Friday Weird Science: The Sexiness of Stubble

Sep 23 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Men, do you ever worry about your facial hair? Do you worry about how manly it makes you look, how handsome, how old, how responsible? Have you ever become concerned about how your pencil thin moustache or your joined mutton chops is affecting your dating life?

Well wonder no more! This study is here for you. Or at least, it’s here for those of you with stubble, bare chins, or full beards.

Neave and Shields. “The effects of facial hair maintenance on female perceptions of attractiveness, masculinity, and dominance in male faces. Personality and Individual Differences, 2008.

So the question here is: what signals really define masculinity? Usually masculine features are those associated with higher levels of testosterone after puberty, and include things like defined cheekbones, jawbones, and chin, as well as the forward thrusting of the eyebrows. But of course, the onset of puberty leads to many other confusing changes. Changes like acne, pubes, and…facial hair growth.

The authors wondered in this study whether and how the facial hair growth of men related to how attractive women rated them. They were not the first, several other studies have come before them, but most have assessed only the bare faced and full beard conditions, without anything in between. Wither your 5 o clock shadow?! Inquiring minds want to know. After all, presumably the display of a beard, as an indicator of the testosterone required to grow one, must be pretty attractive, right?

So they took 76 female undergrads, and showed them a cartoon picture of a dude. The dude was presented with either bare chin, light stubble, heavy stubble, light beard, and full beard.

The women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the men for a short or long term relationship, and also asked to assess how old they thought the men were, as well as rating their dominance, aggression, and social maturity.

They found that, as expected, men with full beards ranked older, slightly more dominant, and slightly more aggressive (though nothing in this study reached significance, so REALLY, it all means basically nothing). But they were NOT viewed as more attractive. Instead, the highest attractiveness ratings, as well as the highest short and long term relationship ratings, were reserved for those boys with the 1-2 day growth (still nonsignificant I might add). The authors hypothesize that this is because what the women want is the ABILITY to grow the facial fur, meaning the testosterone is there, but not the actual beard which might mean too much aggressiveness.

Me, I’m not so sure. And I feel that this study is FAR too limited. Where are the mutton chops? The goatee? The soul patch!?!?! WHERE IS THE NECKBEARD MY FRIENDS?!?!?!

As for their conclusions, maybe the women were voting for the indication of testosterone without the reality. But I think it’s far more likely that they were voting in accordance with the current fashion. Right now, the fashion on men described as “Sexy” is usually clean shaven or with a slight stubble.

But that’s NOW. Things have certainly been extraordinarily different in facial hair through the ages. In ancient Rome, the emperors were ALWAYS clean shaven, it was seen as a sign of civilization and something which distanced you from the barbarians, and it deeply shocked the Romans when the Emperor Hadrian gave them a facial hair f**k you in the form of a full beard. By contrast, in the Rennaissance and Middle Ages facial hair was seen as proof of manhood. No facial hair, and you were no more than a boy. Observe Shakespeare:


Just, if he send me no husband; for the which
blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and
evening. Lord, I could not endure a husband with a
beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen.


You may light on a husband that hath no beard.


What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel
and make him my waiting-gentlewoman? He that hath a
beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no
beard is less than a man: and he that is more than
a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a
man, I am not for him...

-Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 1.

Hair fashions have continued to change drastically over time. Who cannot recall the muttonchops of the Civil War era? The pencil moustaches of the 20s? I think that just including stubble in this study was WAY too limiting, and I think you really need to take into account that we are currently being surrounded by media and by real people sporting relatively little in the way of facial hair. Of COURSE we’re going to think less facial hair is generally better, it’s what we’re used to.

If you're going to take away anything from this study, first take away this:

This study means nothing. Nothing reached significance, and the only thing it probably did is make a bunch of female undergrads fulfill their psych 101 requirement.

But I think there is another lesson to be gleaned here, and that, oh men, is the lesson of the ruggedness of the 5 o clock shadow. If that soul patch isn’t getting you ladies and your stalker 'stache has let you down, maybe it’s time to try for a little less is more. Less shaving, a little more stubble.

NEAVE, N., & SHIELDS, K. (2008). The effects of facial hair manipulation on female perceptions of attractiveness, masculinity, and dominance in male faces Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (5), 373-377 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.007

14 responses so far

  • Lou Jost says:

    The stubble could be sexier than a beard because it indicates the RATE of growth of the facial hair. We assume someone with stubble shaved (this morning?). If the stubble is conspicuous, it means lots of hormones.

    However, not only is this kind of study culturally biased in time, but also in space. In some South American native cultures, stubble or beards are seen as a sign of age and are a turn-off for women. In these cultures, conspicuous facial hair is very unusual.

  • Pascale says:

    I must comment favorably on any post that includes the wisdom of Beatrice.

  • Yoder says:

    I second the appreciation for Shakespeare quotes in science blogging. Also: did the authors remember to cite this classic study?

  • CyberLizard says:

    *sigh* If only the neckbeard would become fashionable. Then I'd be at the height of awesome. My cheeks are bare but my neck-wool is magnificent!

  • ravenrose says:

    The thing this leaves out is... stubble is sexy on a HOT man. On an un-hot man, it veers towards bum.

    In addition, to work, the stubble must go with fastidious grooming and dressing. Again, stubble in conjunction with other sloppiness doesn't indicate fast hormonally-induced beard growth, it just means the guy is a slob!

  • QoB says:

    No mention of beard rash: whether the women had any experience of it might mean she'd be determined to avoid it.
    But I think you're mostly right about the familiarity of men without beards.
    Someone should do this experiment with Amish women, maybe?

    • squirrel says:

      I definitely would vote based on my experiences with rashing. I live in the south of Spain, where kissing on the cheek is a daily dose of pain and itching for me. Here all lengths of hair growth are more acceptable in daily life and the workplace, and of course have all sort of social interpretations that are different from in Anglosaxon countries. Some of my Spanish female friends have mentioned that in their travels and studies abroad that they don't feel attracted to the men because their lack of body and/or facial hair makes them feel like they are dating young boys or that they don't see them as men.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I will propose to you (on the basis of N=1) that it depends on the masculine face in question. One problem with the study was that it only used one sample face.

    The N=1 is from my own experience with beard on/beard off. Many years ago (ca. 1975) my then lover became curious what I looked like without a beard, so (being young and enamored) I took to the lav and shaved it off. Upon emerging, her comment was "now put it back."

    I have since married, fathered children who are now adults, and divorced. Neither the ex-wife, my children, nor my now-mistress have ever seen my chin. Which I suspect to be best for all concerned.

  • bad Jim says:

    I've worn a beard since 1969, when I was 17. Since then, I've shaved, once in 1973, before hiking the John Muir Trail, for a few weeks in the summer of 1975, in a futile attempt to embrace modernity, once again in 1988, while starting a company, just as a cheap thrill for my former co-workers who'd never seen my bare face, then for a few weeks in 1995, when my beard started turning white, and again in 1998, when it was completely white. I whittled it down to a goatee this spring and went naked a couple of days before my 60th birthday and a gratifyingly complete family gathering.

    Not everyone even notices. Dogs just don't care. My mother's caregiver has misgivings about my growing it back again; she called my old beard "scruffy". I pointed out that she doesn't have to kiss me.

    The thing I detest about being clean-shaven is the expression of surprise in the mirror.

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