On the contemplation of male facial hair

So, it is November, or Movember for certain sections of the population who are currently growing facial hair in aid of research into men’s health, specifically prostate and testicular cancers.

Now, I have never had a particular interest in this charitable movement, bar the occasional friend e-mailing with an amusing picture and a request for donations (my husband has always refused to get involved on the grounds of the need to retain his dignity in front of his students), but the conjunction of this fund-raiser with the inevitable historical reflections that accompany Remembrance Day on 11th November always strikes me as poignant.

One trope that quietly haunted my research into masculinity and the First World War is that of facial hair as a signifier of masculinity.  I wrote in my monograph about men’s insistence on shaving even in the most difficult of circumstances, in order to retain their sense of humanity in the hell of the trenches, but I never really explored further.  Yet I as I think about moustaches, I cannot help thinking about the references made to men growing facial hair in order to appear more mature when they came to enlist, in both memoirs and fiction.  And I wonder how many officers grew moustaches specifically to give themselves a sense of authority, an authority associated with mature masculinity, over the (often older) men that they were leading.

The link between male facial hair and maturity seems to me to have been particularly strong at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of course, the biological link transcends historical periods, but literary references and cultural artefacts relating to facial hair and shaving as a symbol of maturity seem particularly prominent in this period.  And certainly if you look at collections such as the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War, from which Private Johnston’s photograph (above) comes, the number of young men sporting moustaches is notable. The image is a poignant one, of young men striving to attain a maturity of image that they would never achieve in life.

How does this link with Movember?  I’m not entirely sure.  The fundraisers of the movement are, in with their growth, flaunting the life-affirming nature of the ability to grow old enough to grow facial hair in the face of ill-health.  The link may be especially powerful in relation to testicular cancer, with its cultural implications of impotence; less so in relation to prostate cancer, which is far more common in older men who have already achieved maturity.  For the young moustache growers of 1914-18, the threat of death and mutilation was far more immediate and threatening to their sense of both maturity and masculinity, making their facial hair even more complex in its significance.  I am sure there is a paper in all of this (and perhaps someone has already written it.  I remember listening to a fabulous paper on masculinity and nineteenth-century beards at a conference several years ago.)  In the meantime, I remain unable to look at all these young men with their newly-sprouted declarations of charitable intent without a small pang of pity for their youth and, dare I say it, innocence.

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