Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The politics of facial hair worldwide

The subject of heated debate since Alexander first rode into Asia Minor, the politics of how to wear one's beard are ever changing, and ever-present.

Contestants gather to promote the National Beard and Moustache Championships in New York November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

While Americans have an odd way of wearing their politics on their t-shirts and the back of their Ford Fiestas, they are far from alone in the practice of cultural signaling.

In Turkey, for example, a man’s entire philosophy can lay across his upper lip: short and cropped for Islamists, walrus-like bushy for leftists, and Anatolian fu manchu for rightwing nationalists, at least according to popular legend.

Of all Turkey’s leaders since 1923, only seven have failed to sport the mustache: four of whom were in power whilst the modernizing Republican People’s Party (CHP) ruled over an aristocratic, single-party state (1923-50); two of whom were the most important conservative Turkish politicians of the 20th century, Adnan Menderes (1950-1960) and Süleyman Demirel (seven-time PM between 1965-1993); and Turkey’s sole female PM, Tansu Çiller (1993-1996).

As such, whiskers make a very compelling statement about 20th century Turkish political life: however conservative or dictatorial, a clean upper lip spells modernization, (Atatürk, Menderes, Demirel) while freer-flowing facials have a stronger correlation with democratization.

Strength through uniformity

For a country with a more clamorous relationship with political Islam, the beard has a more tumultuous place in Egyptian life.

A no-no in the Mubarak era, it enjoyed a brief renaissance under the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi, a controversial politician who boasted both a beard and a PhD in materials science from USC.

But after his downfall, retribution for the hirsute was swift and sure: on suspicion of being ikhwani (a pejorative term for members of the Brotherhood), men with no political affiliations whatsoever—even liberals, atheists, and leftists—were often detained on sight for not taming their whiskers in the months following Morsi’s 2013 toppling.

Now the beard is firmly back to no man’s land.

Since Sisi’s most recent cabinet reshuffle in June 2018, only one of 32 cabinet members wears a beard: Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, the Minister of Religious Endowment (Awkaf)—a man whose position is surely untenable in anything but. Of the other 31 cabinet members, only two have mustaches.

Might this pogonophobic trend tell another tale?

With a record-breaking eight female cabinet members, the most in Egyptian history, Sisi’s latest cabinet shuffle certainly yearns to send a “progressive” message. But does that make it any more democratic?

Hardly. As anyone knows, Cairo’s crackdown on the Brotherhood has been nothing if not as vicious as anything Ankara has meted out to its perceived enemies.

Where the countries’ pogonic policies differ, then, is in their rhetorical commitment to varying forms of modernization vs. democratization, which needn’t go hand in hand these days.

In the US, on the other hand, where women’s liberation has been carried further, the history of facial hair and political power tells a more nuanced tale.

Epistolary growth

On October 15, 1860, 11-year old Grace Bedell of Chautauqua County New York wrote to presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln several weeks before the most contested election of the 19th century.

“I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way, and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you; you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

Noted for his love of children, Lincoln was quick to reply. But he wondered: “Having never worn any [whiskers], do you not think people would call it a silly affectation if I were to begin it now?”

Yet heed her words he did, and the rest, yet again, is history: once brimming with bristles, a preternaturally gaunt and sickly face assumed the mantle of a wizened prophet, and the people found their leader.

They also found a style: prior to Lincoln, no American president had worn either beard or mustache—the insurgent sideburns of John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren the only whiskers to have inhabited the White House until that point.

Yet in the half-century following Grace’s letter to Lincoln, every president but Andrew Johnson (1865-9) and William McKinley (1897-1901) sported a beard or mustache. Only since the killjoy Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson reached the White House in 1912 has everyone refrained from sprouting a single facial hair.

Bristling with destiny

A similar trend can be seen in Western Europe. In Britain, all but four prime ministers wore facial hair from 1846-1940. Yet apart from several postwar upper-lip experiments, no one has attempted a bristle since 1963. In France, every president from 1873-1940 sported unctuous facials. Since 1954, no one has.

The most convincing explanation for the explosion of facial accoutrements in the 19th century runs akin to the fabled ‘frontier thesis’ of Frederick Jackson Turner, which equates the development of American democracy with 19th century westward expansion.

As Sean Trainor, author of The Bearded Age, writes: “Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror.”

As an anonymous woman wrote to the New York Tribune in 1856: “The bearded races are the conquering races”—a particularly charged statement given that many Native American groups (along with many peoples colonized by Europeans) could not grow facial hair.

The same analogy can be applied to the French and British cases, both of which were at the height of imperial expansion in the late 19th century, and eager to prove their virility.

Why did this change in the 20th century?

As a 1903 editorial in Harper’s Weekly put it: “Now that consumption is no longer consumption, but tuberculosis, and is not hereditary but infectious… the theory of science is that the beard is infected with the germs of tuberculosis.” The first blow against the beard was struck.

That same year also saw the introduction of the Gillette safety razor, a simple tool that greatly reduced the danger, time, and expense of what had always been “a hated and bloody chore.”

The third, political scientists now think, was women’s suffrage.

Hygienic for your better half

Beards, of course, have always tended to project a hyper-masculinity; what changed in 19th century America was that they also became a (subconscious?) subterfuge against a society in which women were growing increasingly dominant: by the time women’s suffrage was granted in 1920, politicians could no longer afford such symbol-laden luxuries.

If political scientist Rebekah Herrick is correct, women perceive men with facial hair as being less feminist, regardless of their actual voting habits. As her 2010 paper bluntly put it: “Men with facial hair are seen as more supportive of the use of violence [against women].”

Just ask the last major mustachioed politician who ran for national office: Thomas E Dewey, inched out by Roosevelt (1944) and Truman (1948) in consecutive presidential contests, the latter one of the great upsets of the 20th century.

As the New York Times columnist Edith Efron put it days before the election, Dewey “may be elected to office, but it will be in spite of his ‘manly attributes’—not because of them.”

Today, less than 5% of US congressmen have facial hair (62.5% of which are minorities, which only make up 20% of congress), and it is widely rumored that John Bolton was passed over for Secretary of State because of his particularly wooly tache, the Washington Post reported in 2016.

One wonders if Trump’s purported inability to grow facial hair was a factor in wooing 52% of white women to vote for him, despite the serial allegations of sexual abuse against him.

Goats and Saracens

According to Plutarch, it was Alexander the Great who first made shaving acceptable. “Don’t you know,” said the first to rush into battle with an effeminate’ face, “that in battle there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?”

Though most historians think he did this more to reveal his chiseled looks to conquered peoples and potential (soldierly) partners, the new trend caught on.

From Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War, to the crusaders who compared bearded men to “goats and Saracens”—making shaving a mark of medieval Christian piety—the squeaky-clean cheek, with intervals, was there to stay.

That a beardless face best represents modernity, as Peter the Great and Atatürk once thought, or a means of preventing tuberculosis, now seems obsolete.

In fact, in wealthy societies untroubled by political Islam, nothing could be more modern. Often discouraged from sporting beards back home, Arab men now rush to Istanbul to get much-sought after facial hair implants, a personal projection of strength in a region crumbling around them.

As markers of virility in an ever-changing—and often gender-equalizing—world, facial hair is unlikely to leave the political sphere anytime soon.