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Curiosity took me recently to the new neighbourhood barbershop, a rather upscale foreign import which is more of a “grooming service" than a barber. They market their services with “a hot lather shave, haircut and shoeshine", which did not work for me, since I was in shorts and flip-flops. But what was intriguing is that their beard trim/styling service seemed as important a service as a haircut or a shave. (Has that always been the case or have I just come out of a cave?)

It made sense, as I stepped out and looked around, because every dude between the ages of 20 and 40 (a calculation made purely by observation and not backed by any data) these days has a beard. They can be groomed or not, shaped or unshaped, clean, unclean, neat, scruffy, worn long with a buzz haircut, styled like Leo DiCaprio’s or resembling the map of Jharkhand, reaching the knees or barely there—but they all have them. 

It’s obviously the trend, since the last few years, and catching on with feverish pace that I too was tempted into the misadventure earlier this year (more of that later). But you wonder: what is it with beards these days? 

Sure, it’s fashion, which comes back every few years like an Abhishek Bachchan film, and has a lush history—from the Romans to Hindu gods—but you scratch the surface and the strands fall into place. A beard, in 2016, is not an outlier but the norm because its resurgence is backed by academic research and finance.

Through the time of Alexander the Great, through the Roman era and the Middle Ages, there have been many periods when beards have been in and out of use, according to an interview with Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author of Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. Its existence was driven also by the expression of “manliness" and the redefinition of the same or as a sign of following the laws of nature, he explains. 

Our own mythology, if seen through Amar Chitra Katha, distinguished in some form gods (clean shaven) from yogis (bearded). 

For a cricket fan, a beard usually meant W.G. Grace.

In recent times, not including the current trend, beards appeared to have distinguished between classes of people, associated with maturity or age, while a clean shaven look showed sophistication, or a white-collared professional who needs to fit in an office. Having facial hair has variously been a sign of manliness, of unkemptness, of being one with nature, of being left-leaning, of being lazy, disinterested even or just too miserly to invest in a razor.

Some people have tended to believe that bearded men are not to be trusted, are dangerous even. It could be the reason why in this and last century, prominent figures (who need to evoke trust)—like politicians and bankers—have been clean shaven. Of the 14 male prime ministers India has had, only four have had beards. Of them, Chandra Shekhar and I.K. Gujral lasted just one year, while Manmohan Singh is Sikh. That leaves Narendra Modi, who was elected PM recently, in 2014. In UK, none of the last 16 Conservative leaders have had beards. The last American president with a beard served in the 1890s (dictators seem to be exceptions).

The humble fuzz, though, has had its turn with controversies too—from racial stereotyping and profiling to religious bias, to being denied entry into strict groups like the armed forces, etc. Two of my friends, before recent trips to Europe, shaved off their beards in order to avoid unwarranted attention at airports.

Critics usually bring up the hygiene issue, how beards are a breeding ground for bacteria or, exaggeratedly, as dirty as a toilet seat. 

But perceptions have changed somewhat about the beard, led by research, David Beckham, John Snow and, if the UK Mirror, is to be believed, increasing razor prices. A recent study by Barnaby J. Dixon and Paul L Vasey in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology found that men with beards were seen as more attractive. “Our findings suggest that beardedness may be attractive when judging long-term relationships as a signal of intra-sexual formidability and the potential to provide direct benefits to females. Relationship context also had effects on ratings, with facial hair enhancing long-term, and not short-term, attractiveness," they said very academically in their paper.

Additionally, women rated men with facial hair up to 20% more desirable than clean-shaven chaps. “The study also found that guys with full beards are seen as more attractive long-term partners, as opposed to men with stubble, who are seen as best for flings," added The Telegraph—useful social clues to what your image on Tinder needs to look like.

The study also found what we kind of already know—a beard complements the jawline—which enhances perceived masculinity.

In India, most male actors and cricketers—the two definitive symbols of style, aspiration and vanity—sport beards. Some do it well—like Virat Kohli, Fawad Khan (included here since he acts in Indian films and has a large female following)—and some do it badly—for example, Arjun Kapoor, Rohit Sharma, etc. In films here, though beards were traditionally associated with villainy—Mac Mohan, Manek Irani, etc.—sadness or with a return from prison, now you get to romance as well. 

A new pan masala advertisement, that leaves you both shaken and stirred, has actor Pierce Brosnan in a full beard trying to do some James-Bondish act.

So does that mean beards are here to stay? Probably not, as history would tell us. Unlike women, who seem to have many more options in grooming, clothes and make-up, men feel limited in how many ways they can change the way they look (again, except Beckham). Beards are one way of doing it. This too shall pass, just like pencil mustaches did.

Not to be left out, I grew a beard earlier this year. Besides the perks of finding crumbs of a cookie many hours later housed in the hair, the problem was my beard was predominantly grey, which added many additional years to my age. Soon the comments started trickling in. An acquaintance remarked how well I looked for “my age". A security guard in our building said he had never guessed my age to be 60. I laughed when I recounted these stories to the spouse.

“You know, that means everyone believes I am much older too?" she said, displeased.

The beard came off the next day.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about over the weekend.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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