Monday, March 31, 2008

A history of 'beardism' and the science that backs it

Great men throughout history have worn beards - Darwin, Jesus, Lincoln, Zeus to name a few - but this symbol of dignity, wisdom and knowledge has also brought persecution throughout history (no doubt from those lacking the aforementioned traits). Alexander the great insisted that his armies be clean shaven, for fear that they could be used by his enemies in combat (think hair pulling), and to this day some militaries still insist on bald-faced soldiers - but for more practical reasons. In this age of biological and chemical warfare, an unkempt beard could prevent a good seal on a gas mask and cause an untimely demise. In the 1500s, Henry VIII instituted a special tax on bearded men which was repealed after his death. The tax was revisited by Elizabeth I. More famously, in the late 1600s, Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) enacted a beard tax, charging men who wanted to grow beards and personally shaving his nobles. Not only were bearded men taxed, but they were also required to wear a medal (pictured) that some say translates as "Beards are a ridiculous ornament", adding insult to financial injury. Brigham Young University insists students be clean shaven with few exceptions. These are just a few examples of bald-facers keeping the bearded man down! (Though it should be noted that Henry VIII hypocritically wore a beard himself)

In addition to taxation, forced shaving also has a history as punishment. During the 60s, peace-activists (aka hippies) were sometimes forcibly shaven. Other alleged anti-beard actions include a plot by the CIA to use chemicals to make Castro's beard fall out and a delay in the knighthood of Sean Connery because of his beard (a more likely explanation was his support of Scottish independence). Beardism is so rampant that in 1995, the Beard Liberation Front was formed to support those of us who choose a distinguished beard over a baby-faced shave. And anti-beard sentiment runs deep - surveys suggest that bearded politicians receive up to 5% fewer votes than their non-bearded counterparts. This is counter intuitive to me: the 10 minutes saved shaving is 10 more minutes that the politician is working for the people (or that the scientist spends in the lab, etc.). We bearded folk need to stand together against this oppression! When a non-whiskered friend, spouse (bearded people do attract women, despite what the smoothies want you to think) or co-worker suggests you go hairless, remind them of the words of Mussolini: "I am anti-whiskers. Fascism is anti-whiskers. Whiskers are a sign of decadence."

However, there is a downside to beard growth - and perhaps the underlying factors of facial-hair phobia, and it would be unfair of me to call on my brothers to drop their razors without full disclosure. The fitting of a gas mask has already been mentioned, and that argument extends to scuba masks (though I've never had a problem) and respirators and facemasks. An entertaining piece in Inkling Magazine highlights these and other problems:
"But anti-beard arguments also ran rife in pre-Victorian times: Beards trapped food and the stuff you spewed out when you sneezed. At a stretch, they could even go as far as to catch fire and trap vermin, some argued. This all came to a head in 1907, with a rather remarkable experiment. A French scientist took one bearded and one clean shaven man from the streets of Paris and asked each of them to kiss a woman, whose lips were previously swabbed with antiseptic. After each smooth, her lips were swabbed and the the cultures were smeared on agar. The hairy kiss, it turned out, was by far the more microbial-ly diverse."
This has been backed up by more recent studies that showed that beards retained microbes, even after washing with soap (someone should have told Pasteur). This, of course, makes some sense. Why call it a flavour saver (an expression that has much more vulgar origins than I naively thought) if it doesn't retain anything? Maybe beards are chock full of bacteria because they prevent them from entering the body - sort of like a crude air filter - but at an increased risk of those around you. And this says nothing of the inherent risks of shaving - cuts, ingrown hair, and microabrasions that can lead to infections.

For those who work in a lab, this bacteria retained in the beard and the excess bacterial shedding associated with it may affect your experiments. Who knows what bacteria might be introduced to cell cultures, bacterial preps and other experiments? And don't forget the possibility of beards as vectors for crystals or other replicating structures that can spread to other labs causing isomeric conversion of drugs or other disappearing polymorphs.

All the studies of beards as bacterial breeding grounds means they get a lot of bad press, so it's no wonder so many people frown upon them. But the most compelling anti-beard argument I'm aware of is a 2000 study that showed a full beard costs a drinker 23GBP ($46 CAD) a year in lost beer, or a combined loss of over 160 000 pints in the UK alone. Still, if bearded drinker Ernest Hemingway could live with that kind of loss, so can I.

(HT Pure Pedantry, Pharyngula)
(Photos: World Beard Championships)


Anonymous said...

Women will only stop scoffing at beards when men stop scoffing at women who do not shave their vaginas.

Anonymous said...

or armpits...

Its funny how what we find attractive (right now) is affected by the trends of our time.