Beards, Why?

What facial hair says about personality and perception

Jason Lee / Reuters

Paul Ryan: House speaker, Wisconsinite, Republican standard-bearer, and now, lumber-sexual? In an Instagram post late last month, the congressman unveiled a spray of chestnut stubble across his face. “I’m the first Speaker to sport a beard in about 100 years,” he said. (Close: The last was Frederick H. Gillett in 1925, according to The New York Times.)

Because it’s politics, there were critics.

“Grow the economy, not facial hair,” the National Review demanded. “Cut taxes, as well as whiskers.” Some conservatives, who are angry at Ryan for supposedly compromising with Democrats on the spending bill, have taken the xenophobic road, calling it a “Muslim beard.”

But there were also fans. The beard was Ryan’s second most-liked post on Instagram and the third most liked on Facebook, according to Ryan’s office.

It’s actually not the first time Ryan has worn a beard in office. He sported the same look in January, and it caused a stir then, too—probably because it’s rare for politicians to have facial hair. According to Rebekah Herrick, a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, fewer than 5 percent of members of Congress have beards or mustaches, and the last president with facial hair was William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913.

Not long ago, Herrick sought to figure out why so many senators and representatives stay clean-shaven. To do it, she gathered up photos of the male members of the 110th Congress, which was in office in 2007 and 2008, who had facial hair. She matched each photo to an image of a bare-faced member of similar age, race, party affiliation, and other characteristics, and showed the photo pairs to a group of students. The students were asked to rate the men’s masculinity and their likely stances on feminist issues.

The congressmen with facial hair were thought to be more masculine, less feminist, and less likely to support women’s rights, Herrick wrote in a blog post about her work. As a consequence, women and self-identified feminists in the group said they were less likely to vote for them. (In Ryan’s case, this comports with his vow to defund Planned Parenthood, which many women view as an anti-feminist move.) In the same blog post, Herrick suggested that this might be why so few political candidates have sported facial hair since women gained the right to vote.

Sexism score, by facial hair (Archives of Sexual Behavior)

Her findings are bolstered by a controversial study that came out earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Upon surveying 223 American and 309 Indian men, the authors found that “after controlling for nationality, age, education level, relationship status, and sexual orientation, men with facial hair scored significantly higher on hostile sexism than clean-shaven men.” That is, men with mustache, goatees, soul patches, stubble, and light beards (but not full beards) were significantly more likely to agree with statements such as, “Once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash.”

That’s not to say that growing some light-to-moderate facial hair turns men into incorrigible pricks. The Archives study was correlational, so there’s no telling which came first: The loutishness or the ‘stache. Both facial hair and uber-masculine gender attitudes are predicted by testosterone levels, so it’s possible that having more free testosterone made the men sprout whiskers and believe regressive things.

And when Herrick looked at the bearded congressmen’s actual voting records, the perception that they were less feminist didn’t hold up. The policymakers with facial hair voted no differently on women’s issues, on average, than their clean-shaven counterparts.

It appears, then, that politicians don’t grow beards in order to telegraph some hidden, sexist agenda. Instead, their reasoning might be the same one that facial-hair researchers have unearthed again and again: The beard gets respect.

Some researchers have suggested that as primate societies grow large and complex, males need ever more imaginative ways to compete for mates. Thus, males in those societies developed ostentatious “badges”—cheek flanges on orangutans, long noses on proboscis monkeys, and beards on humans, as the Telegraph noted—to help them stand out.

During the Renaissance, beards were indeed the facial representation of manly energy, according to the beard researcher Alun Withey. “A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below,” Withey explained on his blog. “Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.”

The levels of facial hair studied in one 2008 paper. From the left, clean-shaven, light stubble, dark stubble, light beard, full beard. (Personality and Individual Differences)

Things haven’t changed much. Across several modern-day studies, men with facial hair are consistently rated as more masculine, dominant, older, and in some cases, attractive. One study found that the thicker the beard on a drawing of a man, the more masculine, dominant, and aggressive women perceived him to be. “Light stubble,” however, was considered the most attractive condition. (NB: This was in 2008, during the dawn of Bradley Cooper.) As the authors explained, “This indicates females [prefer] males who are clearly mature (post-pubertal) but not too masculinized.”

Which means that, since Republicans have struggled to entice women voters, a light beard may not be the worst strategy.

Then again, maybe there’s nothing more to Ryan’s beard than his stated reason: It’s for deer-hunting season.