A Brief History of Beards
For something as simple as letting the hair on your face grow, wearing a beard can be a strange and sometimes dangerous thing to do. Beards historically have been a common source of cultural controversy. During the Protestant Reformation rebellious priests wore beards, partly to advertise the end of their church-imposed celibacy; upon taking the crown, Queen Elizabeth I levied a tax against beards; and Abraham Lincoln may have clinched the election of 1860 by growing a beard. Today things are as complicated as ever. Beards can imply both destitution and great wealth, laziness and disciplined productivity, heterosexuality and homosexuality. Two weeks ago I shaved off my beard, after wearing it for about a year. I want to tell you what it’s been like.
Initially, it took about three weeks for my beard to fill in, after which time I noticed a change in the way people reacted to me. The most vivid example was the new interest shown by Greenpeace’s sidewalk soliciting team, which lingers outside the Barnes and Noble at Astor Place that I pass each morning. Due to what must be millions of dismissals each day around the country, the Greenpeace pitch, at least at Astor Place, has been distilled down to: “Do you care about the environment?” This makes you feel guilty for answering “No, sorry” or “Not today.” When clean-shaven, I was treated like any other pedestrian. But with a beard, the Greenpeace activists tended to catch my eye from half a block away, and steer me to the edge of the curb, where they held out their hands and said, “You care about the environment—right, man?” They would then trail me for ten or fifteen feet down the sidewalk before giving up.
When I had the beard, lots of people thought I was a hippie. Last Memorial Day, I was at Coney Island with some friends. We were walking along the boardwalk and paused at the Shoot the Freak pit, where a big charismatic guy with a microphone headset was encouraging a large crowd of people to shoot the freak. When I moved to get a better view, he made eye contact with me and said into the mic: “How about you, you filthy hippie? We appreciate alternative lifestyles.” Everyone looked at me and laughed, ignoring the freak. Nobody in the crowd had a beard.
Perhaps because beards have impractical connotations. In 323 BC, as Alexander the Great was preparing to lead his army into battle with the Persians, he supposedly declared, “I ask nothing but that the Macedonians cut off their beards, for there is not a better handle to take a man by than the beard!” Later that day at Coney Island, we were on the beach covering my friend Graham in sand. A four-year-old girl named Lisa came over and helped us. When Graham was half-covered, Lisa impulsively threw a pint of sand in my face with a plastic, turret-shaped sand pail. Insulted, I took the pail from her and hid it behind my back. Without a thought, she grabbed me by the beard. Her tiny fingers took a solid hold, like an adult’s fingers in a full head of hair. It hurt. I dropped the pail instantly. She laughed and picked it up.
Another popular association people have with beards is Jesus Christ. Part of the reason I cut my long hair last fall was that people—particularly girls and black teenagers—were always telling me I looked like Jesus. “You’ve definitely got the Jesus-look down,” said my female roommates with disapproval. “Wassup Jesus?” said a lot of cool black kids in my neighborhood. Before I cut my hair, which was admittedly Jesus-length, I exploited the resemblance for Halloween. A friend in a Dracula costume loaned me a pair of Birkenstocks and a low V-neck robe with Biblical-looking patterns on it. I wove a crown of thorns from dead blackberry branches I found in a community garden on Avenue B. It was one of the best nights of my life. What had been others’ ironic acceptance of my likeness to Jesus Christ became genuine respect, especially from black teenagers. “It’s Jesus!” many of them cried. All I had to do was raise my hand in a Jesus-like way and they went crazy. A small group followed me down Broadway for several blocks, telling passersby they were my disciples. Later on, at a bar in the East Village around three in the morning, the bartender pointed out a Pontius Pilate standing outside the front window, smoking a cigarette in a pointed gold helmet, metal bracelets and a red silk robe. He was talking to a Big Edie and a Little Edie Beales, from the Maysles brothers’ documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens. “Ecce homo!” he said when I came out. He jokingly apologized for having me crucified and handed me a Camel Light. We had some friends in common from NYU it turned out. We had a good talk.
In my experience, Williamsburg seems to be the one neighborhood in New York City where a beard is actually a physical asset. Girls in Williamsburg, and to some extent Greenpoint, like beards. Why? One of the best answers I can find comes from Wikipedia. It’s almost unheard of, says Wikipedia, for American politicians to wear beards, or even mustaches. Evidently, the last president to wear facial hair of any kind was William Taft, whose term ended in 1913. This was around the time chemical weapons were first being developed, which created the need for gas masks, the seals of which are broken by facial hair. The U.S. Army and Marines Corps justify banning beards for this reason. (Although the Special Operation Forces currently allow beards in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, for the purpose of blending in with the native population.) Beards, therefore, may simply be signaling to girls from Williamsburg and Greenpoint that you’re not involved with the government or military, and that, like members of the sixties and seventies counterculture, you’re into music, sex, and drugs. There is also some conjecture that the recent spike in beard popularity is due to a revolt against the “metrosexual” personality type, but it’s hard to say.
