Us women have a lot to obsess about when it comes to appearance; everything from our eyelashes to our toenails is up for improvement. Men, on the other hand, only really have one major issue: hair.
Of course, men are subject to certain pressures to stay thin, or to bulk up, depending on the current body trends. Men are also required to dress themselves a certain way, hold their bodies a certain way, and purchase certain products to mask their natural smells - just like we do. But while we have makeup and nail polish and a dozen other little things to groom and perfect, most men only feel the need to take care of their hair, both that on their faces and that on their heads.
This is a double-sided issue. In a way, it must be great to have so little to "fix," so little to perfect. However, it also leaves far less room for self-expression. Guyliner is always an option, as is facial piercing, but for the less adventurous (or more conservative) dudes, there is not a lot to play with. Which may be why so many men opt to express themselves through grooming.
But in certain parts of the world, men's hair choices are more than just a way to project individuality - they're also symbolic of a certain political mindset. As detailed in a fascinating piece from The Economist, men's haircuts can sometimes even be dangerous. The Iranian militia recently arrested a man for growing an Afro, arguing that he was paying tribute to the west with his choice of haircut. Though he was allowed to keep his coif, the rulers of the Islamic Republic have begun a crackdown on the more creative looks sported by men. Last month, Iranian authorities issued a list of "approved" haircuts for men, which is made up of mostly short, uncomplicated styles. Anything longer, or fancier, or faux-hawk-ier, is considered "western," and therefore not in line with the Islamic ideals.
Hair further south has to adhere to certain guidelines as well. Beards and mustaches are also subject to state control:
Both in Muslim countries, and in the Muslim diaspora, sporting a bushy beard-often with the upper lip shaven-has become a symbol of piety. Many of the sternest Islamic regimes give men absolutely no choice in the matter. In June Somalia's Islamic militants ordered men in Mogadishu to grow their beards and trim their moustaches. When the Taliban held power in Afghanistan, trimming one's whiskers was outlawed; luxuriant beards flourished everywhere. Secular regimes that govern mainly Muslim populations often ban or strongly discourage beards. But when Saparmurat Niyazov, the late despot of Turkmenistan, ordered young men to shave their goatees, it was not so much an anti-religious measure as a general crackdown on personal freedom of all kinds. It was in a similar spirit that Enver Hoxha, Albania's communist tyrant, outlawed beards (and almost every other show of individualism) in the 1970s.
Men in the U.S. get to avoid a lot of this, but even they're not immune to the pressures of grooming. Like many of our personal choices, beards send a message about the wearer. In some places, a bushy beard is a surefire sign that you own at least one Deerhoof album, while in others, facial growth might be more related to comfort than fashion. Mustaches, too, have become symbolic of certain types of lifestyle. There is the ironic mustache (which now comes with its own tattoo) and there's the porn-star mustache. There's also that mustache boys wear when they first begin to sprout facial hair and (I assume) can't stand the thought of parting with the latest proof of their impending manhood. Some of us love beards, while others fear for they signal a certain untrustworthiness. Even a clean shave sends a certain message, conveys a little something about the wearer and his intentions. For better or worse, styling their hair is perhaps the most significant act of social projection many men will ever perform. And the most unnecessarily complicated. I would say something like welcome to our world, but looking back on all the beards I have known, I think men are aware of the importance of their hair - even if they don't often admit it.