To Beard or Not to Beard. That is the Question.

You are a man standing in front of the mirror. Do you go for the razor or do you skip the morning shave? Well, it should depend on how you want women to perceive you. According to Dixson and Vasey (2012), if you keep that beard you will be observed as older, of higher social status, and more aggressive. On the other hand, if you take the time to shave that beard, you are going to convey attractiveness to women.

Facial hair is a sexual dimorphism that appears in male children around the time of puberty. Beard hair continues to grow until maturity and it is notably thicker and coarser than hair anywhere else on the head. While testosterone plays a role in beard growth, ethnicity is more a more important factor in determining the pattern, distribution, and density of the beard. Women do not have beards and this indicates it is not retained by natural selection (thermoregulation/UV protection). A more likely reason for facial hair in men is sexual selection.

Intrasexual selection leads to the appearance of traits that signal competitive ability. Under this mode of selection, a beard would signal confidence and competitive ability. Based on studies of lions, a beard does not offer any protective advantage from blows or attacks.  It has been suggested that a beard is a hazard during fights or could harbor parasites (Zahavi & Zahavi 1997). This could also provide women with an indirect signal of fitness (strength/immunity).

Beards have been shown to convey traits favorable to females including: masculinity, maturity, confidence and age. This intersexual selection for beards is not strongly supported in humans. Among the primates, many species have sexual adornments around the face for display purposes. It is hypothesized that intersexual selection, or female choosiness, is likely the driving force behind beard evolution. Most previous facial hair studies have focused on Western cultures and lack the strength of cross-cultural comparison.  The participants in this study are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different exposure to mass media.

Figure 1: Participants were recruited with full beards, defined as not having shaved or trimmed the face for at least 6 weeks. The men are from New Zealand and Samoa. These men were photographed with a full beard and then again when cleanshaven posing smiling (A), angry (B), and neutral (C) facial expressions (from Dixson and Vasey 2012).

The photographs were presented individually, in a random order and rated using a 6-point Likert Scale, where 0 = unattractive, 1 = only slightly attractive, 2 = moderately attractive, 3 = attractive, 4 = very attractive, and 5 = extremely attractive.  The same scale was used using the terms aggressive and important. Both women and men were asked to give their perceived age of the men photographed. For the New Zealand sample, participants were of European descent and rated only the images of men who were of European descent. Samoan participants rated only the photographs of Samoan men.

Figure 2: (A) Mean social status scores. Men and women from both cultures rated men with beards as more important. (B) Mean perceived age. Actual mean age is 23 years for both cultures.

These study results suggest that the beard plays a stronger role in intrasexual signaling than in female mate preferences. In this study, they tested the extent to which facial expressions and beards act in concert in the perceptions aggression. Dixson and Vasey found beardedness did enhance the perception of male dominance, elevated social status, and the communication of aggressive intent. Previous studies have found beards decrease a man’s perceived social status due to its association with vagrancy (Morris 2002); however, participants in this study ascribe a higher social status to bearded males. Whether or not the beard reliably advertises men’s actual strength or is associated with greater reproductive success (like other masculine traits) remains to be determined.

Figure 3: (A) Mean attractiveness scores made by women. Both cultures rated clean-shaven as more attractive, but Samoan women had higher ratings for clean-shaven (B) Mean aggressiveness scores made by women. Both cultures rated bearded as more aggressive.

In addition to beards, androgens drive other sexually dimorphic traits such as a large jaw, narrow eyes, a pronounced brow ridge, and a longer face. Men displaying these masculine traits are ranked as less ‘‘warm,’’ honest and cooperative, and less trustworthy (Dixson & Vasey 2012). Darwin postulated that beards evolved in human ancestors via female choice as a highly attractive masculine adornment. Facial hair has varied in popularity and style, and while this study removed the element of Western influence it still found bearded men less attractive to women. These results in concert with previous studies may prove Darwin wrong or simply that female choice is highly variable.

Now that the facts are known, the choice to shave the beard or let it grow is up to the individual. Beards may convey the perception of wealth, status, or age, but when it comes down to the basics, the whole goal of existence for any species is reproduction and women just don’t dig the beard. And gentlemen, that beard is going to hurt your chances.

Works Cited

Dixson BJ, Dixson AF, Morgan B, Anderson MJ. 2012. Beards augment perceptions of men’s age, social status, and aggressiveness, but not attractiveness. Behavioral Ecology. Online Adv Access.

Morris D. 2002. People watching. London: Vintage.

Zahavi A, Zahavi A. 1997. The handicap principle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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