In Defense of Beards: Debunking Research That Facial Hair Isn't Sexy
It's been a bad week for beards. The Daily Mail fired the first shot: "Psychologists confirm: Women REALLY don't like beards." Tabloids around the world piled on. "Let's face it, beards aren't sexy," Sky News claimed. "Beards aren't attractive to women and scare other men away, study suggests," the Global News added.
As a woman who kind of likes beards, I was intrigued by the news that I found them scientifically repulsive. I shelled out $32 to read the full study on which the headlines were based—a Behavioral Ecology piece with the relatively subdued title, "Beards augment perceptions of men's age, social status, and aggressiveness, but not attractiveness." I was soon rewarded for my investment. This beard study is wild: It's peppered with references to "the fossil record" and discusses the evolutionary purpose of lion's manes in an attempt to understand the facial hair preferences of human women. At one point, the researchers remind us that "beards do not directly improve fighting ability." In fairness, they also attempt to debunk previous scientific literature that associates men's beards "with traits such as vagrancy."
But enough about beards! Let's talk about the women who do not love them. When I announced my intentions to dig into the science of beard aversion at GOOD's daily editorial meeting, one bearded colleague was visibly distressed by the idea that women—as a gender—just do not like his face. "Many of them are Samoan!" I clarified to him as he shuffled from the room, seeking to reassure him that the survey subjects are not the women he encounters in the hipster neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but rather residents of the Independent State of Samoa, chosen specifically for their lack of cultural assimilation to the West. "Many of them are Samooooaaaaan!"
The remainder are New Zealanders. The study surveyed 100 women of Polynesian descent living in Samoa, as well as 127 women of European descent living in New Zealand, in an attempt to establish "perceptions of male beardedness cross-culturally." In contrast to New Zealand, the study claims, "Samoa has far less exposure to Western popular culture, such as billboards, fashion magazines, movies, and access to the Internet." In other words, Samoa is relatively insulated from Hollywood's insidious beard messaging, though "the presence of Missionaries may have brought Western ideologies of dress and influenced men's shaving habits."
That's still a pretty slim cultural sample, and researchers admitted that "it would be beneficial to test this hypothesis in a culture where beards are commonly worn" (like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Silver Lake, Los Angeles). Once it had cherry-picked a couple hundred women to represent the facial hair preferences of all human females, researchers bearded them: Each group was shown a series of photographs featuring 10 men of their own race, asked to rate each man's attractiveness while sporting six weeks of unmitigated beard growth, and again while clean-shaven.
The results? These men—and I state this scientifically—are just not very attractive to women, bearded or not. On average, the New Zealanders rated their male peers somewhere between "slightly attractive" (just one step above "unattractive") and "moderately attractive" while freshly shaved. As a group, these men were rated below "attractive" and nowhere near "very attractive" or "extremely attractive." When bearded, New Zealanders rated these men an average of "slightly attractive." The Samoan women were more forgiving—they rated clean-shaven Samoan men almost "attractive"!—and bearded ones a little bit below "moderately attractive."
Then there is the issue of the beards themselves. I don't have the raw data on this, but based on my own field work studying the lip, chin, and cheek areas of men's faces, I can tell you that the beards featured in this study are gross. They have not been cut or trimmed for six weeks, and a culturally homogenous sample of my closest friends and I can tell you that ladies don't like that. Anecdotal research in heavily bearded Silver Lake confirmed my findings. "Unkempt beard is not considered great," bearded colleague Tim Fernholz told me. One friend was previously not attracted to men with beards until moving to Los Angeles and viewing the quality (and pervasiveness) of facial hair on display here. Fellow bearded coworker Cord Jefferson even claimed to signal his own personality faults with the untidiness of his beard. "To be honest, my beard is a bit patchy, and it's definitely unkempt," he told me. "I'd imagine beards are good litmus tests in that they immediately let potential suitors know, 'Hey, sometimes I'm sloppy like this with my face. If that's not something you can abide, I am not your man.'"
A fairer Daily Mail headline might have read something like "Psychologists confirm: Women are simply not very attracted to 19 specific dudes, but are slightly more attracted to them when they do not have weird beards all over their faces. Just trim them! And do not grow a soul patch. Ever."