What “Peak Beard” Says About Human Sexual Selection

Being sexy means standing out

Sunny Miller/Corbis

Beards, like high-waisted pants and the trilby hat, have a tendency to go in and out of fashion. Right now, beards are in, but a team of scientists suggest we may be nearing “peak beard.” This is more than just a bit of a fashion advice—the fact that we're so fickle about facial hair says something interesting about human sexual selection.

As a society we tend to spend a lot of time talking about “ideal beauty”—the notion that there are some unchanging and everlasting mores that underpin sexual attractiveness. Evolutionary psychologists argue that humans are hard-coded to pick up on certain physical cues and that fashion choices hitting those markers make us sexier. These physical traits, like long hair on women or strong jaws on men, relate to evolutionary notions of femininity and masculinity.

In a recent study, however, a team of researchers found that the sexiness of beards is context dependent: the more beards there are, the less sexy they seem. The BBC:

"Big thick beards are back with an absolute vengeance and so we thought underlying this fashion, one of the dynamics that might be important is this idea of negative frequency dependence," said Prof Rob Brooks, one of the study's authors.

But, says Brooks, as “more and more people get onto the band wagon the value of being on the bandwagon diminishes, so that might be why we've hit 'peak beard'."

“Negative frequency dependent” selection is common in the animal kingdom, and it can be summed up as the notion that rare traits are sexy. In a sea of heavily-stubbled men, it's the clean-shaven chap who stands out.

Rather than trending towards an idealized notion of uniform beauty, human sexual attraction is pinned, at least a little, in a fondness for uniqueness.

So beards are out, and you want to stand out. Why not pick something of your own and rock​ it? Might we suggest a good mutton chop?

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