Flying the hairy flag

Why some men grow it, and some men don't

My first memory of facial hair was as a child and my father tickling me with his stubble. Then one day he went to Italy for three months and came back sporting a full Santa beard. I burst into tears. I was 22. There's something of the intrepid about such beards, as if they've been grown out of necessity: being in the jungle for half a year, rowing across the Atlantic, that sort of thing. Very different from the seeming self-indulgence of the man who treats his facial hair as if it were topiary.

You see this a lot at checkouts: where bored young men working on the tills sport impos sibly elaborate facial hair that hint at an obsessive, secret home-life. Sideburns taper down to weird and fanciful goatee beards that somehow link, with just a hair's breadth, to a moustache that could only be tended by scissors from a fruit fly's sewing box. Sometimes, I stare so hard and become so distracted that I have to ask for help with packing up my groceries. I can only wonder how long it takes for them to get ready for a date.

"Thin" beards and moustaches - that is, facial hair that is shaved into lines of 0.5mm or less - are a useful slimming device, often used by men who have started to get a bit portly (it's easier than dieting). The pencil-thin beard that runs along the lower jaw bone, for example, is very popular among men around the age of 35. It gives the semblance of facial contours where there are none; a handy optical illusion that separates jowl and neck. Men such as these usually also wear polo necks. A friend of mine sports a permanent little beard, about the size and shape of those small Post-it notes. When I asked him about it, he confirmed its punctuation qualities: "I have it because I have no chin. I've shaved it off about three times since I was 20 and always instantly regretted it and not left the house until it's grown back."

Margaret Thatcher was said not to like beards, or indeed much facial hair at all on "her" men; so very few Conservative MPs had them post-1979. Before this, facial hair was much more prolific on politicians across the parties (Peter Mandelson and Ken Livingstone flew the hairy flag right into the Eighties). In fact, we're not entirely comfortable with our politicians, or our newsreaders, having beards; it's often said that men with facial hair have something to hide or are not to be trusted. This is nonsense of course. Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Fidel Castro, Harold Shipman, Stalin and Lenin, to name seven, are simple aberrations. It just takes our brain a bit longer to process an individual's features when facial hair is present and, for a moment, it gives us a "fight or fright" moment.

Nevertheless, we do re gard facial hair on men "in power" with sus picion. Richard Nixon got a lot of flack for his five o'clock stubble on the televised debates with John F Ken nedy in 1960. And when Al Gore lost to George W Bush in the 2000 presidential elections, one of the first things he did was grow a beard. Just because he could.