The anthropology of facial hair

In our first year Key Skills in Anthropology module, students are introduced to the fundamental academic skills necessary to succeed in university and post-university employment. As part of the course, students are asked to write an essay on the topic of hair from a social and biological anthropological perspective. This week we are featuring a second essay by Vlada Sosis.

Vlada’s bio: I am a first year anthropology student, originally from Ukraine. After I finished a Fine Arts degree I decided to look to science and once I discovered anthropology it immediately grabbed my attention. Both social and biological anthropology interested me, however it was evolutionary anthropology that ignited my thirst for knowledge.

Many theories have been explored on the topic of human “hairlessness”. Whether it was due to our adaptation against parasites (Pagel and Bodmer, 2003), or to aid with sweating which subsequently aided in endurance hunting strategy (Schwartz and Rosenbum, 1981), by the time modern hominids appear in the fossil record they are theorized to look much like us. What has not been extensively researched is why despite general lack of hair, many men still retain a considerable amount of facial hair. In this essay I explore possible evolutionary pressures that could have affected the selection of beards, from intra–male contest hypothesis to sexual selection by females. But even if evolutionary advantages of male facial hair can be determined, would they be universal? And how does the cultural and social variation affect our perception of beards? In some cultures, facial hair, which is an androgen-dependent trait that develops around the time of puberty, becomes a signifier of manhood. In others, manliness is determined by cultural conformity, which may or may not dictate the wearing of beards. I argue that both biological/evolutionary and social perspective are important in understanding the significance of male facial hair.

Human males are considerably stronger, more aggressive and bigger than females. According to Puts (2010), this level of sexual dimorphism is an indicator of a contest competition as a main driving point of male selection. In his study, Puts indicates the degree of sexual dimorphism present in humans, and notes that the 80% of increased upper body strength in men compared to women is an indicator of an adaptation to violence and contest. Bearing in mind the significant presence of antemortem injuries (done during life; often identified by a degree of healing) and perimortem injuries (done right before death) with signs of intra-species violence in the archaeological record of hominids (Walker, 2001), we can extrapolate that contest competition had at least some weight on the selection process.

With high prevalence of intra–species violence and large male body mass comes a selective pressure towards males who could survive fatal blows. The mandible is found to be one of the most vulnerable bones in instances of buttressing, accounting for the majority of lacerations and fractures; it is also one of the most robust and sexually dimorphic traits in humanoids (Carrier and Morgan, 2015). Thus, evolved a hypothesis that facial hair in men was selected for as an instrument to decrease blunt force effects onto the face and thus gain advantages in competition within species. Beseris et al. (2020) conducted a series of experiments where they have measured the drop – impact force of a blunt striker onto an epoxy composite bone analogue cover by sheep fleece in three different stages: furred – which served as an approximation of a full beard, shorn and plucked. They have found that furred samples absorbed 37% more of the impact and could withstand 16% more force. Other studies have been done on this subject, specifically Dixon et al. (2018), which compiled information on mixed martial arts (MMA) fights by number of wins by knockout and concluded that beardedness does not have a significant effect on the rate of knockouts. I would argue that this is not a particularly appropriate measuring method as it does not take in the account many other variables that distinguish an MMA professional fighter as opposed to untrained fighters.

Another hypothesis that is prevalent on the topic of evolution of male facial hair is sexual selection by females. Many studies were done with variety of subjects where predominantly heterosexual women were asked to rate male faces with varying degrees of beardedness based on attractiveness, dominance, aggression, parenting abilities and so on (Valentova, et al., 2017; Dixson and Brooks, 2013; Gray, et al., 2020). The studies found that on average women would rate men with light stubble as most attractive, while dominance and aggressiveness was attributed to fully bearded men. More facial hair attractiveness was scored in cultures with more men self-reporting higher degrees of beardedness, which could signify a higher cultural degree of familiarity (Valentova, et al., 2017).

It could be argued that perceived masculinity, aggressiveness and dominance that correlates with higher facial hair density was a more important factor than inter sexual selection. Faces with beards are more often judged older and having a higher social status as well as score as more aggressive by men (Dixson and Vasey, 2012; Sherlock, et al., 2017). It is thus possible that beards’ main characteristic lies in intimidation towards other males, rather than attraction of the other sex. There is, nevertheless, evidence of beards having an explicit but not implicit effect on the dominance rating by men (Sherlock, et al., 2017), leaving the beards’ evolutionary purpose and its real biological effects uncertain. What follows then, is a reasonable question: If not on the implicit, biological level, do we perceive the bearded face based on our cultural preconceptions?

