As we approach the final month of the Age of the Beard exhibition, I’ve been looking through the many and varied responses we’ve had on our beardy feedback forms. The final question we put to our visitors was: IS SHAVING JUST AN UNNATURAL ACT?
The Victorians seemed to think so… according to beard historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore, Victorian “apologists for hair were remarkably united and consistent, agreeing that God, providence, or nature had provided the beard to ensure manly dignity and authority in three primary ways: promoting physical health, representing manly virtues, and demonstrating the superiority of men over women. ” He goes on to suggest that this perceived superiority over women came about un-coincidentally at a time when the women’s movement was gaining pace and that:
“Feeling greater pressure to compete with each other and with women, men anxiously sought to establish more compelling notions of manhood. Increasingly, they chose to emphasize their “natural” physical, moral, and intellectual strengths. When men’s work was less physical than ever, sports and beards helped them affirm the nobility of the male body. ”
One typical argument for the reason God gave men beards was that, as Henry Morley and William Henry Wills phrased it: “man is born to work out of doors and in all weathers, for his bread; woman was created for duties of another kind, which do not involve constant exposure to sun, wind and rain”.
Following perhaps a sign of our slightly more gender-equal times, none of our visitors picked up on this particular aspect of beard growth. Although, one did comment that “God made beards to be the crowning glory of men” and another that shaving was: “Un-manlike!”
Rather than definite answers, the question has mainly seemed to throw up further questions – with visitors pondering, what is natural?
There were decidedly many more people in the “no”, camp, explaining that, not only is shaving a “nice ritual” and a “personal choice” but that it is “as natural to men as to apes.”
There were quite a few fence-sitters too, many “yes buts…” who referenced other rituals that are part of our daily routine but could be considered unnatural – acts such as daily washing, putting make up on, cutting nails etc. One visitor said: “so is dressing, cleaning teeth, wearing glasses, going to work and watching Strictly”.
The few voices in the anti-shaving/pro-beard camp seemed vehemently determinate in their response – no “depends on…”s coming from them. They were proudly flying the flag for beard growth and shunned shaving as a massive waste of all resources – time, energy (as beards keep you warm), money, and even the environment.
What do you think? Should we all put down the razors and let nature take its course?