Is manly facial fuzz over? No chance. Michael Hogan asks how big is yours
I went to a posh awards bash last week. You know the drill: black tie, champagne reception, four-course dinner, a smattering of celebrities (after a tad too much house white, a female friend attempted “bantz” with Stephen Fry and got politely but firmly led away by her elbow). Anyway, I ran into a former colleague I hadn’t seen for years and all he could talk about was our beards. Not how dashing (or awkward) we looked in our tuxes. Not the night’s gong-giving, despite the fact that he was shortlisted. Not even what we’d been up to during the intervening years. Just beards.
Apparently mine was “a proper big old man’s one”, whereas his was “patchy ginger bumfluff”. I pooh-poohed this, obviously – I’m not a complete monster – but was secretly delighted. We even exchanged tweets the following morning, comparing hangovers, and he again mentioned his “serious beard envy”.
How in whiskery hell did it come to this? If you’d have told me a few years ago that such conversations would be taking place between otherwise sane men, I would’ve laughed you out of the fortune-telling booth.
Beards were for sailors, social workers, scruffy geography teachers, hippies and traffic-heckling nutters. What next? Comparing pipes? Trying on each other’s monocles?
Beards, however, have become a bona fide phenomenon. Hollywood has become Hairywood, thanks to the likes of George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt and Tom Hardy. British figures from Paxo to Becks have put down their razors. The most unlikely famous faces suddenly appear, covered in hair: see Boyzone’s Shane Lynch popping up on Sport Relief with a full Amish affair, or Ashley Cole’s return from the Stamford Bridge wilderness with a proper pirate’s face-warmer. Indeed, both Champions League semi-finals were a battle of the beards: Scratchletico vs Chinsea, Real Man-drid vs Bayern Faceitch. At the Razorburnabeu Stadium.
Facial foliage isn’t the sole preserve of hipsters any more. The beard revival might have started in Brooklyn and east London – where social-media strategists, web designers, barmen and baristas like to pretend they’re alt-folk musicians or artisan lumberjacks, teaming a well-groomed beard with tweed, tattoos and a fixie – but now beards are mainstream. Beards have gone commercial. They’re playing arenas and doing dodgy ads.
Everyone’s got one. Even some of the women. And despite ahead-of-the-curve, over-everything-before-it’s-even-started style pundits loftily proclaiming that we’ve passed “peak beard”, they’re not going away anytime soon. Beards are here to stay. They’ve literally grown on us. And now they’re a part of us.
Liberated from the tyranny of the daily shave, men have embraced beard growth so enthusiastically, they’re doing it for themselves rather than their partners. So what if some women don’t like it or think it’d be scratchy during a snog? Who cares if it makes you more or less attractive? Squares or parents don’t get it? Big deal. Beards have become about their owner and his fellow man. For the proud beard-owner, they feel good – both to the touch (who can resist thoughtfully stroking their own beard? It’s like having a furry pet on your face) and for the soul. Sporting a beard makes you feel masculine, dominant and grown-up. A proper man. A grizzled pioneer. A brave hero on the frontier of 21st-century life.
There’s also an element of “male display” to growing a luxuriant, lustrous beard. Women can express themselves through their hair, make-up and wider repertoire of clothing. We men have fewer such luxuries. Short of piercings, hair dye, ponytails and other things no grown man should ever consider, facial hair is one of the few tools for modern male reinvention and freedom of expression.
Of course, where there are men, there’ll be one-upmanship and inadequacy. Forget cars, careers, sport, six-packs and penis size: beards have become the new battleground for male competitiveness. The likes of my friend from the awards show are casting envious glances at other men’s face furniture. Growing a bushy beard is seen as an impressive achievement. A status symbol. A mark of male grooming success.
The rise in beard transplants (yes, really) shows exactly how seriously some men are taking this. Not only are hip US men increasingly turning to cosmetic procedures in their quest for the perfect beard, but it’s also spreading across the Atlantic. According to the International Society of Hair Restoration, 4,500 facial hair transplants were carried out in the UK in 2013 – up 13 per cent on the previous year, making the procedure three times as popular as nose jobs among British men. Falling behind in the beard race? Cheat, like a beardy Ben Johnson.
Yep, beards are the new penises. Some are long and thick, others more compact. Some ladies are impressed by them, others insist that size doesn’t matter. As long as you’re happy with what you’ve got, that’s the main thing. The beard has become an appendage that you can proudly display in public. A facial phallus. Beards are better for male bonding, too, because unlike with penises, it’s socially acceptable to stroke another man’s in public.