Thursday, October 31, 2013


I used to have a boss who confessed to me one day that he had a prejudice against men with beards. There was a young man in my department who sported a magnificent black bushy beard and, although this man was very good at his work, my boss was finding it very difficult to relate to him, to trust him.

"I just don't 'see' Sam," he explained to me. He needed to see all of a man's face when he looked him in the eye. With more than half the face hidden by the beard he found himself unable to assess Sam's character and decide what to make of him. At least he was self-aware enough to realize that it was as much his own problem as it was Sam's.

It's not an uncommon problem in our culture. There's even a name for it. Pognophobia. Fear of beards.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle at the BBC earlier this year when Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman came back from his summer holidays sporting a beard. The reaction from the public and his employer led Paxman to accuse his employer of pognophobia.  Why shouldn't a news presenter have a beard? Does a beard make him less credible?

Jeremy Paxman

Is this just a fashion or is there a significant part of the population who find men with beards less trustworthy, less credible?

Politicians are generally distrusted in our culture but they must somehow find a way to convince some people to believe them and to vote for them. How many politicians have beards? Not many. Do politicians think they appear more trustworthy by being clean-shaven?

Quick, without looking it up, who was the last American president to have a beard?

Well, judging by the thumbnail sketches of presidents on Wikipedia, every president for the last 100 years has been clean-shaven. Taft and Teddy Roosevelt had rather magnificent mustaches but the last bearded president, as far as I can tell, was Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) and before that it was James Garfield who served only a few months in 1881 before being assassinated.

James Garfield

Of course fashions were different in the 19th century, but in our culture today is it easier or harder for a man with a beard to get away with a lie? Why do we say "bare-faced" lie? "Bare-faced" clearly implies "open" and "unconcealed" and apparently the expression dates back to 1592. Is a lie told by a bare-faced man somehow more bold or shocking than a lie told by a bearded man? How strange is that, possum?

Why are some people prejudiced against men with beards? I must admit to a mild case of pognophobia myself.  Living so close to Boston I really would like to support the Red Sox baseball team, but I find the current obsession of most of their players with wearing straggly long beards somewhat ridiculous, so I find it hard to take them seriously. (Even though they did win the World Series yesterday.)

Two Red Soxes

I did try to grow a beard myself once. It wasn't very impressive. Maybe that's why I'm a pognophobe? Perhaps I'm just jealous.

Of course there is a long tradition of beards in sailing, and the popular image of the grizzled sea dog is kept alive today by such famous sailors as Robin Knox-Johnston (first man to sail single-handed non-stop around the world) and Bruce Kirby (designer of the Laser.) I don't find myself the least bit prejudiced against these two gentleman because of their beards.

Robin Knox-Johnston

Bruce Kirby

On the other hand, the US Navy currently bans beards. How weird is that?

Why is Tillerman writing about beards? Didn't this used to be a sailing blog? When are we going to hear some stories about Tillerman's adventures at the North American Laser Masters or some dirt on the whole Laser/ Torch debacle? Has Tillerman gone off the reservation? And when will Tillerman stop this annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person?


George A said...

When I was growing up in southern Pennsylvania, many men had beards. Of course most of them were Amish or farmers or both. We always thought of the Amish, with their beards trailing down to the middle of their shirts, as models of trustworthiness.

Tillerman said...

There you go. How we "see" men with beards is clearly something shaped by the culture in which we have lived.

Two things I didn't mention...
1. My pognophobe boss had spent many years of his early career working in a food factory where beards were banned.

2. My first introduction to baseball came by following the New York Yankees who have long had a policy against their players wearing an "unprofessional" amount of facial hair.

Baydog said...

Actually, I'm waiting for another group writing assignment. Doesn't Bruce Kirby resemble the world's most interesting man? Stay thirsty, my friend......

Sam Chapin said...

Why do you suppose women don't have beards?

Tillerman said...

Because women don't play baseball?

O Docker said...

When I was growing up in southern Pennsylvania, many men had beards.

I was one of them.

Well, OK, I didn't actually grow a beard until I moved to New Jersey in 1977, but I've had one ever since.

Beards were a way to say you thought 'out of the box' before people said, "out of the box". They were a way to stand apart from our parents, because none of our parents had beards. But mostly they were a way to avoid shaving, because some of us were too lazy to shave.

It hadn't occurred to me before this, but maybe my beard is why no one thinks of me as credible or trustworthy.

Tillerman said...

Good point O Docker. The decision to grow a beard clearly implies that the man is trying to make some kind of statement. It might be, "I want to hide my face," or it could be, "I want to look like a miner 49er excavating for a mine."

Strange really that we should think of clean-shaven as the default option. You have to make a decision every morning if you don't want a beard. But if you do want a beard you have to do nothing. Why is doing nothing seen as such a big deal?

Baydog said...

I'm shamefully good at doing nothing

Pandabonium said...

I think shaving began as a way of denying military opponents of a handhold they could use to pull the opponent. These days, being "clean" shaven is mostly just a learned behavior.

On the other hand, being not bearded and at the same time not "clean" shaven can lead people to believe you are merely lazy- look at Richard Nixon in his televised debate with John Kennedy. If Nixon had sported a full beard, he may have won more votes. That shadow cost him.

Personally, I like having my beard plucked, hair by hair, as Julius Caesar did. ;)

Pandabonium said...

I know several women with beards.

Tillerman said...

I read somewhere on the Interwebs that beards are banned in the US military for reasons including hygiene, soldierly discipline, and the ability to get a good seal on gas masks should troops need them. I also read an article that said that some US troops in Afghansitan are asking to wear beards because they find it wins more respect and trust from the locals (in a culture where nearly all men wear beards.)

O Docker said...

I'm starting to wonder about this whole hygiene thing. The implication is that men with beards are less clean than those without them. (I'm not sure what the implication is for women with beards.)

But if that were true, then bald people would be cleaner than people with hair. I don't see the military insisting that all troops shave their heads. Or shave any other body parts that might grow hair.

Clearly pognophobia permeates our military at all levels as does the equally reprehensible policy of 'don't shave, don't tell'.

Tillerman said...

But O Docker, the military in many countries (at least the USA and UK which I know best) does insist on very short haircuts, if not shaven heads. I'm not entirely sure if this a genuine hygiene issue (not being able to wash for weeks on end perhaps when "in the trenches") or more a cultural issue to mark out members of the military as different from the long-haired layabouts in civilian life?

But you have a good point. If shaven heads and faces are more hygienic, then why not shave the whole body?

I'm just waiting for the day when back hair comes back into fashion.

Baydog said...

I can vouch for the gas mask theory...when I get lazy and let my facial hair grow, my CPAP mask leaks all night

Tillerman said...

And I wonder if you can get a dry suit seal to work well if you have a beard?

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