Stupid Question ™
Nov. 5, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: Why is it that men have facial hair, but women don’t?
A: From Darwin on down, mainstream evolutionary theory has attributed most of humanity’s hair peculiarities to sexual selection.
Humans’ overall lack of hair (compared to fellow primates), for example, is usually credited to mutated females who had less hair, which better revealed their breasts and skin. This made them more attractive to males—the denuded faces and/or hindquarters of many primates serve as sex attractants—and their hairlessness was passed down to their children of both sexes.
Among the relatively few mammal species in which one sex has more facial hair (or the closely related mane) than another, the hairier sex is always the male. The facial or mane hair is also always a secondary sex characteristic produced by the flow of sex hormones during puberty.
Therefore, facial hair has something to do with sex. Darwin believed that beards were probably ornaments that attracted females. Of course, Darwin himself had a beard and may have been doing a little wishful thinking.
The males of the guenon and emperor tamarind monkeys, which have striking and lavish beards and hair styles, show us the real sex function of facial hair. Their features certainly have an ornamental function—but rather than attracting females, they’re used to scare off rival males (and possibly provide padding in a fight).
This threat function clearly resonates in human culture, where the beard has long symbolized power, virility and wisdom.
The complexities of human society have complicated the symbolic function without lessening it (and while increasing the input of female influence): Our images of bearded devils, gods and pirates now simply co-exist with the triple-razor, smooth-is-sexy imagery of Gillette.
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An update on the Oct. 22 question that left me stumped, about the origin of the image of a poor person wearing a barrel: Professor José Luis Martin of Ohio State University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese writes that it comes from the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes, who “invented and wore this fashion” as devotion to poverty and hardship.
However, Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” says he “took for his abode the tub in the Metroön [Athens city archives].” This was a stationary bathtub he slept in. For clothing, he wore a rough cloak. This isn’t barrel-wearing—but it’s interestingly close.
A co-worker reminded me of the 1941 Warner Bros. cartoon “Hollywood Steps Out,” a caricature comedy in which Harpo Marx pops a bubble covering stripper Sally Rand, revealing she’s wearing only a barrel underneath.
From Diogenes to bubble-dancing—anybody have more suggestions on tying all this together?