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Uncovering the face value of beards

A beard has both social and political meanings. “A powerful distinguishing mark, the appearance of facial hair plays a key role in the process of asserting or stigmatising identity,” says ethnologist Christian Bromberger. “Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” says Stéphane Héas, a sociologist at Rennes 2 University. “One’s appearance impacts directly on the way others judge us.”

Beards often have political connotations. The pharaohs wore fake beards, not to accentuate their wisdom, but because they were seen as a divine attribute, “a symbol of power”, Bromberger says.

During France’s Third Republic a large number of politicians reinstated this tradition. Jean Jaurès, a leading figure on the left, Paul Doumer and Émile Loubet, who both served as president, all had beards.

“The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches,” Héas says. “Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.”

Beards may have social connotations, too. “An unruly beard, if combined with other factors – threadbare clothes and a generally poor physical state – suggests someone who is poor, underprivileged, maybe even homeless, unlike a person with a neatly trimmed beard, which means they can afford this type of attention,” says Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux, joint editor of Anthropologie, Mythologies et Histoire de la Chevelure, a collective work on hair and beards. “When styled and domesticated a beard is no longer symptomatic of poor hygiene.”

But each epoch gives rise to particular practices. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off,” Héas points out. You can see at a glance the difference between a photograph of a belle époque politician and a bearded socialist of the 1980s. And the norms keep changing.

Beards, which were associated with the slaughter and fearful conditions in the trenches, vanished immediately after the first world war, only to reappear with the hippies in the 1960s, as an expression of their rejection of established order. It was one more way of going back to nature.

Former French rugby international Sébastien Chabal, whose hirsute looks made him an iconic figure, in the media, then in advertising. Photograph: Jean-Phillipe Ksiazek/Getty

In recent years few people have sported facial hair. Increasing numbers of men wax their shoulders, back or torso. “Being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men,” Héas maintains. Shaving one’s head may also be a sign of submission to authority, as for the military. There are, however, exceptions. French foreign legion pionniers (sappers) grow long beards for the Bastille Day parade in Paris. The tradition started in the days of Napoléon Bonaparte when they took an oath never to shave again if they returned from battle alive.

Bearded bobos or the bear community, a gay subculture, stand out from this hairless norm. “Growing an ample beard at a time when all-over hairlessness prevails is a good way of attracting attention,” says Bromberger.

A striking example is former French rugby international Sébastien Chabal, whose hirsute looks made him an iconic figure, in the media, then in advertising. Perceived as an attractive, manly attribute, his beard catches the eye in a world that tends “to value what is smooth, in the name of hygiene and cleanliness, further distancing us from anything animal”, Bromberger says.

For many years long beards have been associated in France with radical Islam. In a circular issued in November, the local education authority in Poitiers, western France, offered alarmingly simplistic advice for identifying students likely to be tempted by radical Islam.

At the top of the list of “individual visible signs” of radicalisation the authority cited “a long, untrimmed beard (and shaved moustache)”.

The press does its bit to sustain such cliches. “The media talk about it like some weed that’s spreading, like a pubic hair growing in their vegetable patch,” wrote rapper Medine in 2008 in a song called Code Barbe.

Western picture editors often use bearded faces to illustrate stories on Muslims, political Islam or the Arab world, without making any distinction. “The fact that a large number of news items on Arab countries focus on terrorism or religious conflict, has encouraged the use of such short cuts,” says Fredj Zamit, a lecturer at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences in Tunis.

“To grasp the significance of the beard, the reader turns to his or her social memory and repertoire of similar signs … On seeing bearded men in the photographs, the reader can predict the type of information and its context before they even read the title or text.”

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde

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