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Why famous dudes grow beards to deal with existential crises

A beard is rarely just a beard.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen in January 2020, is just one example of a famous man growing a beard during a period of change.
Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

Was anyone really surprised when Beto O’Rourke emerged from exile with a freshly grown salt-and-pepper beard?

It seemed to materialize all at once. O’Rourke suspended his presidential bid on November 1, 2019, when he was still dressed in his trademark blue button-down and slacks, without a stray follicle on his mouth, nose, or chin. The rest of his winter was spent hunkered down in Texas, presumably engaging in the sort of cloistral rumination and recalibration that follows any public figure’s collapse. In that time, O’Rourke proved once again that, apparently, personal and professional downfalls, setbacks, and sea changes are great fertilizers for facial hair.

Here he is on December 17, equipped with a large coffee, a bemused demeanor, and a charcoal neckbeard as he endorses Texas congressional hopeful Sima Ladjevardian. Here he is a few weeks later at Christmas, looking giddily unelectable in a lumberjack goatee, as if we were transported to an alternate dimension where O’Rourke’s punk rock career didn’t end in the ’90s. It took him about seven weeks to ditch the clean-shaven look he’s had since, at least, his mugshot. But as powerful men have always known, there’s no coping mechanism quite like a beard.

This is a tradition in modern politics that dates to at least 2001, in the aftermath of Al Gore’s legendarily distressed presidential campaign. After the Supreme Court handed the election to his opponent, Gore reappeared with a straw-colored beard, and quickly shifted his influence to warning about climate change.

Sen. Ted Cruz did something similar in the years after the end of his 2016 presidential campaign, and the symbolic end of the type of Republican Party he represented. Today he looks a little bit like a discharged general in the Sherman civil war campaign. This instinct doesn’t only follow men on the wrong end of political calamity; Conan O’Brien famously ditched his chin after his humiliating seven-month stint on The Tonight Show, and when David Letterman left The Late Show on much better terms in 2015, he too decided to go full Santa Claus. Jon Stewart did it post-Daily Show; Colbert grew one between Comedy Central and CBS. (An honorable mention must be paid to Ben Affleck, who sported a breakup beard during the summer he split from Jennifer Garner.)

Clearly, there is something within men, particularly men who are often in front of cameras, that urges them to radically change the way their face looks during the epilogue of existential upheaval. The cultural instinct is to chalk this trend up to depression or other mental health ailments. The term “breakup beard” has been inscribed within the Urban Dictionary catalog since 2009, and as Deborah Serani, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Adelphi University explained in Psychology Today, an apathy toward self-grooming can be one of the first signs of dysfunction in the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that also dictates your interest in eating, sleeping, and other basic self-care regimens.

But people who’ve studied the beard, and men’s relationship to the beard, tell me that post-reckoning facial hair isn’t always a gloomy coda. Christopher Oldstone-Moore wrote Of Beards and Men, a book that charts the history of men’s hairstyles from the Roman Empire onward. The way he sees it, beards can be a force of reclamation, rather than regret.

“In our 20th and 21st century culture, we established shaving as a norm for social propriety. Typically men in the limelight, men in show business, politics, and business, they’re under a particular pressure to perform,” he says. “When they step out of that pressure cooker, they can express their freedom from those constraints.”

Al Gore in 2001, following the 2000 election.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

The example Oldstone-Moore finds most useful is David Letterman, who was known for his anti-authority slant on CBS and NBC, and who clearly revels in his newfound Appalachian glory. “On the first day of Stephen [Colbert’s] show, an energy left me, it’s not my problem anymore,” he said in an interview with the Today show. “I always told myself when the show goes away, I’ll stop shaving. I had to shave every day, and I got so sick and tired of it.”

According to Oldstone-Moore, Letterman’s appearance and attitude ensures everyone around him understands that he is finished with that part of his life, and that for the first time in 40 years, he is enjoying a moment where nobody can tell him what to do. “It’s frankly a middle finger,” he explains.

Of course, Letterman is enjoying his post-Late Show life on his own terms. He wasn’t purged from the payroll like Conan, and he never polled at 2 percent like Beto. His beard will always be one of the more triumphant beards in the celebrity canon. So what does that mean for those other men, who were defeated rather than released?

It’s impossible to get a pure answer without asking the subjects themselves, but Oldstone-Moore says that returning to the fold with a radical new look could be a plea to be taken more seriously, especially if the public has spent a few months laughing at your expense.

He points to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently returned from a vacation in Costa Rica with a scraggly beard. Trudeau is currently adopting an unusually strong stance against the United States’ escalation with Iran, which led to the tragic deaths of 57 Canadians aboard a plane that was shot down above Tehran. It’s a distinct silhouette from that of the man who became enshrined in the American imagination with his goofy grin and Chewbacca socks. Consciously or subconsciously, Oldstone-Moore speculates that Trudeau wants to match his rhetoric with his look.

”He’s gone through the wringer. I think he feels like he needs to present a different self, because he was so Obama-like, now he’s got to be a little grittier,” says Oldstone-Moore. “That shows more of that individuality, and that you’re a little bit outside of the mainstream.”

This point is echoed by Robert Martin, a biological anthropologist who serves as an emeritus curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He says that, scientifically speaking, beards served as some sort of a signal within the social contract during early human evolution.

That signal forks in two different hypotheses: Either men grow beards to attract women, or men grow beards to express a certain dominance among other men. Surprisingly, according to research conducted by psychology lecturer Barnaby Dixson at the University of Queensland, beards have very little sway within male-to-female interactions. Instead, facial hair, as a biological agent, is much more of a factor when dudes want to show up other dudes.

David Letterman’s post-Late Show beard.
Mike Smith/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“This may explain your point about high-profile men growing beards after a defeat,” says Martin. “This is probably not connected with male and female interactions, but rather with status concerns. Growing a beard may well be an unconscious device to reassert status after a setback.”

Of course, not all men grow a post-flop beard. Sen. Cory Booker suspended his presidential campaign and still rocks his clean visage. Julián Castro remains beardless after his twin brother, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, acquired some facial hair in a possible effort to better distinguish himself from his kin.

So how much stock should you put in the lizard brain pulling the strings in the grimier part of the male psyche? Who knows. The way I see it, the most likely impetus for existential beards is that men don’t have many other grooming options to demonstrate a break from the past. Women can earmark their entire lifespans by the moment they get bangs. I’ve seen my girlfriend emotionally metamorphosize with a new nail polish color. As Oldstone-Moore notes, while gender and style constructs are slowly atrophying, a lot of men feel that their one and only chance to transform lies in the tiny bit of real estate below their lower lip.

”Men are becoming more accepting of style, clothing, and hair. That’s been one of the great changes in masculinity in the past 25 years, but it’s slow progress and there’s not yet parity between men and women on that,” he says. “But the beard is the one exception to that rule.”

High-profile men will continue to lose jobs and elections, enter self-imposed banishment, and resurface with a fresh motivation to leave a new mark. That cycle is never going away. In the future, though, maybe people like O’Rourke will complete that gauntlet with more than just a beard.

Maybe bangs? Try bangs.

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