The good, the beard and the ugly

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“God wished women to be smooth … but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with a shaggy chest – a sign of strength and rule,” wrote Clement of Alexandria, a Christian theologian regarded as a Church Father and venerated as a saint. Things have changed since the 2nd Century when Clement was alive – but not too much. Beards are still heralded as proud symbols of masculinity and potency. They transform milquetoast, baby-faced boys into strapping young gentlemen and can conceal facial imperfections like weak chins or acne. Modern men have even begun adorning their facial hair; stringing Christmas ornaments and threading flowers through their tresses, or coating them with festive glitter for special occasions.

Why have a beard?

“Depending on who you are or what you do, there are practical reasons to have or not have a beard,” said Brendan Vlass, expert barber at Durango’s Hair Fusion. “Men like myself who don’t have a chin – well, we still want a jaw, because it’s a good, strong masculine trait – so we emulate one with our beards.” At their disposal, women have a seemingly infinite array of image-improving tools (makeup, heels, push-up bras). But men have their whiskers. Historically, reasons for growing or shaving a beard were even more sensible. “Alexander the Great required all his soldiers to be shaved because while they were fighting the Huns and whoever else, their beards would get grabbed,” said Vlass. “You could pull on a man’s beard, and chop off their head.”

Much of the grooming in Durango is chiefly practical. You might assume men in mountain towns would have furrier faces, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “I was expecting more beards when I moved here – they keep your face nice and warm, they protect it from the sun and wind,” said Vlass. “But the men here are more into what they can do than how they can look.” Durango dudes might not realize they needn’t sacrifice their looks for boisterous pursuits. “A lot of guys here do go unshaven, since this is a very active town and they’re too busy playing out in the woods,” said Vlass. “But they don’t like it too long because it gets ice crystals on it when they’re snowboarding, or it gets in the way.” There’s no need to fret over your appearance when bundled in a ski mask, but sprucing up once you’re off the slopes isn’t a bad idea. “I like the laid-back atmosphere, but people could look better,” said Vlass.

Changing beards over the years

The beard trend has always fluctuated. During the ’40s and ’50s in the U.S., men were exceedingly well-groomed. But in the ’60s, the reactionary counter-culture sprouted plenty of facial hair (and hippies). It became a political statement to be LESS tidy-looking. Surprisingly, Vlass thinks beards are slowly going out of style again. “There was some article about how dirty everything is, and it was framed around beards,” he said. “Apparently it scared a lot of guys. Even online and on Instagram, I’m seeing less beards now than I was two years ago.”

Michael Martin, chairman and associate professor of history at Fort Lewis College, agrees with Vlass: “I haven’t seen a lot of beards on campus,” said Martin. “And I don’t think the boys are necessarily worried about their masculinity.” Martin cites an argument made by Michael Kimmel in his book “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men” – Kimmel suggests that beards are no longer clear indicators of virility, in part because millennial guys aren’t too concerned with proving their breadwinning worth. “If they still live at home, they can go out and be boys. They have the extra income – they’re like, ‘I don’t have to be a man. I don’t have to grow up.’ There’s this in-between between boyhood and manhood now. Starting a family right away isn’t as important as it used to be.”

What is masculinity?

Beards don’t have to make a statement. Sometimes they are innocuous, merely an accessory for men to enjoy. “Gender is fluid, so it’s more about how you perceive what masculinity is,” said Martin, who recently presented a lecture on the history and evolution of masculinity. “If a beard means that to you, grow one. For me, NOT having a beard is my masculine identity. People want to put it into boxes – but you should define it however you like. I want to open that conversation up here.”

The ancient Egyptians used false beards, and it wasn’t necessarily a symbol of manhood. “If you held the office of Pharaoh, you had to shave your hair for hygiene,” said Martin. “But they still wanted to wear hair, so they wore false beards. Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, wore a beard; not to fool people into thinking she was a man, but because it was a symbol of her office.” Egyptian men also wore eyeliner and a variety of other cosmetic products to protect them from the unforgiving sun.

The definition of maleness is rapidly evolving, anyway. In 2016, men are proudly growing their hair long enough to rock the “man bun.” They’re even wearing eyeliner (“guyliner”). Often these trends owe their allegiance to pop culture. In 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Johnny Depp single-handedly proved how alluring a man can look with his eyes rimmed in Kohl. Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is no longer on the air, but it made a quite a splash in the 2000s, starring gay men who give straight men advice on fashion, grooming and lifestyle choices. It’s more acceptable now than ever for a “real man” to exhibit sensitivity; former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is generally known as a “nice guy,” exuding a goofiness that undermines his 260-pound bulk and doing a lot of charity work with sick kids. Similar in girth and bald-headed virulence, Vin Diesel showed his softer side by grieving publicly following the death of his close friend and “Fast and Furious” co-star, Paul Walker. Even sports studs put on a form of face paint. “Football players wear black under their eyes, yet no one calls it makeup,” said Martin. “But why can’t we? Why is that suddenly unmanly? Sometimes they do it in a style, because they want it to look good at the same time.”

Self-improvement and fulfillment

Durango men might not be impeccably dressed or groomed – but Vlass sees a conscious desire to be better. “We’re starting to see men care more; I’m hoping to bring more of that to the table,” said Vlass. “With the Bookcase & the Barber and Rey Lynn’s popping up, and cool old vintage clothing stores like Colorado Vintage, I think there’s an increased demand. I want to get men used to coming in for quick haircuts and beard trims.” And if you’re trying to woo a gal, be wary of the unkempt beard; it might convey a carelessness you don’t want to broadcast. “A man with a nice beard obviously cares about taking care of it; which might lend itself to other things he’s willing to take care of,” said Vlass. “That’s an attractive quality.”

Sure, you want to look good. But genuine contentment with your own style is probably most rewarding. There’s no need for society, family, pop culture or anyone else to dictate the elusive metaphors generated by your facial hair. “It’s got to start with you,” said Martin. “If someone else sees your beard as standing for something, that’s fine – so long as they don’t say that’s how YOU have to perceive it.”

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