Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Hair of My Chinny Chin Chin

As I come to terms with the possibility of taking a job in food service - something I swore I'd never go back to - I have to consider the possibility of shaving my beloved beard.  I understand the appeal of a smooth, clean-shaven face, but the pros of a beard far outweigh the cons, in my opinion.  Shaving takes a few precious minutes out of my day.  It makes me look like I'm 12.  It leaves me nothing on my face to play with, except for my nostrils.  Shaving makes me feel like less of a man.


Luckily, I have a girlfriend who likes my beard.  But there are many employers out there, not just in the restaurant business, who have a deep-seeded prejudice against facial hair.  It's rare that you see a news anchor or influential celebrity with more than a mustache, if anything, and good luck getting elected to public office if you don't shave every morning - our last president with facial hair was Taft (1909-1913)!  God forbid anyone working for the airlines grow a beard.  I can't help but notice that, whenever my beard is getting bushy, I'm "randomly selected" for searches at the airport.


I often wonder why our culture has such an aversion to this most obvious feature of sexual dimorphism.  It's not like shaving is anything new - flint razors dating back to 30,000 B.C. show that obsessions with appearance are prehistoric - but the reasons for bearding and non-bearding have changed a lot over the millennia.  So I took a quick look at the history of how societies have dealt with facial hair.





This blogger, Falcon, gives a great rundown of the history of shaving.  Make sure you read both installments if you have the time.  You don't?  Okay, I'll summarize.  Around 100,000 B.C., it is thought that people used seashells to pluck out hair.  By 30,000 B.C., we had flint razors, probably only good for a few uses.  The Bronze Age brought copper razors, and iron was first used around 1,000 B.C.  The ancient Egyptians believed that shaving was an important part of being civilized humans.  The Sumerians around the same time were using some sort of tweezers for plucking facial hair.  Then Alexander the Great comes along and requires his soldiers to shave in order to prevent beard-related deaths on the battlefield.  Ancient Romans often gathered at local barbershops, taking their chances with tetanus from the iron blades, and Julius Caesar had his beard plucked with tweezers while his soldiers used pumice.  Jump to the Middle Ages, and you have the post-schism Roman Catholic Church requiring shaven faces to distinguish themselves from Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews - and this difference is still widely evident today among clergy and monastics.  By the 1600s, a smooth face was required of a distinguished gentleman, and this led to the invention of safety razors in the 1700s... and eventually the Gillette company came along and we got to where we are today: an entire industry of razors, creams, and gels to serve our obsession with smooth skin.


Forget the Filioque - we need to come to some kind
of agreement on this beard thing.


Of course, this was just a brief overview of shaving in the Western world, and it did not take into account the evolution of mustaches, goatees, and other creative facial hair styles.  A more significant omission, in my opinion, is the history of the beard in the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament.  Briefly searching biblegateway.com, I found several references to shaving or cutting the beard, the first of which is in Leviticus 19, where shaving off all body hair is part of a ceremonial cleansing from a skin disease (leprosy, perhaps?).  Leviticus 19 forbids "cutting off the edges of the beard," one of a peculiar set of regulations that ranges from growing monocultures (something we now know to be a bad farming practice) to not wearing clothing made from two types of fabric.  The "no cutting the edges" rule is repeated in Leviticus 21, this time in a command to priests not to do so, nor to cut their bodies.  The context here makes me wonder if shaving may have been a part of a ritual for priests in other cultures.  At the very least, we know that the Egyptians had an obsession with shaving; so maybe the Israelites' rules against shaving were part of a broader rejection of their former masters' culture.  And then there's the Nazirite vow, detailed in Numbers chapter 6, which forbids any hair cutting whatsoever, along with grapes and funerals.  This passage of scripture is one basis of the dreadlocks and Ital diet of Rastafari.  The most famous Nazirite was Samson, who lost his superhuman strength after his girlfriend Delilah had someone cut his hair while he was asleep. 


"Samson and Delilah" by Anthony Van Dyck (1616-1621)
depicts the cutting of the great Nazirite's hair as he lay in
the lap of his albino girlfriend, Delilah.

Moving on from the Torah to the prophets of Israel, we see instances in the books of Ezra, Isaiah, and Jeremiah where shaving of the beard is a part of grieving or atonement.  In the book of Ezekiel, covering of the mustache and beard - not shaving - seems to be a popular mourning custom.  And then there is the funny story about King David sending some of his servants to the Ammonites to offer condolences for the loss of their king.  When the Ammonites suspected that the Israelites were spying and plotting to take over, they "took David's servants, shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, 'Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return'" (2 Samuel 10:4-5).


While I was preparing for my thesis research in Jamaica, my friend Jake Homiak, who has studied among the Rastafari for over 30 years, advised that I stop trimming my beard, as a less groomed look would earn me a warmer welcome among the Rastas.  Indeed, a beard is as valuable as dreadlocks for many men within the movement, and even some of the women I met allowed the hair on their chin to grow.  This comes in part from the Rasta emphasis on non-interference with nature, but it is also ascribed to the Nazirite vow, as I mentioned above.  Though I have no textual evidence to back this up, I believe that, to a great extent, the rejection of hair cutting, straightening, shaving, and other Western fashions was part of a conscious rejection of the colonizers' customs, a symbolic return to Africa, at least for many of the Rastafari.  The beard also took on political implications in Jamaica, as the "beardsmen," as some of the early Rastas called themselves, were identified with the famously bearded Marxist, Fidel Castro.


I was happy to have an academic excuse to grow out my beard, and I look forward to having my facial hair be acceptable among my fellow scholars throughout my career.  But as we have seen, not every vocation is so accepting of facial hair.  Unless you can acquire an exemption for religious reasons or extreme skin sensitivity, many employers will make you shave at least some of your face.  While some women find beards attractive, perhaps the fact that some men shave just for their ladies is a sign of progress, women's feelings actually being taken into consideration.  And although sports sensations like Brian Wilson might not make beards a long-term hit, at least we can hope that the "playoff beard" tradition lasts long into future generations.

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