By Gary Olson
“Kissing a man without a beard is like eating an egg without salt.”
— Dutch proverb, probably written by a man.
“Kissing a man with a beard is like going on a picnic. You don’t mind going through the bush to get there."
— Minnie Pearl, probably channeling her inner man
My first real girlfriend sported a Fu Manchu Mustache. My second let me brush, oil and trim her voluptuous full beard. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
Long before American women began electrolyzing, bleaching, waxing, plucking and shaving because men shamed them about underarm, leg, pubic and especially facial hair, a polar opposite situation unfolded in a most unlikely place: My hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. Looking back now, that magical time seems only a fleeting moment, hair today, gone tomorrow. But it’s a story worth telling and I’ll try to do so to the best of my recollection.
We know that evolution bestowed facial hair on males while leaving females bereft. Scientists believe that in prehistoric societies, beards protected men’s faces from the cold and fierce winds while they stalked wooly mammoths. If you wear a beard, shave off one side, engage in some outdoor activities in subzero temperatures and you’ll notice the bearded half is noticeably warmer.
There’s also a social/cultural dimension to facial hair. During Charles Darwin’s time, beards were seen a sign of evolutionary superiority. (Note: Darwin had a full beard). Because men had facial hair, women with it were deemed “manly,” and unattractive. In 1869, the influential theologian Horace Bushnell wrote that “the shag on his face” (a beard) signaled a man’s authority, force, dignity, decisiveness and self-assertion. Clearly, facial hair “was intended solely to men” which ruled out any consideration of gender equality. In criticizing the suffragettes, Bushnell said “The claim of a beard would not be a more radical revolt against nature.” And the 1894 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica described the beard’s function as “the outward and visible sign of a true man.”
What all this means is that men felt threatened by the fledgling women’s rights movement, and as historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, men grew beards to “codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” They would taken strong exception to the old Italian saying “Donna babuta, sempre priauta,” Everyone loves a woman with a beard.”
At some point, for both practical reasons and basic social equality, nature’s natural and men’s unnatural privileging of one gender demanded remedial human intervention. Apparently, a young Fargo woman was visiting family members in Flin Flon, Manitoba where she encountered a small community of women who practiced a creative, safe and inexpensive solution: Customized facial hair wigs. She purchased some and shared them at a slumber party.
The idea caught on like hot cakes. Shops like ‘The Furry Female” and “Madam Mustache” sprang up to meet an unquenchable female consumer demand. Offering both human and synthetic facial hair wigs in a wide range of colors, the craftswomanship made bad hair days a thing of the past. In our neck of the woods, popular models included “The Barbarian Fur Trapper and of course, given our Scandinavian heritage, the classic “Viking Pillager.” Almost overnight the hirsute woman went from freakish sideshow Bearded Lady to epitomizing the model of practicality, sensuality and style.
Follically challenged men were intimidated by this new womanly appendage. Worse yet, if you were reluctant to encounter their bristles, you were at risk of becoming a dateless misfit, a social outlier. Our uneasiness wasn’t helped by t-shirts reading, “Control your orgasms, it’s just my beard” or “Full beard required for entry.” Perhaps the most devastating ego-crusher was “Lose the vibrator. I keep a bearded guy under my bed.”
However, the advent of bearded gals cut in different and not always predictable ways. First, for women it was mostly a liberating and exhilarating experience. The respite from Fargo wind chills often reaching -59 degrees and being freed from the self-flagellation of shaving were obvious benefits. But wearing prophylactic facial protection also meant no more worries about beard burn and mustache rash. Something called ITC, or inner thigh chafing, remained a concern, but its cause eluded me and I was loath to admit my ignorance by asking.
Second, what about those of us who could only raise some pitiful patchy clumps? We conceded defeat and surreptitiously visited a wig shop. The payoff could be considerable. For two people, spreading one another’s mustache curtains on behalf of probing tongues was to flirt with exciting danger. Further down the road, sexual gratification became so linked with beards that the clean-shaven, ultra-smooth faces of Playboy centerfolds looked unfinished, barren of character. Since the photos were already airbrushed, why not add some real brush?
Finally, the ultra-macho, bushy-bearded guys in our midst -- some 80 percent of the men — had it worst of all. Not unlike today’s lumbersexual poseurs, Fargo’s deeply insecure guys tried to convey a casual yet unmistakable image of masculine authority and sexual potency by impersonating lumberjacks. They even wore flannel shirts.
Instead of seeing their former bearded status as a historical artifact, some guys persisted in wearing t-shirts proclaiming “What do you call a guy without a beard? A woman” and “There’s place for men without beards. It’s called the ladies room.” But clearly they were thrown for a loop and struggled to recalibrate their new place in the world. It had gone from “We wear beards. We rule.” to a level playing field where anyone could play. Today we’d call it a male identity crisis: “If I’m no longer a beard, who am I?” I’m not proud of the fact that I enjoyed their discombobulation, especially when they began talking up the virtues of relocating to Florida.
What about today? It took me years to stop fantasizing about bewhiskered females and try to appreciate the whole person behind the naked face. When I see an attractive woman on the street or in the supermarket, I sometimes wonder how she’d look in a Charlie Chaplin ‘stache or at least a heavy 5 o’clock shadow.
Finally, I’ve always been grateful to those pioneering women for their spunk, their courage. Whether done consciously or not, by embracing their facial hair they were demanding the right to make choices. My close encounters with them awakened my sense of empathy as I tried to experience what it was like to walk in their whiskers. My gratitude includes my nascent realization that if dominant cultural forces could dictate standards of beauty, what other beliefs did I hold that were socially conditioned?
Even now, when I hear that classic Beach Boy’s lyric, I fondly transpose it to “I wish they all could be North Dakota girls.” You betcha!
Editor’s note: Gary Olson is emeritus professor of political science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He grew up in Fargo.
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