In cross cultural studies conducted across the USA and India (Gray, et al., 2020), it was noted that bearded faces were rated significantly older than clean shaven faces. It was also pointed out that in the Indian sample the age estimates were overall higher than in the US samples. This could suggest that relationship of the beard to age has a cultural aspect. One of the more universal meanings that facial hair presents is age, more specifically the shift from a prepubescent boy to adulthood (Muscarella and Cunningham, 2003). It is also one of the signifiers of masculinity as it represents the boy’s entrance into sexual maturity.

What is masculinity? Many cultures place a great importance on ‘being a man’, but it is not a constant state, instead it is something to be achieved, often requiring some sort of rites of passage (Gilmore, 1990). Boys are not ‘allowed’ entry into manhood until they achieve certain requirements dictated by the society, which are often policed by older men. In this way the beard becomes, in some cultures, a gateway to masculinity. It may elicit feelings of pride and social acceptance to those who can grow it and shame and fear of public scorn for those who cannot. In 18th century England, the term ‘beard’ became a slang for a woman dating a gay man to conceal his sexuality and hence becoming proof of his manliness (Klein, 2016). During the Victorian era in Britain, beards experienced a revival in popularity due to the anxieties over the notions of manhood in the new age of industrialisation (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).

However, in different cultures and different eras, facial hair also became charged politically as well as socially. One example is the young generation of the Ottoman empire which decided to poise itself against the older regime of the Hamidian order by only wearing the moustache instead of the prescribed full beard (Wishnitzer, 2018). Facial hair was a matter of religious and socio-cultural order in Ottoman society. It affected everyone, but especially men of higher social status as the conformity to the norm solidified one’s claim to power. Other cultures have attributed social significance to men’s facial hair, whether it was hailed as a positive or negative trait. In Baganda during an exile of their king Kabaka, men vowed to let their beards grow out in protest (Mazrui, 2014). The Governor of Uganda later said it was unseemly for the civil servants to have beards, which reflects the attitudes towards the facial hair at that time. When King Kabaka was ultimately released, the protesters cut their beards in a symbolic ending of the protest and presented the collected hairs stuffed in a pillow to their king upon his return. Hence, the above examples reflect the social and political significance of facial hair. Whether favoured or disapproved of, it holds power in its symbolism.  The act of growing it out or cutting it down is a strong visual signifier that communicates the person’s position in their community.

The discussion in this essay outlines a few important aspects of male facial hair and its significance. If viewed exclusively as a biological adaptation, the research seems to lean towards the beards’ evolution as a marker of dominance and aptitude in intra–male violence. Facial hair is more often perceived as attractive and dominant by men and less so by women, which reinforces the above hypothesis. Nevertheless, this explanation is not enough to reflect the differences both in explicit and implicit attitudes towards beards. Ideas of manliness and manhood become entangled with perceptions of beards in some cultures and in others the political and religious regimes dictates whether the ‘proper man’ is bearded or clean-shaven. The cultural history and social trends often regulate the attitudes towards facial hair. This social rule is also often mandated and policed by men themselves, which ties in with the intra–male competition hypothesis. In my personal opinion, beards’ evolution and its social status both are displays aimed by and towards men. Beards’ significance may have started out as a symbol of dominance as well as protection during violent encounters, but it has become deeply affected by culture and evolved different meanings across many populations.


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Carrier, R., D. and Morgan H., M. (2015) Protective buttressing of the hominin face. Biological Reviews, 90, pp. 330 – 346.

Dixson, J., B., Brooks, C., R., (2013) The role of facial hair in women’s perceptions of men’s attractiveness, health, masculinity and parenting abilities. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34 (3), pp. 236-241, doi:

Dixson, B., JW., et al. (2018) Contest competition and men’s facial hair: beards may not provide advantages in combat, Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(2), pp. 147 – 153.

Dixson, J., B., Vasey, L., P. (2012) Beards augment perceptions of men’s age, social status, and aggressiveness, but not attractiveness. Behavioral Ecology, 23 (3), pp. 481–490, doi:

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Valentova, J. V. et al. (2017) Mate Preferences and Choices for Facial and Body Hair in Heterosexual Women and Homosexual Men: Influence of Sex, Population, Homogamy, and Imprinting-Like Effect. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(2), pp. 241–248. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.10.007.

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Wishnitzer, A. (2018) Beneath the Mustache: A Well-Trimmed History of Facial Hair in the Late Ottoman Era, Journal of the Economic & Social History of the Orient, 61(3), pp. 289–326. 

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