What’s so weird about beards?

The following piece appeared as a Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ article on 11th October 2013.

In attempting to justify barring two Muslim boys from Mount Carmel Roman Catholic high school in Accrington on account of their beards last week, the headteacher stated: “It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain.”

Setting aside (as the headteacher himself did) any arguments for special religious dispensation, the head’s words speak volumes. Sporting a beard is seen as a choice, and making that choice somehow lowers standards.

Like all beardies, I don’t have a beard through choice. It just grew on the front of my face. I choose to have a beard in the same way that I choose to have two legs. Yes, I suppose I could elect to remove either of the offending limbs, but I’m damned if I’m going to.

The Accrington headteacher isn’t alone. Society seems to think that scraping or strimming the hair off your face is an admirable thing to do; that not doing so is odd. Paxman appears on Newsnight—after the watershed—with full, unadulterated facial hair, and Twitter erupts. The Lib Dems’ spin-doctor grows a beard, and Nick Clegg immediately orders him to cut it off. Nigel Slater sprouts some facial fuzz and braces himself for the inevitable flak. Get over it: they’re only beards.

Men who go for the default (bearded) option aren’t making some kind of statement; it’s those who choose to mow their faces who seem to have something to prove. What’s your problem? Afraid to grow up, boys? Ashamed of your masculinity? In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice had it right: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.”

The world is outraged when an 18-year-old pop starlet dresses as a schoolgirl to sell a few million singles. Yet when fully grown men shave their faces for that prepubescent-schoolboy look, nobody bats an eyelid. It’s all seen as perfectly normal. Standards must be maintained.

Such nonsense was even going on in 19th-century Tierra del Fuego. When Charles Darwin witnessed the meeting of a man known as York Minster, one of the Fuegian natives abducted during the Beagle voyage, with some of his long-lost compatriots, he recorded: “When York Minster afterwards came on shore, they […] told him he ought to shave; yet he had not twenty dwarf hairs on his face, whilst we all wore our untrimmed beards.” York Minster was letting his hide-clad, stone-age side down in front of the uncouth Europeans, it would seem.

What about the environment? Have the face-strimmers ever stopped to consider the carbon footprint of their unnatural daily ritual? Figures I’ve just made up indicate that, were every man in Britain to refrain from shaving, we would be able to close two medium-sized coal-fired power stations. So there you have it: grow a beard and save the planet. Baby-faced George Monbiot ought to hang his head in shame. He of all people should appreciate the enchantment of going feral.

Not convinced? Carry on scraping your faces, if it makes you happy, chaps. But don’t try to pretend for a second that those of us who don’t are the ones making the freakish choice.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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