Erikka Askeland: Sudden bristling over beards

The word of the week is “pogonophobia”, the irrational fear of beards.

Erikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland

The existence of such deep-seated anxiety about facial hair must have been behind the uproar when Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman returned from holiday and appeared on screen this week without having shaved.

Surely never has so much astonishment been expressed at the sudden appearance of a few bristles. But frankly, Paxo is a bit behind the curve when it comes to going hairy.

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I suspect it started with George Clooney. He first flouted the clean shaven hegemony in the film Syriana in 2005. It was an actor thing, although he was just playing a guy who tended to saunter away from explosions. But as he wasn’t playing a pirate or a traveller with a penchant for alcohol and bare knuckle fighting, the beard wasn’t a necessity for the character.

Throughout the intervening years the actor’s face mane made reappearances, without even the benefit of a silver screen role, until early this spring there sprouted a shock of Hollywood types being papped grinning from behind hairy chins.

Not that I follow the fashions of movie stars with any great alacrity, but it really seems to me that sentiment started to shift.

The hirsute face used to be only something grandpa, jazz enthusiasts or the guy begging some spare change had. But I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself amongst women that chin pelts have suddenly become a bit, well, worth considering.

For most of my life beards have been beyond the pale. I blame my concert band teacher Mr Brian.

I played the flute. This meant, one fateful afternoon, I had a front row seat for the slow, horrific progress of the remains of his lunch slipping down through the tendrils of his whiskers as he led us through a ropey rendition of Fanfare for the Common Man.

Nor was my beard aversion helped later on by the fashion for poorly kempt goatees and other unusual hair formations popular among young men I occasionally thought of kissing. For anyone who has not snogged a bloke with a beard, there is a trade off between the pain of having your skin abraded by fashionable stubble and the soft silkiness of a mouthful of hair which makes being clean shaven the clear winner.

But maybe the sudden rage for beards is not just down to the follicular choices of actors that women of a certain age find a bit foxy. Perhaps it is to do with our uneasy times. For what says “authority” like a beard?

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When I was growing up, all the pictures I ever saw of God had him sporting a beard. Then there are all those pictures of Victorian patriarchs, who looked so certain in their fuzzy but stern countenances.

We now realise their stiffness probably had more to do with the requirements of posing for slow exposure cameras and their thick worsted frock coats, but they did seem to love their facial hair. That and your only other option at the time was trusting some guy to hold a straight razor to your throat.

Even the Man in my Life has taken to sporting a small, neatly trimmed beard. I think it gives him a raffish and debonair demeanour. He thinks it makes him look a bit like Sean Connery. His friend in the office, however, said he looks like George V. I’m not sure that is the effect either of us really had in mind.

But if you decide to grow a beard and expect life to become a razor-free nirvana, you are sadly mistaken. The Man reports that if you want to avoid looking like the fourth member of the band ZZ Top (and trust me, you do), then maintenance is key.

Whereas stubble can be shaved off willy nilly, with a beard you need the unshaky hand of a brain surgeon to ensure you don’t accidentally lop off the wrong bit. Symmetry in facial hair is important.

Undoubtedly growing a beard will also have an ageing effect for most, particularly if what sprouts on the chin is surprisingly and unaccountably white. If you are lucky you will look “distinguished”. If not, you will look like Santa. Which, unless you fancy making a little dosh over the festive season, may not be what you want.