What does a beard mean? [ Beards: Part 2]

“We have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females – and there is more in that than you might suppose”

C.S. Lewis

Hair has a rich depth of symbolism that dates back to the earliest history of man. One of the seminal studies was Leach’s (1958) ‘Magical hair’ study, where he forwarded a phallic interpretation of the head and hair. From here, he interpreted the personal, social and political messages of hair to be:


This thinking was refined later by Hallpike (1969); “(long hair) is associated with being outside society and that the cutting of hair symbolises re-entering society, or living within a particular disciplinary regime within society”. He equated the cutting of hair to social control – if you are in the army or are a convict you have short-hair, symbolic of discipline. Although, it’s not as simple as long or short, hair styles can offer different symbolic interpretations. Historically, the Spartans famously had their hair cut short in the front and the back was grown long as possible, so that if they ran from battle it would be easier for their opponents to kill them. One of the major religious disputes between the Celtic church and Rome was the ‘tonsure’ -how the hair was cut ; this was a dispute about the right way to communicate celibacy (the tonsure was symbolic of broader differences).

This is a much older symbolic theme that Hallpike is evoking; one of the oldest is the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  In this story Gilgamesh, was an oppressive king and his subjects complained to the gods. So the gods created an equal in Enkidu to distract him. Enkidu, who is covered in hair and lives in the wild amongst animals: his opposite. The theme here is that civilized man controls his hair, the hirsute are closer to nature and the wild.


In Lord of The Flies, author William Golding uses a similar allegory, with the boy’s hair growing and becoming tangled and matted on the Island. The only one whose hair that doesn’t change is Piggy – hair that remains short and clean as he clings to his morals and doesn’t become wild. Hair is also a common descriptive difference between Tarzan and the Apes for similar reasons – highlighting civilization vs nature.

‘psychoanalytic approach assumes a universal connection between hair and sexual virility. Short hair is signifies the acceptance of discipline and compliance with authority. Long hair signals the exact opposite’. – Lewis 2003 

Anthony Synnott (1987) suggested that hair created its meaning in a system of oppositions, two of these are: on your body or between different genders. The example points out that while women depilate from their legs and underarms, they grow their hair long. The opposite of this is true for males, who show off their body hair and keep their hair short. There are a couple of observations here. Firstly, publishing in 1993 that he couldn’t foresee the impact the metrosexual movement would have on men in man scaping. Women are still depilating, along with male behaviour; progressing to the point of virtually making instances of venereal crabs extinct.

Synott also suggested that oppositions could occur between ideologies in terms of hair symbolism. In Jewish and Muslim traditions , males are forbidden to cut their beards, whereas in other belief systems, clearly no mandate exists. This is a way of creating cultural boundaries, food is another that was practiced by all people-of-the-book. There are also specific conditions that guard the beard and hair in eastern cultures . These strict conventions become signs that lead to stereotypes of ethnic groups, not only signs of inclusion but also ultimately exclusion.

This ideological use of hair can be employed socially to control and transform society:

September 5, 1698. Russian Tsar Peter the Great imposes a taxes on beards as part of a effort to westernise his nobility. The Tsar had just returned from a tour of Europe (where most men were clean shaven) and was determined to revolutionise Russian society, culture and even fashion. As a result of the new beard tax, all men – except peasants and clergymen – had to pay 100 roubles for a copper or silver ‘beard token’, which had a moustache and a beard engraved onto it. The token also bore the message ‘the beard is a useless burden’. The Tsar was not the first leader to fiscally punish the facially hirsute: England’s Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I had launched a similar war on whiskers in the 16th century. The Russian beard tax was finally abolished in 1772”

This also happened more recently in the 1960’s as a social revolution:

“Fifteen to twenty years ago, the older of the boomers trimmed their hair, shaved their beards, removed their funny jewellery, and put their bras back on and joined the establishment to fulfil the urges of the first experiential lifestyle stage of adulthood – the Possession Experience years. Many succeeded beyond their expectations, dissolving their earlier views about the evils of materialism. In pursuit of materialistic indulgence, they jettisoned their idealized images of what life ought to be. They now set about making money in less than idealized jobs working for less than idealized companies to begin the accumulation stage of their lives.” David B. Wolfe

The wearing of beards has a diachronic function in society that communicates different messages of masculinity. These are subject to the culture and trends of the day. There is a consistent theme that the cutting-of-hair is more civilised as you would expect versus just letting it grow out in the wild. Perhaps the best way to explore how beards are being used today would be to audit some of the ads that have this as a core focus, as a reflection of contemporary society which shall be examined in the concluding part of this discussion.