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America's War On Beards

The United States has broken new ground with a black president - and, possibly, a woman president in 2016. But what about diversity in a another key area - facial hair?

The U.S. has not seen a mustachioed, let alone a bearded, president sit behind the desk in the Oval Office since William Howard Taft. Canada may have a bearded prime minister next month if New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair wins the general election.

Unfortunately, no colour photos of the president's whiskers exist because colour photography hadn't been invented yet. Nor had television, talking movies, or commercial air travel. Since Taft's time, America has gone through two German Reichs, a space-race, one Cold War and various hot ones, and the dawn of the digital age. Yet attitudes toward grizzled commanders-in-chief haven't changed.

For some, the razor's a necessity. In 2006, Barack Obama scuttled any hopes of lifting the beard embargo when he told Betsy Rothstein of The Hill that he can't grow facial hair. But with a regime change scheduled for 2016, we can resume wondering who will be the first president to dismiss the razor from cabinet.

But first, let's take a quick look at some theories for the hairlessness trend among America's leaders.

A Hirsute History of America

  1. Technology bred out the beard: the invention of the safety razor made shaving safer and easier, making beards a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity.
  2. America's War on Follicles: in 2004, a cheeky article in The New York Times suggested that America had spent over a century battling facial hair in the form of Emperor Hirohito, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and others. Given the prominence of facial hair among America's enemies, it's perhaps unsurprising that clean-shavenness became the face of America.
  3. Countering the Counterculture: from the 1960s onward, facial hair became synonymous with political dissidents in America (e.g. beatniks, communists, hippies). To appeal to moderate voters, politicians sported clean-cut looks.
  4. Courting the female vote: according to Rebekah Herrick, a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, shaving gives candidates a better chance of wooing female voters. Her research suggests that beards alienate feminists by making politicians seem "overly masculine."

Ending the Beard Embargo

Is there any hope for a furry future in American politics? The idea is certainly growing on Canada.

Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the New Democratic Party, is challenging Canada's unofficial "mo moratorium." If he wins the October Federal Election, he will be the first bearded prime minister since Sir Robert Borden left office in 1920.

Despite the Great White North's chilly climate, facial hair has had a harder time in Canada than in the US. In total, 13 of America's 44 presidents have worn facial hair (including Grover Cleveland twice), which means there have been approximately 53 hairy years in the Oval Office over the nation's 240 year history. In contrast, only six of Canada's 22 prime ministers have worn whiskers in the House of Commons, and they served in office for less than 20 of the country's 148 year history.

Does the beard make the man?

Probably not, but it significantly changes his image. Digital Journal recently developed a projection of what a beardless Mulcair would look like, and the result might shock his left-leaning base.

A clean-shaven Mulcair looks like the child of Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush:

Could the Beard Backfire for Mulcair?

Before the election began, image consultants urged Mulcair to take out the razor before hitting the hustings. But the NDP leader stuck with the chin-warmer for decades. (Although he wasn't always grizzled.)

Indeed, the NDP has made the beard part of his brand, printing its likeness on buttons, posters and other Mulcair memorabilia. It even has its own Twitter account.

Tomas Borsa of VICE says, "the beard has become a sort of furry mascot at the core of the party's broader promotional strategy."

The beard might separate Mulcair in a tight election race while offering a visual to reaffirm his party's core message. As Borsa notes, Mulcair's unconventional appearance emphasizes the NDP's promises of change.

American politicians appealing to voters by similarly promising change might want to take note and begin growing out their whiskers before the 2016 Primaries begin.

h/t VICE, Macleans, About News, New York Times, Huffington Post, Digital Times.


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