One of my favourite pastimes nowadays is to play with my boyfriend’s beard; usually when contemplating some kind of Camus-like existential crisis – it helps me feel at one with my primitive self. As someone who was born anatomically female, I find it difficult to grow a beard of my own to aid me with my ponderings of the universe, unless you count a teasing shadow of a Frida Kahlo-esque moustache which, frankly, fails to live up to the job.
Beards are everywhere now: in the street, on Bill the Hobo’s face as well as Danny’s, the budding graphic design student. The ‘lumbersexual’ trend has traversed boundaries of masculinity and resulted in a fashion phenomenon for men of all ages and backgrounds. It is the done thing. The bearded one can woo their lady or guy with this beacon of masculinity, and the bigger the better. If it looks like an alpha badger has made a home on your face then you have succeeded. But does this hyper-masculine trend perpetuate a failure to understand the complexities of our relationship with our gender and how it is perceived? Is this trend damaging for boys and men? Or is it in fact a liberating sign of progression when it comes to breaking the boundaries of the clean-shaven black-tied Ken doll?
When it comes to identifying the ‘lumbersexual’ we look to a heavily bearded male, usually white and heterosexual. He’s a plaid wearing MacBook owner who likes craft beer and artisan coffee. He looks like he should be in a forest covered in sweat and sniffing a pine tree. (The reality is the only thing that makes him sweat is running out of patchouli beard oil when he only has the hemp stuff left.)
It can be argued that this hairy primal look brings men back to their most natural selves, save for a bit of sculpting here and there. It can provide an alternative existence: a rebellion against the suited-up, clean-shaven corporate industry (although it can also be argued that it is a fashion trend and therefore complying with the system – plus Sikh men have been bearded heroes for years and haven’t got any credit). On the other hand, some men like to grow a beard because they think it suits them and they can’t be arsed shaving, so for them it’s fashion-convenient.
This is all very well. But as the beard is the main attribute of the ‘lumbersexual’, men who do not have the ability to grow a beard may feel like they are not ‘real’ men. In the same way that lean fashion models are told by women in the media they are not ‘real’ women because they do not have ‘curves’, the modern man could feel emasculated by society for his lack of facial hair. This could be destructive to their self-confidence or result in feelings of alienation.
Once again, the fashion industry has dictated gender roles and done so in such a way that it ostracises some men if they do not fit into this desired role. Instead of encouraging men to challenge the definition of ‘masculinity’, it has narrowed its definition and plunged us back fifty years to a time when what it meant to be a ‘man’ was a fixed concept. Despite presenting itself as a progressive movement that defies society’s ‘ideal’ (aka the Tom Hardys and George Clooneys of the world) it has merely reduced ‘masculinity’ to the Neolithic period. Therefore, the hyper-masculine age has forced us all to reflect upon what it means to be a ‘man’ and what it means to be a ‘woman’ and if we are comfortable with the expectations assigned to our gender and why it is becoming important that we should question them.
Despite the fact that it does seem to be apparent that our gender roles (even though they can change and evolve) are dictated mainly by the media and the fashion industry, it is reassuring that it is becoming more and more commonly accepted that our gender may not correlate with our sex. The courage of transgender people has helped us shift our perspective on the ways that we are conditioned to think about the relationship between our gender and our sex. There are many public figures who are transgender and contributing to this societal change of perspective such as Laverne Cox, an LGBT advocate most known for her role in hit series ‘Orange is the New Black’. There are countless successful transgender people who are becoming role models for young people everywhere. Recently it has become fashionable for menswear to be worn by women, demonstrated by lines in high street stores such as Urban Outfitters. Models such as Ruby Rose and Erika Linder, the first female to be on the men’s board in 2011 and model for both men and women’s fashion, are also pioneers of this movement, this crucial shift in perspective.
These women continually push the boundaries of gender perception and celebrate androgyny. Blurring the lines between gender roles allows us to make a decision as to whether our gender should be a main factor in determining our identity.
So next time someone tells you you’re not ‘manly’ enough to grow a beard, or criticises you for studying electrical engineering because you’re a woman and it’s a ‘man’s trade’, or ridicules you because they cannot put you into a box or mould you into the shape of their backward ‘normality’, tell them that for you the box doesn’t exist, and it never has. We should continue to challenge the existence of the box and its purpose in our growth as humans with complex personalities, dreams and passions. We should all be entitled to our own version of ‘masculinity’ – be that bearded or beardless – or ‘femininity’, or have the right to completely negate its ‘existence’. So when someone criticises you for your choices or ideas concerning your body and your life tell them that you are you and that is beautiful, and that is enough. And if that doesn’t work then a simple ‘go fuck yourself’ also does the trick.