Of Beards and Men: A Revealing History of Facial Hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore. Univ. of Chicago (Jan.)

Full, possibly obvious, disclosure: I have a beard. I haven’t used a proper razor (Gillette, Schick, whatever) in over a decade and have no desire to pick one up again. So of course I’m going to tear through a book on beard history. Beards have been trendy in certain circles for a while now, yet even though I have one, I’m not always sure what drove me to it aside from a general disdain for shaving and some nonconformist tendencies. But beyond my preferences, what has been behind the historical impulse to shave or, like, just let it grow, man?

Historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore lays out four great beard cycles dating back to antiquity, following the patterns of social, political, and religious demands to be clean-shaven or hairy as hell. For instance, ancient Greek philosophers wore beards, while Alexander the Great, aiming to position himself as a demigod, shaved to more fully resemble the popular image of the ageless gods. Christianity has regularly found itself waffling between the holy shavenness and holy beardedness. Renaissance men grew beards; Enlightenment thinkers shaved. In our current age of corporate conformity, which demands clean-shavenness, Oldstone-Moore posits that, besides “personal autonomy” there are “four basic motives” for growing a beard: “gender bending, social nonconformity, religious identification, and a special quest.”

Just off Main St. in my hometown of Leominster, MA, sits Evergreen Cemetery, where a man named Joseph Palmer is buried. His headstone, which faces the street right over short the cemetery wall, bears his gloriously bearded visage and the inscription: Persecuted for Wearing the Beard. In the mid-19th Century, Palmer was ostracized and even physically attacked on account of his facial hair. I was happy to see Oldstone-Moore tell Palmer’s story, though it’s just a brief entry among many other fascinating stories.

It’s clear that seeing Palmer’s headstone regularly when I was a kid made a deep impression on me, even if I’ll never understand all the reasons why. One rationale for keeping the beard remains clear, however, illustrated by an aside in which Oldstone-Moore relates the feelings of an Afghan man visiting a barber after being liberated from the Taliban in 2001. “I’ve got nothing against beards,” he explained. “The problem is when someone tells you that you have to have one. That’s why I hated it.” The same works in reverse.