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The Story "Of Beards and Men" and How They Define Masculinity in Culture

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 29, 2023 3:00 am

The Story "Of Beards and Men" and How They Define Masculinity in Culture

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 29, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Professor Christopher Oldstone-Moore makes the case that today’s bearded renaissance is part of a centuries-long cycle in which facial hairstyles have varied in response to changing ideals of masculinity. 

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Hi everybody, it's Savannah Guthrie from the Today Show. As we head back to work, back to school, back to everything, we want to help you turn your to-do list into your today list. Your morning routine, healthy meals, and workout plans. We've got you covered so you can take it all on with simple solutions to help you through the day.

Everything you need to know before heading out the door. So join us every morning on NBC because every day needs today. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a story about beards. They're all the rage these days. Take a look around, from hip urbanites to rustic outdoorsmen, facial hair is everywhere. Christopher Olston Moore makes the case that today's bearded renaissance is part of a centuries-long cycle in which facial hairstyles have varied in response to changing ideals of masculinity. He's the author of Of Beards and Men, the revealing history of facial hair. Let's take a listen. I think we all have a curiosity about it.

And I've always wondered in the back of my mind what is going on. And when I got serious about researching this matter for the courses I teach, I was unable to find anything solid, so I decided, gee, I'd better do some work on this. One of the things I discovered in my research is that shaving is as old as civilization itself, maybe even older.

We can't be sure. Men have been altering their facial hair for a very long time for a number of reasons. Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the founders of our Western civilization, shaved their faces.

And the evidence shows that this is because of an association with cleanliness and holiness. This would be elite men shaving to show their superiority to the ordinary run of men. There were also times in empires in the ancient world when men contrastingly grew magnificent style of beards. And this was particularly true when the ruling class promoted a warrior image of strength, such as in Babylon and Persia and ancient Greece.

But the Greeks changed course under the influence of Alexander the Great in the 300s BC. He thought of himself as a new godlike hero, so he shaved himself to imitate how the artists of the day portrayed the gods. That is to say, eternally youthful and beardless. Greek men imitated this heroic style and passed it on to the Romans, so shaving prevailed for the next 400 years. First, there was a return to beards in the later Roman Empire. But after the fall of Rome, the church in Western Europe promoted shaving from men of the cloth as a sign of order, piety, goodness. After 1300, this style was adopted overall by the laity as well. And when, with the Renaissance at the end of the 1400s, there was also a renaissance of beards in reaction against this churchly and spiritual association of shaving. Men at this time, even many of the clergy, wanted to assert a more natural and worldly masculinity in contrast with the more retiring and spiritual medieval ideal. There was a new emphasis at that time on orderliness and discipline.

This time, not controlled by the church, but the courts, the royal courts. One should look especially at the court of Louis XIV in France in the late 1600s, where they promoted a very stylized, very elaborate and urbane style of dress. Including silk stockings, ribbons, lace, big wigs and a clean shaven face. And by the way, to wear a big wig, you had to shave your head also.

It was all very disciplined and orderly, indicating that a true gentleman was refined rather than natural. That style was copied everywhere, including in America. If you look at our founding fathers, you will see that they also sported the stockings, the wigs, the shaven faces, according to the style of the European courts. The French Revolution helped to bring beards back. Men were interested in the idea of freedom and feeling less inclined to be orderly and disciplined. But there were also excesses in revolution.

So, many feared too much democracy and lawlessness. As a result, most respectable men in the early 19th century avoided beards and its association with radicalism. Whereas naturally, the radicals, like Karl Marx, proudly embraced facial hair as a sign of freedom and opposition to bourgeois respectability. There is a noticeable upsurge in beards in all kinds of places, especially Hollywood, sports and the streets and cities. I think that for the younger generation, there's a need to rebalance the masculine presentation and put forward a more physical masculinity. And a beard is one of the ways to do that.

When I look over time, I see a pattern. You can think of masculinity in all kinds of places as a sort of balance. And at certain times, culture tries to shift that balance one way or the other. There has to be some kind of mix of cultural discipline and conformity to authority and the norm on the one hand. And on the other hand, a push towards independence and individualism. When culture demands order and conformity, we see the emergence of a shaven order. Facial hair is always associated with the inverse.

That is, independence and individualism against the norm. Take the 60s, for example, when facial hair was an emblem of youthful rebellion against the establishment. While the establishment, that is governments and corporations like McDonald's and Disney, for example, fought back with strict regulations against facial hair. I think today facial hair is appealing for similar reasons, though perhaps not so much against the establishment as such, as it is to present a stronger, better defined masculinity at a time when gender is contested and ill-defined.

And individual men are feeling increasingly uncertain in their identity as individuals and as men. And a terrific job on the production and editing by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Christopher Oldstone Moore, whose book is Of Beards and Men, the Revealing History of Facial Hair. And my goodness, we can just look at US presidents. They had facial hair, Lincoln on down, and then all of a sudden, they didn't have facial hair.

It's been a long time since we've had a president with a beard, but maybe soon. The story of beards, the rich, complicated and amusing history, here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-29 04:13:14 / 2023-08-29 04:17:09 / 4

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