On the subject of whether it is better for a man to be clean shaven or to maintain a beard and moustache, let’s consider a quote from Shakespeare. In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice states: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.”
In general, this seems to be the predominant attitude among those who believe that there is a strong reason, even an ordained directive, governing the wearing of facial hair on men. On the weaker side is the contrast argument that women wear makeup, therefore men wear beards. It’s an attribute that makes a man masculine as opposed to effeminate. On the stronger side is the ordained directive argument that the beard is an integral part of the male body as created by God and therefore should be maintained and respected. The more modern argument is that a man can be with or without a beard, depending on fashion and circumstances, without compromising his masculinity.
Men with beards or moustaches have been ascribed such positive attributes as wisdom, knowledge, sexual virility, masculinity, and high social status. On the other hand, bearded men have also been ascribed negative attributes such as filthiness, crudeness, or eccentric behavior.
During the 18th century, throughout Western Europe, America, and Russia, beards fell out of vogue. The nobility and the upper classes especially were clean shaven. Peter the Great of Russia even ordered men to shave off their beards and levied a tax on beards to discourage them. However, during the Napoleonic era and the Victorian era, beards returned strongly. The typical Victorian figure is one of a stern male with a black overcoat and a thick beard or long sideburns.
Before Abraham Lincoln no prior President had a beard. Lincoln looked distinguished with his full beard, and nearly every President from Lincoln through William Howard Taft had a beard or moustache. Since President Taft in 1913 no President has worn any facial hair at all.
Beards fell out of fashion following World War I. Soldiers had to shave facial hair in order to get a good seal with their gas masks. When they returned from the War with their short hair and clean shaven faces they set the new all-American style. The style remained active until the early 1960’s when a strong counterculture brought back the unshaved, though largely ungroomed look.
Beards are also important in several major religions. Sikhs, many Hindus, orthodox Jews, and Muslims have found scriptural mandates to wear facial hair. For example, many Jews interpret the passage in Leviticus that says, “neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard,” to mean that a razor may not be used because the action of a blade against the skin mars the beard. However a scissors may be used to trim the beard because its two bladed action does not mar the beard. As another example, the Islamic prophet Muhammad prohibited shaving the beard and instructed Muslims to trim their moustaches in order to differentiate themselves from other religions in the area.
These days men feel equally at ease with or without facial hair. Reasons that men give for growing a beard are largely pragmatic. Some say that having a beard is easier than shaving. Some say that they went on vacation and never bothered to resume shaving. Others say that it seems to be the natural state of a man’s face and like the way it looks. Still others like the beard for the distinctive look and the attention it brings. The reasons given for wearing or not wearing facial hair are far more practical than dogmatic.
As for Shakespeare’s Beatrice, she followed her earlier remark by wittily saying, “and he that is no more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”
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