One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair

by Allan Peterkin

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press

227 pages, 2001


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Hair Apparent

Reviewed by Adrian Marks

 

Allan Peterkin spends a lot of time thinking about stuff that most people don't even consider. A Toronto-based psychiatrist and journalist, he previously devoted a chunk of time thinking about nasty words, how they evolved and where we got them for 1999's The Bald-Headed Hermit and the Artichoke: An Erotic Thesaurus. That book took an enthusiastic and sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach to deal engagingly with what can, for some, be a difficult subject.

In One Thousand Beards, Peterkin uses the same approach: dry wit, extensive research and a pleasingly logical progression of chapters, all seasoned with historical and contemporary photographs of men adorned with all types of facial hair.

In his introduction to One Thousand Beards, the author explains his quest:

I wanted to know about some of the other things at work that were popping up in my research. What are the unconscious reasons we wear beards? Why are so many associations dark, diabolical, or subversive? What's the ritualistic symbolism of shaving? What about the gay beard: gender-bending facial hair, bearded ladies, drag kings? If certain beards are archetypal (like Santa or Satan), then what are all of us modern guys saying with our hairy Rorschachs, and why now?

In his well-plotted chapters, Peterkin progresses from prehistory (Chapter 1: "The Antique Beard: A History of the Beard") to dealing with the modern beard (Chapter 13: "The Personal Beard: Grooming Strategies"). Along the way, the author peppers his margins with interesting factoids relating to the chapter material. For instance, in Chapter Four "The Medical Beard" we learn that a man has 25,000 whiskers capable of absorbing 20 percent of their own weight in liquid and that, alarmingly, "facial hairs grow at a rate of a quarter-inch every two days."

As well as covering every thinkable historical aspect relating to facial hair, Peterkin asks some of the tough questions:

Modern men seem to be sabotaging themselves if they think face fuzz will win them erotic points, since overall, women scored it as "yucky." So why do we cling to it so?

Peterkin includes not only a great deal of material relating to all aspects of facial hair, past and present, but also gives precise instructions on everything from planning a beard to selecting the right beard for the shape of your face ("Square faces are softened by rounded beard and moustache styles. Sideburns create a box-like frame and should therefore be avoided."), dyeing a beard, how to apply false facial hair, how to strop a razor (and what stropping is) and how to properly use chemical depilatories to rid yourself of facial hair. Also included is a section detailing "Facial Hair Recipes." For example, the recipe for a "Franz Josef Beard" is included as follows:

1) Shave the cheeks in a slope extending from the sideburns to the outer tips of the moustache.

2) Shave the chin and lower lip, forming a sharp line of whiskers that arcs over the upper lip.

3) Shave the throat, forming a curved edge along the jaw.

Other "recipes" include a Cathedral Beard, a Poet's Beard, a Stiletto Beard, a Soul Patch and others. Also included is a resource directory that includes pages on where to order false facial hair as well as Web sites devoted to -- and in some cases celebrating -- facial hair.

Oddly, considering the number of men capable of sprouting facial hair, beards, their evolution and their care and feeding have been given very little ink over the years. In this slender but very complete volume, Peterkin corrects this oversight with panache. Whether you're interested in the historical, practical or philosophical aspects of facial hair, One Thousand Beards will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf. | March 2002

 

Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.