Beards: the masculinity paradox



The ‘Movember Movement’ is the act of  growing a moustache for charity in the month of November. November  is also a good opportunity to discuss beards and masculinity. A study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology in August 2016 looked at women’s ratings of men’s facial attractiveness.

The masculinity paradox is that male-typical facial features, such as a pronounced brow ridge and a more robust jawline, may signal strength and good health stock, whereas beards may signal age, aggression, and social dominance. Overall previous studies had shown that masculine faces were more attractive, while others showed no distinct preferences by women for clean-shaven or beardedness. This double-edged sword to masculinity as a signal of men’s mating qualities, and women’s/men’s mating preferences, remains a challenge to untangle in research in human mating behaviour.

Hence this study looked at phases of men’s hairiness – from clean-shaven to full beardedness, and in men’s facial shapes – from more masculinised to more feminised.

This study revealed that masculine faces are more attractive to women over less masculine faces – but only for short-term relationships. Beards were judged by women to be more attractive than clean-shaven faces for long-term relationships. The reason remains unresolved.

With 8,520 female participants, researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland and Charles Sturt University in Australia, the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and the Brain and Mind Centre a the University of Turku in Finland, conducted the study with computer graphic imagery of 36 men to morph their faces with varying facial hair and facial features.

Researchers classified four types of facial hair from clean-shaven, light stubble (5 days of beard growth), heavy stubble (10 days of growth), to full beards (at least four weeks of untrimmed growth). They morphed the images to appear +/-25% and +/-50% more or less masculine or feminine. Participants were asked to rate the images for short-term or long-term relationships.

The 36 images were men aged 20-33 years of European descent. Each man was photographed when clean shaven, 5 days later with light stubble, 10 days later with heavy stubble, and at least 4 weeks later with a full beard, all posing with neutral facial expressions. Researchers randomly selected 16 men’s faces, aged 20-31, to manipulate and morph into more masculinised or more feminised features. The masculinised features included narrower eyes, thicker and straighter brows, thicker nasal bridge with narrower nostrils, less pronounced cheekbones, a narrower mouth, and a larger squarer jaw and chin – with the opposite changes for feminisation.

There were actually 9,991 participants recording their preference: 8,699 females and 1,292 males. For this study, researchers used only the responses from 8,520 women aged 18-100, predominantly of European descent.

Results showed a significant interaction between beardedness and masculinity on attractiveness ratings.

Masculinised male images, and to an even greater extent feminised male images, were less attractive to women than unmanipulated images (male photographs in their original form and not photoshopped) for all stages of hairiness. In other words, women preferred the ‘normal’ man and not one that had been morphed into more masculinised or more feminised features regardless of their stage of facial hairiness.

When the ratings of short-term or long-term relationships were introduced, facial hair enhanced only long-term attractiveness (not short-term attractiveness).

Men with light and heavy stubble were considered the most attractive, but ‘best’ for short-term relationships. Full-bearded men were considered ‘best’ for long-term relationships as a signal of ‘intrasexual formidability and the potential to provide direct benefits to females.’

Overall, the results ‘hinted at a divergence of signalling function, which may result in a subtle trade-off in women’s preferences for two highly sexual dimorphic androgen-dependent facial traits.’ Simplistically, full beards and heavy stubble did the most to reduce the effects of the researchers morphing the images into more masculinised or more feminised face shapes and features. Beards hide a more masculine or more feminine male face – making it more ‘normal’ – which was the women’s more preferred male facial appearance.

Previous studies globally had shown that women subconsciously regarded overly masculine men as less caring and considerate and therefore less appealing as a long-term partner.

But this study shows the masculinity paradox – full beards make men’s faces more normalised and therefore more appealing for a long-term relationship, even though men with light or heavy stubble were more appealing for short-term relationships.

Past findings were that men are less attractive when clean-shaven than when they are stubbled or bearded. One possible explanation, hinted at during this study, is that women preferred unmanipulated faces to those with small manipulations (25% masculinised or feminised) in clean-shaven and light-stubbled men. That is, beards mask small changes in facial masculinity and femininity, making them normalised as if they were unmanipulated photographically.

Therefore, beards obscure the signalling value of the face to women and to other men. It would then be an advantage for men with attractive faces to shave and remove facial hair. But if in doubt, grow it out – if a long-term relationship is the goal – because more facial hair makes men’s faces more normalised and more attractive for long term mating tendencies.

The study concluded by stating that the relationship between local economic and demographic conditions and facial hair growth is a topic for future research – how social and cultural dynamics interact with the evolved signalling value of facial hair to shape patterns of beard grooming.





Ref: Dixson, B. J. W., Sulikowski, D., Gouda-Vossos, A., Rantala, M. J. and Brooks, R. C. (2016), The masculinity paradox: facial masculinity and beardedness interact to determine women’s ratings of men’s facial attractiveness. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 29: 2311–2320. doi:10.1111/jeb.12958

Photographs: shaving from; light stubble from; heavy stubble from; full beard from; and cartoon from

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