Beards for men are like cosmetics for women—they can pleasantly augment a man’s face and raise attractiveness while masking flaws or, like an orange-based foundation in a cloudy jar, they can go horribly, horribly wrong. In April 2013, researchers in Australia announced the results of a study on bearded preference and perception. “Our findings confirm that beardedness affects judgments of male socio-sexual attributes and suggest that an intermediate level of beardedness is most attractive while full-bearded men may be perceived as better fathers who could protect and invest in offspring.” Basically, a few well developed chin follicles are biological shorthand that tells the whole world a man is able to grow crops, slaughter mammoths, and successfully procreate and parent. When polled, male study subjects preferred full beards over light stubble or a clean shaven look. Women in the same study, however, preferred men with heavy stubble over clean-shaven or a heavy beard.
Last week, a new study, also by researchers at the University of New South Wales and published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, suggested society has now achieved “peak beard” among men in social classifications not normally associated with furry faces (the guys on Deadliest Catch are good as is.) The bearded trend has become so prevalent in society it’s diluted its impact and effectiveness at attracting women. This is called negative frequency-dependent sexual selection. In other words, having too many hirsute men in society has negated the mojo of the beard.
Beard enthusiasts maintain that the Biology Letters study has no evidentiary proof for its claims and is mostly based on assumptions. “Men have beards for reasons entirely unrelated to sexual attraction,” Keith Flett, founder of Beard Liberation Front, told Complex.com.
A well-tended beard of some length, specifically a 5- to 10-day growth or more, makes a man look older and thus makes him more likely to command respect from other men. But when asked, the overall response from women in our straw poll toward the attractiveness of a man with a full beard was not good.
“Not a fan of beards. Okay with a light five o’clock shadow but no full-on beard.”
“Not a fan. It’s like kissing a walrus.”
“Scruff is okay, but I’m not really a beard fan. Too scratchy.”
“My hubby looks much better with his (short) goatee…not full bushy beards or mustaches, don’t like at all.”
“Three to five days growth. Perfection.”
“It all depends on the face, though I always like a little scruff.”
Ultimately, the attractiveness of male facial hair is, like chemistry, subjective. Our own multicenter, randomized, totally-blind, uncontrolled study of women on Facebook and Twitter and one random chain eatery revealed that male facial hair is perceived by women to elevate masculinity and can often season a man’s appearance, adding some gravitas to an otherwise baby face, for example. We asked our subjects to break it down to the nitty gritty.