Why do men grow beards?
Passive acquiescence apart, we have at the very least the Everest explanation: because it is there. Growing a beard is unanswerable proof that you can grow a beard; until then, however hirsute you may be, your beard is only potential, and therefore possibly feeble and risible. And since time immemorial weak beards have by association been equated with those unable to grow them at all - the eunuchs, whose smoothness, that terrible facial absence, is their sad badge of manly dishonour. To grow a beard is to wear a blazon, to throw in the world's face your face with its manifest masculinity.
Beards are not pure machismo. On the contrary, there is a strong element of coquetry to them, a concern with the minutiae of appearance that in other contexts would be tagged dismissively as effeminate. Men affect to despise such pre-occupations, but in reality they simply have less scope for them than women. Given that make-up for Western men remains without social sanction, there are only two elements of the male visage that allow any latitude for acceptable personal flamboyance: cranial and facial hair.
Ordinary hair theoretically offers endless possibilities, and a wide range of tonsures is indeed found. But here Nature plays a cruel trick on millions of men: their very masculinity, as measured by the hormonal rush of testosterone which courses through their veins every adult moment, undermines the premise and promise of the proud mane with a dreaded condition sometimes hidden under that terminological toupee, alopecia. Or, to put it baldly, baldness. Where women may express themselves with awe-inspiring concoctions of hair until late dotage, men are often reduced at an early age to shiny-pated skulls, fit only for phrenologists' models.
But even the headiest brew of the body's chemicals seems to leave the beard unscathed. Hence the hoards of bearded, balding men: the one compensates for the other. It also allows them the luxury of variegated styles: their hair may be gone or going, but they can still chose from a glorious gnathic gamut. There are bushy beards, beards of stubble, beards combed up or down; Charles I beards, moustachioed and moustacheless beards; goatees, mandarins, beards to the chin and beards down the neck; long, white wizard beards and curious little beards shaved like an 'O' about the mouth. And beyond these, there are shapes and styles without a name, marvellous idiosyncratic variations on the theme of bristles.
With this variety comes the possibility of change. It is striking how women are re-animated and even re-juvenated simply by an alteration of hair-style; with the new image comes a sense of new possibilities, of a sloughing-off of old cares with old looks. A beard gives a man the same luxury, that of re-making himself, of surprising the world.
Finally, there is the supreme treat - one denied to all women however well-endowed they are with gorgeous, silken tresses and a pampering panoply of attendant hairdressers - available only to the man who has grown a beard: the simple, unforgettable experience of shaving it off.