'Brotherhood of the beard': Inside online beard culture with a professor who studied it

When Chris Schneider got a divorce, he grew a beard to keep people away. Instead, it led him to a supportive online community of beard-lovers.

Brandon University associate professor Chris Schneider wrote a research paper on online beard culture

Chris Schneider, an associate professor of sociology at Brandon University, said he sought out a popular beard-related channel on Youtube and found a whole culture of supportive beard-lovers. (Submitted by Chris Schneider)

When Chris Schneider got a divorce, he grew a beard to keep people away.

Instead, it drew strangers to him: fellow beard-owners exchanging tips for upkeep, or people striking up beard-related conversations or even asking to touch it. At one point, it even helped him meet a favourite musician with a similar look.

It also led him to a supportive online community of beard-lovers, celebrating each other's growth (literally) and sharing advice.

Earlier this week, the associate professor of sociology at Brandon University published a paper on the community. His article, which surveyed more than 60,000 comments left by users on the Beardbrand Youtube channel, was published online by the peer-reviewed Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies research journal.

On Wednesday, Schneider spoke to Ismaila Alfa on CBC Mantoba's Up to Speed to comb through some of his findings about modern beard culture on social media.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ismaila Alfa: I never knew the social aspect of beards existed until I grew a beard myself, and somebody stopped me and said, hey, that's a great beard. … What do you mean when you talk about beard culture?

Chris Schneider: It's exactly what you described. I got divorced, I grew a beard out. I didn't think much of it until people started talking to me, stopping me in the street and asking questions, asking if they can touch me — touch my beard, that is. I had a few people touch my face without asking my permission. Very weird.

So I started, wondering were other people having these conversations? I just started and went online. Some of the research I do, I look at social media in a variety of different things — crime and other areas. I went to Youtube and I just started searching, and I searched for the most popular Youtube channel in relation to beards. And I found a whole culture of men online that regularly discuss their beards — tips on growing, how to groom it, what sort of oils to use.

Schneider said the comments he surveyed were largely focused on supporting community members, not misogyny or toxic masculinity — although he encountered a small amount of that, too. (Submitted by Chris Schneider)

Of course, growing a beard on one's face is a very intimate act that one does with one's own self. But the meanings behind beards, of course, are social, and they've meant different things across social and political and, you know, religious boundaries throughout … all recorded human history.

The new aspect here, the new development, is how people on social media are talking about this.

Growing a beard is a solitary thing. You do it on your own. Why do you think it's become such a social thing?

The current trend is not attached to a specific generation or a specific counter-culture or even a specific religion. To be clear, beards exist in those spaces. So one-percenter motorcycle gangs still grow beards. People with various religions still grow beards.

That said, I think that it exists because it's a demonstration — at least, this is how it's discussed online — of a person, of a man, being his own self and growing a beard out and not being what some people have called online sort of a corporate shill. In that, you know, my employers not going to tell me what it is I got to do. I'm going to grow a beard because that's what I want to do. This is how I'm going to express myself. It really connects to individual aspects of expression.

I heard a story that your beard opened a door for you to meet somebody that you really wanted to meet.

Yes. This was a bass player [John Campbell] who was associated with a heavy metal band called Lamb of God.

Time and time again, when I'm in public or I go to heavy metal concerts, people will literally confuse me with the bass player of that band.

Chris Schneider, right, poses with John Campbell, the bassist from heavy metal band Lamb of God. Schneider said Campbell agreed to meet for a photo after Schneider pointed out their beards are dö​ppelgangers. (Submitted by Chris Schneider)

The beard's very similar, so it's sort of a beard dö​ppelganger, as it were. And I sent him an unsolicited note on social media, 'Hey, can we get together and take a beard dö​ppelganger picture after your concert?' And he responded, and he met me and we talked about beards and took a picture.

And you don't think you'd have been able to meet him without your beard?

No, I don't think so. I mean, there's no real other reason. He doesn't know me, still doesn't know me. … I could be anybody. But we talked about our beards and grooming practices.

This is the social aspect I heard referred to once as the brotherhood of the beard. Other men will want to ask you questions. I get male cat calls while walking down the street — people will yell at me across the street, 'Hey, nice beard.' It's really interesting. It's fantastic.

The communication and social parts of having this beard sounds good. But having a beard is considered by many [to be] very macho. It's a very manly, masculine thing to have. How does it fit in with the issue of toxic masculinity and misogyny?

I collected over 60,000 posts from the Beardbrand Youtube channel, and it's largely about celebrating masculinity in terms of being positive and embracing one another. It's a space where men can compliment one another without homophobia being present, and men just generally being nice to each other and sharing stories.

It's a place to celebrate masculinity that's not harmful, gross, toxic, misogynistic. Unlike, for example, other groups we've been hearing about, like the Proud Boys or incel and men associated with these hateful groups and misogyny. We find the exact opposite happening.

To be clear, there were a couple of misogynistic posts that I looked at here and there that I looked at on the BeardBrand Youtube channel.

But largely it's about embracing what you can grow and celebrating other men and encouraging other men. And it was really sort of nice to see all of that.

With files from Ismaila Alfa, Aviva Jacob and CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed


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