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Icon of the month: Facial hair

SImon Jones

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The rising popularity of 'Movember', when otherwise well-shaved men forego the razor for a sponsored month, has led to some startling sights of late. Turn on the TV and you might see the England batsman Kevin Pietersen sporting a tash that would make a 40s RAF pilot proud. Or a man bowling at him who wouldn't look out of place trying to lift weights in a circus.

Even outside November facial hair is becoming more common, with figures suggesting that more than 50 percent of European men between the ages of 18 and 39 have facial hair.

These stats come from the Japanese razor manufacturer Schick, which has also spotted the trend in its home country. There, facial hair is making a comeback after being scorned during the country's rapid economic growth in the 1960s. Companies then forbade the wearing of a beard or moustache, which they saw as an unwelcome expression of individual identity.

The USA, too, has brought pressure upon the bearded. Gillette was one of the first companies to harness the talents of the Madison Avenue ad men. In the 1950s they together constructed the ideal American hero as clean cut and clean shaven. To let hair grow was to be counter-cultural - a beatnik or, worse, a communist.

But such assaults on the wildness of facial hair are not new. Three hundred years ago Peter the Great taxed his bearded subjects for not being western enough. To shave was to embrace progress, and so the chin gave off a set of signals that can still have resonance today. A beard in the modern mind is rural rather than urban, dissenting rather than clubbable, savage rather than civilised, mysterious rather than clear. Prophets and wizards have beards, soldiers and bankers do not. A bearded David Cameron would be as surprising as a plucked Rowan Williams.

Most obviously, beards are male and so, in arcane religious terms, convey authority (though St. Wilgefortis prayed for heavenly help to stop her arranged marriage and grew one overnight).  Facial hair in most religions demonstrates the supposedly divine separation of male and female, or perhaps just a reason to deny women holiness. In the Judeo-Christian tradition a male God sports a wild and flowing beard, shaving being among numerous Levitical prohibitions concerning sex and gender. For Hasidic Jews following the Kabbalah, the hairs of the beard symbolize channels of the subconscious holy energy that flows from above to the human soul - a happy cascade if you can manage to grow them. In India, such was the regard for the preservation of the beard that a man might pledge it for the payment of a debt - so if you'd more oestrogen than testosterone then you'd get no credit.

There have been interruptions in this prejudicial state of affairs. In Egypt, the beard was a sign of sovereignty, but there you need not have been a man to wear one. False ones were made for queens (and cows, which rather spoils the effect).

Conversely, for a big chunk of the 19th century - the wigs and powder stage, when it was important to show that you could afford to groom - having facial hair was criminally eccentric. So much so that in 1830 one Joseph Palmer, a bear-faced butcher from Massachusetts, was refused communion for wearing one. Irate, he seized the cup shouting 'I love my Jesus as well, and better, than any of you!'. The following day he was seized by four scissors-wielding men. Palmer fought them off, but was arrested for an 'unprovoked assault'. He ended up in jail, where over time he became something of a cause celebre. Eventually a judge offered to release him, but the prisoner refused unless a proclamation was made supporting a man's right to a beard. In the end they tied him to a chair and carried him out.

These days we're smart enough to play around with any whiskery preconceptions. We secretly scoff at the stage magician aiming at enigmatic behind a carefully-coiffed goatee. We know when the earnest environmental campaigner has shaved so as not to be disregarded as a hippy. But, chaps, can we ever be sure we're not shaving out of imposed cultural pressure? Why the need to control nature? If the capitalists come calling tell them you're doing it for charity.

Simon Jones

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