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Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health, Medicine and Masculinity in Britain, c. 1700 -2014

Dr Alun Withey is currently working on a three-year Wellcome Trust funded project looking at how health models, medical practice, technologies of shaving and norms of masculinity shaped the preferences for, and management of, facial hair by British men c.1700-2014.

The project surveys over 300 years of history to recover the often-complex factors influencing mens willingness, or otherwise, to wear facial hair. Firstly it offers a new, long-term study of the relationship between facial hair, health and medicine, exploring the importance of beards/moustaches in health concepts, from a form of excreta to filters against disease. A second key goal will be a new study of the role of medical practitioners in facial hair management. Shaving was originally a function of medical practitioners, but later shifted to individuals. It has long been accepted, though rarely questioned, that barbers became increasingly irrelevant in health provision as the medical profession emerged. Thirdly, the extent that technologies directly influenced both shaving processes and the decision to shave will be investigated.

Sharper razors, dry electric shavers and even developments in mirrors have all served to inform mens decisions, although their direct impact upon facial hair fashions is unclear. Lastly it takes a broader view of the importance of facial hair in concepts of the body and masculinity. Beard/moustache wearing was an important part of male self-awareness and strongly linked to changing ideals of the body, self-presentation, psychological and physical health.

Dr Withey is an expert in early modern medical history, and specialises in the history of medicine in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wales. Within this rather broad topic, his research interests include domestic medicine, and especially medical remedy collections, the medical marketplace and medical advertising, gender and the sick role and the lived experience of sickness in early modern Britain.

More recently, he has been exploring the interplay between technology and culture in the long eighteenth century, and the increasing market for products advertised for, and created for, men. His most recent article has looked at the history of shaving in Georgian Britain, and the social, technological and cultural contexts through which facial hair was articulated and understood.