the tsunami set off by the implosion of cool.

That is one way in which negative frequency dependence can work: when a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside.

“Joaquin Phoenix is a Poser”. Graffiti stencil, New York City. David Shankbone/ Flickr

Not everybody should grow a beard

Much of this discussion has concerned the attractiveness of beards. But although many hirsute men have formed the zealous conviction that their beards place them at an advantage with the ladies, evidence is far more equivocal.

Dixson’s previous research has shown that heavy stubble – a substantial growth that is well kept – is more attractive than clean shaven, light stubble or a full beard. And individual women vary in their tastes, some are pro, and others vehemently anti-whisker.

Far less ambiguously, beards tend to make those men who can grow them look more masculine. Hardly surprising, actually, given the ability to grow facial hair kicks in during puberty, marking the transition to manhood. The beard might be as much a signal to other men as it is to women, which might explain why so many warrior cultures grew resplendent beards, and why professional sports teams grow beards in playoff-time solidarity.

Female attraction to bearded men can arise due to the manly connotations of facial hair. Nicki Daniels certainly makes this point in her hilarious Open letter to bearded hipsters.

Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire.

If the messages signalled by growing facial hair are diminished when every man-boy over 20 is sporting a beard, that constitutes another way in which negative frequency dependent choice might work.

The reasons beards diminish in value when everyone is wearing them remain to be teased apart, but the fact that they do suggests that the hipster beard, like the handlebar moustache, the mutton chop and countless other fashions before them, will, in time, pass.


“Jimmy Niggles”, grew Australia’s highest-profile contemporary beard to raise awareness about melanoma. Now he’s looking to sell it for A$1million to support cancer research. Tim Jones

P.S. Beard Season is coming up

You may already have encountered Jimmy Niggles (aka Scott Maggs) and friends who are raising awareness about melanoma – in honour of their mate Wes who lost his life to melanoma at age 26 – through their Beard Season campaign. Jimmy uses his resplendent beard to start conversations with strangers (and leverage considerable media interest) about the importance of having their skin checked. Jimmy is currently selling his beard for A$1 million in order to raise money for melanoma research.

Talk about a positive expression of contemporary masculinity.


Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. Anne Sutton

    Shop Lady

    I for one cannot wait for the fad to end and for all the vain self obsessed hipster fashionistas to abandon this fashionable fad for another shallow act of peacocky. My husband has had a beard for well over ten years and for years was hassled by people to shave. I like that my husband isn't consumed by his image and perceived "street cred". I hate that the average passer by might now misjudge him as one of the members of the above mentioned clique.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Anne Sutton

      Hi Anne

      'Ten years' - that sounds like when the hipster trend started in New York! I hope that's just a coincidence!

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  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Now this is a curious angle for a biologist - even an evolutionary one Dr Rob. Surely the fashion - the "socially faddist modification" - is for shaving ... because, left to a desert island sans Gillette we fellas would all end up looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway. We are - genetically speaking - a hirsute gender.

    Shaving is a strange and all too modern business - a pretence of perpetual pre-adolescence...a posturing of "boyish charm". It's like ironing ... grooming as a display of mannered decency - a man with time on his hands and no hair on his face.

    Surely - as an evolutionist - the question is arse-about - "why do men shave at all?" Why are we genetically condemned to shaving?

    Give me your grizzled George Clooney any time ... three days growth that cries out "I don't care if it tickles! Get over it princess!"

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I'm going to question your assertion about shaving being a supposedly modern business.

      I can't recall seeing too many statues of Romans with beards.

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    2. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Not to mention that Roman shaving gear was sometimes quite primitive. The common look may have been something like today's stubble beard.

      Of course "real men" didn't fuss around with razors. Like Julius Ceasar they had their faces plucked. (Whoo! Think about it!)

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    3. Rob Brooks
      Rob Brooks is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      Peter you are absolutely right - it is shaving that we need to understand. And grooming. I have been thinking about this for a while and have a few ideas about it - but still figuring out how to test.

      Thx for the thoughts on Romans. Apparently Rome was scandalized when Hadrian decided to let the whiskers grow.

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    4. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      The emperors Septimius Severis, Nero, Commodus and Antoninus Pius had beards and statues.

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  3. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    "There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire." - Nicki Daniels - Open letter to bearded hipsters An observation not lost on older generations.
    There is an increasingly openly androgynous group emerging in our evolving community. The beard appears to be an understandable response to the third gender and acceptance of feminist values, providing a point of difference no one can deny.
    The question of the length of the trend is interesting. As the third gender is out and feminism is here to stay.

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  4. Matt Briody

    logged in via Twitter

    I love it when people go to so much trouble to find out nothing at all.

    I grow a beard because I don't shave. Perhaps one day I will buy an electric shaver and use it. Perhaps I won't.

    None of my decisions in this matter have anything to do with my desire to be attractive (genetically determined or otherwise).

    In the meantime, I am flattered if people think I look like a lumberjack.

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  5. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    Well this is an interesting article - thank you.

    Having lived inside a beard for decades I am ambivalent about them on others.

    For me; They keep flies off my face (very important), shield me from the Sun (very important) and save vast amounts of time editing it every day with a shaver.

    The funny side of it is "The Beards" go see them, we can't too far away sadly - http://www.thebeards.com.au/ top band !

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  6. CH Soames

    Cytogeneticist

    Beards: a non-event. All this bald-chinnedness is what's causing them to seem significant. Leave them be, get used to them, get over it. We can accommodate even this degree of diversity. Even this degree of naturalness. One day, maybe people will recover from their neuroses concerning other bodily hirsuititude. In the meantime, suggest paying attention to things that matter, such as the abolition of the live export atrocity.
    Tires; a good thing for all drivers of conveyances that employ them to be capable of changing.

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  7. Jason Murphy

    journalist

    I've wanted a beard since I was about 15, to counter my boyish face.

    By 21 I could manage a goatee. I shaved that off to enter the full time workforce and mucked around with a few stubbly/shaved looks. Now I'm 32 and I have a proper beard. There are two small bald patches, but as long as it grows to a decent length they are covered up!

    I much prefer the constancy of beardedness to the perpetual change of smooth/rough. I think I'm lucky that negative frequency dependence has coincided with my late 20s, when I aspired to stand out to the ladies! Even if having a beard goes from being Dave Grohl to Don Burke, I think I will keep it.

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  8. Benjamin Ratcliff

    Nurse

    Here are two reasons people don't have a beard.

    1. they can't grow one

    2. they arn't allowed to grow one

    notice people who like shaving the most have the least to shave.

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  9. Pat Moore

    gardener

    This ephemeral round of NFD hipster trend setting aside, shaving is a cultural conformity? a sign of "cultivation", of being socially acceptable and of city-based sophistication? Imagine Wall Street bankers and all their globalised clones in their fine Italian suits & shoes....and beards? Almost become a schizoid split between hairy man the animal from wild nature and this new clean shaven, civilized creature. The myth of the werewolf, springing with hair, tells the story.... the call of the wild…

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