“I love beards. Do you think you want to grow yours out…maybe?” That’s what my girlfriend, now fiancée, asked me back in 2013 over coffee, about a month into our relationship. When we started dating, I was sporting some solid stubble. But apparently, that wasn’t enough.
At the time, researchers from the University of Queensland had just determined that women found stubble to be sexier than a clean face or a full beard, based on a study of 8,000 females. However, these same women said men with stubble—both light and lengthy—were better suited for flings than long-term relationships. Bearded men, for some reason, were considered more fit for a relationship—which is maybe why my girlfriend asked me to grow one out. She wanted to lock that shit down.
The authors theorized that women considered bearded men to be better for long-term relationships because facial hair “indicate[s] a male’s ability to compete for resources.” That’s funny given that most bearded men today are just lumbersexuals who couldn’t start a fire with a blowtorch.
This week, The New York Times decided to tackle the enduring cultural interest in the beard by profiling Barnaby Dixson, a human behavioral ecologist at the University of Queensland who co-authored the 2013 study referenced above.
Dixon has dedicated much of his research to “mate preferences” and became an inadvertent expert on beards in the process. He explains that men who have beards are, on average, regarded as more mature and masculine. They’re also perceived as more generous, sincere, industrious and self-confident. They are, however, host to antisocial traits as well; namely, aggression and social dominance.
Attraction to beards isn’t limited to one gender, either. Dixon’s research found that gay men in international locales like Brazil and the Czech Republic are more attracted to men with beards than women, which supports “past findings that homosexual men have strong preferences for masculine traits.”
Because beards have become fashionable in recent years, men have even resorted to facial hair transplants. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 14,000 men across the globe receieved facial hair transplants to fix patchy beards—an almost 300 percent increase since 2012. Of this number, 3,000 procedures took place in America.
The Times also cites a 2016 study that found beards to be most common in low-income areas with high population densities. “When competition in the social environment is reduced and the need to signal dominance is of less importance, men may dial down their masculinity through shaving or grooming their beards,” Dixon explained. Conversely, in a town where money is limited, men may grow a beard in order to enhance their masculinity and stand out amongst the herd.
But if attracting a partner isn’t enough of a win for bearded gents, research also suggests that beards are more hygienic and resistant to bacteria than bare skin, which makes sense. So, love ‘em or hate 'em, beards do actually serve a purpose, both societally and hygienically, despite our collective inclination to think they’re dirty and reserved for woodsmen or hipsters in Silver Lake. It’s also worth noting that both men involved in this story have beards, so maybe we’re a little biased.