by Gary Olson
Donna barbuta, sempre piaciuta. Everyone loves a woman with a beard.
My first real girlfriend sported a Fu Manchu mustache. My second let me brush, oil and trim her full, voluptuous 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 ample facial hair on males. And although some forty percent of all females naturally grow facial hair, only a small number are able to grow a full beard. Scientists believe that in prehistorical societies, beards protected men’s faces from the cold and fierce winds while they stalked wooly mammoths. If you wear a beard and have doubts, 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 sociocultural dimension to facial hair. During Charles Darwin’s time, beards were seen as 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.” 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.”
But in Fargo things played out differently. There, it was all about our brutal winters. Ruthie Swenson, a local woman, was visiting family members in Flin Flon, Manitoba. While there, she encountered a small community of women who practiced a creative, safe and inexpensive solution to their routine subzero temperatures: facial hair wigs. Ruthie brought back a few and shared them at a slumber party.
At first there was a social stigma attached to female facial wigs, but soon the idea caught on like hot cakes, and shops like ‘The Furry Female” and “Madam Mustache” sprang up to meet unquenchable female consumer demand. Offering both human and synthetic facial hair wigs in a wide range of colors, the craftswomanship made bad (facial) hair days a thing of the past. In our neck of the woods, popular models included the “Barbarian Fur Trapper” and given our Scandinavian heritage, the classic “Viking Pillager.” Unintentionally, and almost overnight, the hirsute woman went from freakish sideshow Bearded Lady to de rigueur attire from November to March.
The advent of bearded gals cut in different and not always predictable ways. First, the immediate relief from Fargo’s wind chills of -59 degrees was a godsend. Second, a serendipitous result was that wearing prophylactic facial protection also meant no more worries about beard burn and mustache rash after participating in some face time.
Third, guys like myself who were follicly-challenged were intimidated by this new womanly appearance. We also saw immediate salvation and began surreptitiously visiting wig shops. The payoffs could be considerable. For two people, spreading one another’s mustache curtains on behalf of probing tongues promised mysterious and previously unknown pleasure. Further down the road, sexual gratification became so linked with beards that the clean-shaven, ultra-smooth faces of Playboy centerfolds looked unfinished and 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 forty 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, many guys were thrown for a loop and struggled to recalibrate their new place in the world. Things 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.
Looking back, I’ve always been grateful to those young women for their spunk, for their courage. Although they acted for purely practical reasons, by embracing facial hair they were also demanding the right to make choices and be treated equally. My close encounters with them awakened my sense of empathy as I tried to experience what it was like to walk in their whiskers. Were they early and largely unsung heroes of the modern women’s movement? I’ll leave that answer to historians. But my gratitude also includes my nascent realization that if dominant cultural forces could dictate standards of beauty, what other beliefs did I hold that were socially conditioned? It was a valuable lesson.
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 pass an attractive woman on the street or in a supermarket aisle, I often wonder how they’d look in a Charlie Chaplin ‘stache or at least a heavy five o’clock shadow. And when I hear a certain Beach Boy’s lyric, I fondly transpose it to “I wish they all could be North Dakota girls.” You betcha!
Gary Olson is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He has been the recipient of multiple Fulbright Awards to Finland, Egypt and Mexico, and his most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer/Verlag, 2013). Olson grew up in Fargo, ND and his Ph.D is from the University of Colorado in Boulder.