Beards are back. They have been back for a while. Doing absolutely no research I would say that beards hit a low point in the 80s. In the 80s men were cresting as vigorous entrepreneurs and financial sharks. Beards just got in the way. And contrary to the hair of the 60s and 70s, which was a reaction to the veneer of the 50s clean-cut family, the beards of the 21st century are a grasping at manhood. There is a perceived vacuum in what it means to be a man. We have been stripped of our assertions to power and dominance by those pesky feminists and queer folk. And men, abhoring a vacuum, will find something to stick into said vacuum.
I have been reading Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), an early church father. I have quite enjoyed his writings. His theological works have a sense of literary flare and are even characterized by some openness to reflecting on and valuing traditions outside the church. His practical works have in some ways been more enjoyable for the simply reason that they are so particular. Here Clement writes as a pious person par excellence. Clement abhors the luxury of a good sauce, he counsels in the ways of belching quietly, he cautions on the abuses of ointments, etc. It is easy to dismiss these writings, interesting as they are. However, they do also address class distinctions and for Clement all these practices are caught up in difference that the Gospel makes.
The difference of the Gospel ends with gender ordering. Here the natural order and rigid hierarchy of the sexes must be imposed and the luxurious possibility of effeminacy in Rome must be opposed. And it is in the maintenance of hair that one finds the most specific area of expression.
To shave is womanly and to potentially confuse the genders. In truth, unless you saw them naked, you would suppose them to be women. God made women to be soft (though interestingly chewing tobacco is also a sign of being effeminate).
For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with shaggy breasts,—a sign this of strength and rule. So also cocks, which fight in defence of the hens, he has decked with combs, as it were helmets; and so high a value does God set on these locks.
And here Clement starts to climax,
This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man’s whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females, animals that are entire than the emasculated, perfect than imperfect. It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness.
Is it possible to re-introduce the beard simply as an addition to the diversified cultural expressions of gender? Or is this an ancient, almost primal re-assertion of male dominance ready to run ravage over the weak and effeminate? We must be wary.