Written by Sophie Scott

In The News

Beard envy

After Movember comes Decembeard, a face-fur growing challenge to raise cash for Beating Bowel Cancer. Sophie Scott would bloody love a beard and urges everyone who can to get involved. Here’s why.

Rubeus-Hagrid-Wallpaper-hogwarts-professors-32796365-1024-768Freud’s theory of psychosexual development posited penis envy as a key feature in the development of girls, who had to internalise their anxiety associated with their realisation that they will never possess their own gentleman’s excuse-me.

Quite apart from the *coughs* limitations of this position, which include Freud’s suggestion that the male version of penis envy was castration anxiety (rather than jonesing to own a lady garden), I always thought Freud may have somewhat overstated the enviable aspects of penises (or is that penii? I am a brain scientist, not a penis scientist), and this is because I have always had profound beard envy.

It may not be irrelevant that I am old enough to remember most of the 1970s, when male facial hair was experiencing a post-hippydom renaissance: popular culture was solid with fantastic examples of male facial hair such as that sported by Wilf Lunn and Roy Wood.

Don't go giving the hipsters any more ideas.

Don’t go giving the hipsters any more ideas.

Even if men did not go for a full beard, then sideburns were absolutely endemic and entirely normal. My dad grew the most enormous bright red sideburns, which contrasted excitingly with his jet-black hair and gave him a roughish, colour-blocked look.

Sideburns enjoy what may be the greatest ever Wikipedia page. In 1692, the banning of sideburns by colonial authorities in New Spain, Mexico, led to rioting! I’d definitely riot for sideburns. My favourite part of the 1990s was when sideburns came back into fashion. If I can’t grow them myself then the next best thing is that as many men as possible grow them and I get to enjoy them.

Facial hair, like leggings and kitten heels, goes in cycles of fashion and we are arguably living in a golden age for beards, such that the debate is more often around what is or is not appropriate to do with one’s beard (to dye it? To add glitter? To embed a nativity scene within it?).

Movember encourages experimentation with facial hair, and I think this is brilliant (with the exception of my brother, who looks like our maternal grandfather when he grows a ‘tache, and who must NEVER DO THIS).

But enjoy it while it lasts, because history tells us that this too will pass. This article from 1959 basically argues that the only British people who can wear beards are explorers, and possibly sailors. It also bemoans the fact that a popular game from the writer’s childhood – in which the first to shout (or whisper) “Beaver!” when you see a beard wins the round, and if you see a red beard you shout “KING BEAVER!” and automatically win overall – is no longer possible as so many British men are clean shaven.



I urge everyone to start to play this game immediately, while we still can. Pretty sure men will be cool with this. OK, maybe start with whispering “beaver” and see how we get on.

Louis-Antoine Ranvier, a man who laughed in the face of Bunsen burner flames.

Louis-Antoine Ranvier, who can only have laughed in the face of Bunsen burner flames.

If I was a man I would grow an enormous beard, large enough to lose a ferret in. This could only help my scientific career – history is peppered with scientists who had absolutely epic facial hair (check out Ranvier, who discovered and named the nodes of Ranvier and knew how to style out a beard). And then maybe I’d shave it off and try something else. A Wilf Lunn moustache, or neat sideburns. When I contemplate facial hair, I see a world of possibilities and delight.

However, it turns out that some psychoanalysts who followed Freud saw beards as representing something else. Because when facial hair starts to grow in puberty, other hair also starts to grow in other places, and some of those places are right next to certain private areas. Therefore, following a certain logic, beards can be considered psychodynamically to be representations of penises. I strongly suggest we don’t start shouting this. Not just yet.



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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott