Why you should care
Because lumbersexuals might teach us a thing or two about pitching woo.
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When it comes to facial hair, the men-loving among us all have our preferences. A subtle five-o’clock shadow might make some swipe right. And that lustrous, Zach Galifianakis-esque beard that some fantasize of caressing is the same stinky king-size Brillo pad that triggers in others a gag reflex. Naturally, science has investigated the beard. And recent research suggests that, at least for the ladies, it all depends on what you’re looking for: a fun fling or something more serious.
A team led by Barnaby Dixson of the University of Queensland concluded that women find men with scruff attractive as short-term partners, but gravitate to
full-on beards for long-term relationships
Although it’s not clear why women view a bearded man as a keeper, earlier research suggests that beards make men look more mature and socially dominant — in other words, more likely to take the lead, whether it’s overseeing a project or rounding everyone up for happy hour. The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, propose that a full beard does double duty, masking extremely masculine features — which signal a potential Mr. Hit and Quit — while also advertising husband qualities.
Research has shown time and again that women are attracted to typically masculine features (such as a prominent brow ridge and thick jawline) for casual hookups. Yet studies have also shown that people perceive men with beards — also a typically masculine feature — as mature and socially dominant, qualities of someone more likely to secure resources and invest in raising children. What gives?
Across the board, women preferred any type of facial hair to a clean shave.
To find out, the study authors photographed men when clean-shaven; with light, five-day-old stubble; with heavy, 10-day-old stubble; and with an at least four-week-old beard. They used imaging software to manipulate the photos to make them appear more masculine or feminine, altering the men’s jawline, face length and other features. The researchers then randomly assigned women to three groups. They asked the first group simply to rate the photos on a scale from 0 to 6, from least to most attractive. The second group rated the attractiveness of the photos for a short-term relationship, while the third group rated their attractiveness for a long-term relationship.
The researchers analyzed the responses of 8,520 women, who rated the photos in an online survey. Across the board, women preferred any type of facial hair to a clean shave. For short-term relationships, they rated stubble as more attractive than beards, which they rated higher for long-term relationships. Overall, they rated extremely masculine and extremely feminine faces as the least attractive, regardless of relationship length. Facial hair lessened the effects of feminizing or masculinizing the photos on attractiveness, suggesting that it nudges a man’s appearance toward the attractiveness “sweet spot” between feminine and masculine. For instance, a beard might balance out softer, more effeminate features, or mask the chiseled, masculine features that signal a man appropriate for taking to bed — but maybe not home to meet Mom.
Ask yourself: Do you want to hook up or settle down?
To be sure, the study doesn’t explain how beards attract women. Research has shown that face shape conveys information about immune function and testosterone levels — but we still don’t know what beards say about a man’s biology. Even if we did, it’s not clear to what extent women’s preferences reflect fashion tastes versus evaluation of a man’s long-term potential, says Lynda Boothroyd of Durham University, who wasn’t involved in the study. (Does she find his beard alluring because it makes him look responsible, or because she’s a Portland barista who digs the lumbersexual look?) Plus, most of the participants were of European descent, which means the findings might not reflect the preferences of women outside this demographic. Investigating beardedness across cultures could help disentangle fashion trends from biology, Boothroyd says. Still, the study “is a really nice first step.”
Adding another layer of complexity: “What people say they find attractive is not necessarily what they end up choosing,” says Danielle Sulikowski of Charles Sturt University, a co-author of the study. “We have yet to measure women’s actual pairing-up behavior.” Nonetheless, we can still glean some advice from her team’s findings. “No. 1 is grow something,” she says. “No. 2 … if you’re a guy, make sure what your goals are.” Ask yourself: Do you want to hook up or settle down? And think of facial hair like makeup or high heels — as a way to modify your natural appearance, Boothroyd adds. Now get out there and work.