The clean shaven amongst us are now a minority.
In 2021, 55% of men across the world have facial hair. This may come as unsurprising news. It’s been difficult to miss the beards that populate our streets, offices, and media in recent years.
The 21st century has seen bearded men from all walks of life – rivalling their heyday at the turn of the last century – but plenty has changed since then, along with the beard’s place in society.
Some have credited the 2008 global financial crisis for the recent boom in beards. Researchers behind the ‘Beards and the big city’ study theorised that men started growing beards to gain an advantage over their peers in a competitive job market. The forgettable, clean-shaven left behind in a bushy, cut-throat world.
Others have pointed to the relaxation of the workplace itself; starting with the creative industries and spreading, the stigma attached to some whiskers has diminished. No one would bat an eyelid at a bearded judge, lawyer, doctor or even political leader these days – well, not because of their beard at least.
Some sectors have relaxed quicker than others though. For investment bankers the beard is still taboo, especially for those in entry level positions. Even now, it’s generally considered unprofessional to sport even a well-groomed set of facial hair.
The fear amongst bankers is their creative, hipsterish connotation, and who wants an ironic hipster handling your funds?
Don’t be too disheartened if you are sporting whiskers. After all, a hipsterish set of facial hair may allude to an ability to program in Python or bringing freshly baked bread to the break room.
Alongside every career based grooming choice there is of course an individual’s decision to express themselves through their appearance.
The more philosophical beard strokers see its popularity as a 21st century reaction against the emasculated cleanshaven ‘metrosexual’.
A beard is the opportunity to express masculinity in a world that increasingly demands a humdrum existence in front of a computer. This is in juxtaposition to our bearded ancestors who were spending their time amongst the wilderness hunting animals, felling trees, or away at sea.
No doubt all the while, growing facial hair of herculean levels of masculinity on their rugged cheeks.
It may be somewhat ironic then that the 21st century icons of the masculine beard, fuelling their popularity, are amongst the most well-groomed, beautiful men in existence.
It started in Hollywood with Clooney, Pitt, Reynolds, Gosling, et al., showing off their red-carpet whiskers. Since then facial hair has been a staple of stars from Bollywood, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
It is perhaps only Asia and Africa that the beard has not trickled down into mainstream popularity, remaining the reserve of the famous stars such as Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Davido, Siwon, Cha Seung Won, and Kris Wu.
The stars are complemented by the army of bearded influencers across the internet happy to give close ups of chiselled yet furry visages and minute by minute updates on their follicle growth.
For the grooming industry these inspirational figures have been a boon for business. The beard grooming market size was valued at $24.1 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $43.1 billion by 2026.
The Apocalypse Beard
Last year, the grooming industry met its nemesis, a pandemic. For many, a daily grooming regime became absurd, as time entered into an abstraction of news updates and circulation from bedroom, to computer, to sofa. The fuzzy focus of a webcam rather diminishing the importance of changing out of pyjamas let alone a well kempt appearance.
Enter the ‘apocalypse’ beard, typified by its patchy, frayed, and generally dishevelled appearance. A return to the wild beards of yesteryear, the antithesis of their shapely, famous predecessors.
Not a beard grown with aesthetic intent but a result of human inertia – an absence of grooming.
These unchecked sproutings aren’t owed to a macho return to the wilds but the equal sense of isolation of times gone by that accompany quarantine measures.
The removal of normal social interactions and expectations to shave being enough to convince many to stop altogether.
Ask anyone on your next Zoom call why they are sporting such bushy protrusions? You’ll hear replies of “There’s no point shaving if you are not in the office.” “Lockdown gives me a chance to try a new look.” Or “I’ve just always felt like more of a beard person… you know right?”
Are the legion of lockdown beards another rejection of the well-groomed elite we see plastered in the media?
Unlikely. Clooney’s lumbersexual look still has me convinced, but the messy trend does point to something more important than men’s desire to save time shaving.
In anthropological circles the theory of liminality posits that societies use rituals and symbols to mark moments of transition from one state to another.
Think rituals such as stag and hen nights, New Year’s Eve parties, or scoffing a chocolate bar to mark the end of a rather rough day at work. They mark a removal from normal life, before re-entry to society in a new changed state.
In this light, the ‘liminal beard’ can be seen as a very human attempt to make sense of the chaos unfurling day by day. A way to assert that whilst daily routines may continue, things are completely different at the same time.
What better way to ritualise this than a chaotic mess of facial hair, sprawling to envelope our faces and webcams? No shaving necessary, the world is falling apart – for now.
Thankfully hope remains for us all – vaccines are here, the razor holds no grudges, and one day life will move to a new status quo.
So, the apocalypse beard, whilst a charming attestation to man’s capacity for sloth, self-pity, and sensemaking, looks set to serve as a liminal ritual that may pass. Beards will be shaved, and their owners may emerge from their hirsute chrysalis in a new post-covid state of mind.