Sexy Science: Women like it rough, but baulk at beards

A clean-shaven man may look more civilised, but research shows that women are attracted by a bit of stubble. However, the jury's still out on moustaches and the back, crack and sack wax

GIVEN that much of this column is devoted to discussing evolutionary biology as it applies to sex and relationships, I thought I'd mention that the beard of Charles Darwin, the founding father of the subject, has just been put on display at the Natural History Museum in London after it was preserved by his family and then rediscovered by his great-great grandson this summer.

Well, I'm full of admiration for Darwin's work but, iconic though it is, I don't feel the same way about his beard.

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I'm just not a beard fan. While a fertile growth may give a man an intellectual and sage look, I like my man with his chops freshly shaved and a hint of cologne, please. However, it seems that the majority of women might disagree with part of my assessment, according to a study by Nick Neave and Kerry Shields of Northumbria University.

The researchers presented 60 women with pictures of 15 male faces which had been computer manipulated to show each with five levels of facial hair growth, from clean shaven through to a full beard. As facial hair increased, so did the women's ratings of masculinity, dominance and aggression. They also thought that faces with more hair looked older and more socially mature.

The female subjects' favourite male faces were the ones with light stubble. A bit like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, inset, although both of these men have recently grown moustaches, which seem to be making a mainstream comeback. OMG.

The experiment didn't rate moustaches on their own, but women gauged the clean-shaven and fully bearded faces as least attractive. Why so? It can all be explained by one of Darwin's big ideas: sexual selection.

Masculine features have evolved, says the theory, because they indicate dominance, strength and healthiness, qualities that women want in a partner, and this means that more masculine men have more babies and pass on their macho genes. This explains why women prefer men's faces that are clearly mature – they can grow facial hair. But they don't like them too masculine, as with a full beard. This is because women are also looking for a faithful and caring partner, qualities more usually associated with a gentler, less masculine, and less hairy face.

But while men are regularly scraping the hair off their faces, they tend to be desperately trying to avoid losing it from their heads. Men, as a rule, don't like to be follicly challenged and the UK has a multi-million pound baldness treatment industry to prove it.

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Recent genetic research has demonstrated that variants in two gene regions, one each from the mother and father, when active together make a man almost certain to go bald by the age of 50. Around 14 per cent of men carry both variants. The researchers say that being able to identify such men could mean that they can start using preventative creams which may be more effective than treatments used after their hair has fallen out.

So much for the face and head – what about body hair? Traditionally, men's hairy bits have been celebrated – it's part of the manly animal spirit. Men aren't universally hairy, though, as the giggling oriental ladies apparently fascinated by Sean Connery's luxuriant chest hair in one of the early Bond movies remind us.

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But what's happening now? Men are tidying up their body hair, and quite a few these days are getting rid of the lot. I know this because a friend of mine recently visited a naturist "club" and she took a mental tally. Guys are queuing up at salons to have a "Boyzilian" (shaving or waxing of all intimate body hair) or the "back, sack and crack" treatment (if you don't know, you'll have to work it out). But why?

A study by Fhionna Moore of St Andrews University found that as women are getting more financially independent, they're choosing men more on the basis of their looks than on the size of their wallet. It seems likely that hair removal is just part of a general grooming drive by men to meet the demand.

Goodness knows though what Darwin would think…