There may even be a biological explanation for this attraction. The beard, according to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, is a kind of bodily ornament, which has evolved according to the sexual preferences of ancestral females. “Since courtship is restricted to sexual maturity,” Miller says, “any trait that grows only after puberty (such as breasts, buttocks, penises, and beards) is likely to be a result of sexual selection. Only when attracting a mate becomes a potentially adaptive thing to do, for example, do beards begin to grow.” Miller’s theory encompasses the production of art, which he believes to be a natural extension of the ornaments that adorn the body (i.e., breasts, beards, etc). Wearing a beard in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area thus has a twofold effect: you’re tapping into a woman’s primitive awareness of your sexual viability while hinting that, with your unkempt appearance, you may do something creative that doesn’t require you to work a regular job. Where the female residents of Park Slope might interpret this as a sign of weakness, their counterparts in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community might see it as a sign of reproductive fitness.
Williamsburg, of course, also happens to be home to one of the larger Hassidic communities in the US. All married Hassidic men are required to wear beards. Leviticus 19:27 reads: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” Halakha, or rabbinic law, interprets this to mean beards cannot be trimmed with a single razor blade, but only clipped with a dual-blade, scissor-like action. The advent of electric razors complicated things, as you might expect. There is debate among the poskim, or Jewish legal advisors, as to whether electric razor use constitutes a scissor- or razor-like action. Nevertheless, they can’t be operated during Shabbat. On the JMZ train, Hassidic men with unruly, lint-filled beards often stared at me, as if jealous of my beard’s artificially sculpted shape.
The term “beard” can also refer to a woman, which I didn’t know till recently. Correctly defined, a “beard” is a female escort intended to disguise a man’s homosexuality, although several online websites define “beards” to include male escorts who conceal a woman’s homosexuality, which doesn’t really make sense. Figuratively speaking, the purpose of a straight guy on a pretend date with a lesbian is to emphasize the smooth, hairless, feminine quality of the girl’s face. That is, a beard is probably the last thing a lesbian would want in order to appear heterosexual. When I moved to New York, it so happened the first friends I made were lesbians. We watched The L Word together on Sunday nights. One of them was convinced she’d been assigned the wrong gender at birth. To correct what she called the “mistake,” she took monthly testosterone injections, which gave her a very thin, silky beard, the texture of ferret fur. She identified herself as a lesbian. I was clean-shaven at the time. What if I took her out one night to fool some people? “Beard”?
The other day I was talking to the drummer of my old band about our beards. He was annoyed by people who congratulate him on the dedication it takes to grow one. “As if it takes any dedication at all,” he said. “What takes dedication is buying new razors and bottles of shaving cream and aftershave and meticulously shaving your face every morning.” He went on to say that there’s this new TV show coming out about cavemen, based on a popular Geico ad campaign, which could spell serious trouble for beard-wearers in America. Neither of us owns a TV, though, so for us it was only hearsay.
That night, I Googled “new caveman TV show.” The first result was titled: Ashton Kutcher wants to be on the new caveman TV show. I opened it up, and there was a picture of Ashton, beside Demi Moore, smiling with a week or two’s worth of scruff. Hardly a beard. Nothing on the site indicates he wants to be on the new caveman show. And yet Lexie, who posted the entry, writes: “With all that facial hair he looks like one of the Geico Cavemen!” I Googled “Geico Cavemen.” Ashton looks nothing like them. And yet Lexie made the comparison.
For the first time in a year I seriously contemplated shaving. I’d been enjoying my beard as a kind of disguise, the way a train robber, galloping past rows of frightened passengers, might enjoy the feel of a handkerchief tied over his face. I’d also been relying on my beard’s sexual resonance with popular sixties and seventies guitar icons, like Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, and Lindsay Buckingham. Strangers were constantly giving me the benefit of the doubt, assuming I was involved in something serious and real. A few days later, as I was reading Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, which I hadn’t read in ten years, I came across the line: “Oh gnashing teeth of earth, where would it all lead to but some sweet golden eternity, to prove that we’ve all been wrong, to prove that the proving itself was nil…” Suddenly, I felt as if I needed to make a drastic change in my life. I closed the book, went to the bathroom, and shaved off my beard. It was scary at first; I felt naked and vulnerable. Oh god, I thought. But gradually I recognized myself, not as me, but as me ten years ago, when I’d first read that book, and before I’d needed to shave.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.