October 5, 1987, Page 00016 The New York Times Archives Boys shaving style.
IT came as a surprise; it usually does. One minute he stood there, in the prime of beard, with a mustache, too. The next minute, not even an upper-lip hair was left standing.
''Men in this country are judged less on their appearance than women are,'' said Ann Weber, a social psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. ''That is why men are thought to owe no one an explanation for changing their appearance, while women are thought to owe everyone an explanation.''
Men are particularly silent on the subject of beards. ''For men, shaving off a beard is one of the few self-centered acts possible in terms of looks,'' said Bonnie Jacobson, the director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change in Manhattan.
Dr. Weber explained: ''Since a man's appearance has little to do with his social value, whether to wear a beard or not is a matter of how he feels about the face staring back at him in the mirror.''
The link between appearance and social worth is double-edged. Because of it, women are expected to experiment with their looks, which gives them more latitude to change hair, clothes, makeup, physique.
''And women can change these things drastically without violating people's perceptions of them as female,'' Dr. Weber said. ''There is little a man can do to vary his appearance without violating people's perceptions of him as male.''
Beard and mustache styles
But a beard is fair game, psychologists say. Dr. Jacobson said it can also be part of an interpersonal game.
''How a person looks when you marry them,'' she said, ''is almost a part of the marriage contract that says this is the person I am marrying.'' For a man to radically change that look might mean ''negating'' his partner and her influence on him.
While men may feel no need to consult their partners about growing or shaving a beard, Dr. Weber noted that consulting could prevent partners from misconstruing what the new look means.
''After all, shaving off a beard can mean many things,'' she said, ''from 'It makes me feel hot and bothered,' to 'I'm angry at you and am intentionally doing something you won't like.' ''
A man who shaves off his beard might want to look youthful, more voguish or more professional. A man who grows a beard might want to look more mature or signal that he's survived a rite of passage.
''Almost every man in my graduate school class grew a beard when he received his degree,'' Dr. Weber said.
Less predictable are women's reaction to a man's growing or dispensing with a beard.
''I consider my husband's growing a beard or shaving it off tantamount to me changing clothes or hair styles,'' said Holly McNeely, a designer who lives in Brooklyn.
Her husband, Joseph Poindexter, grew a full beard while on a mountain-climbing expedition in the Soviet Union in 1976, then shaved it off while vacationing in Jamaica in 1979.
''Had he asked me about it,'' Ms. McNeely said, ''I would have told him I like the variety.''
So does Elizabeth Avitabile of Smithtown, L.I., who raises white German shepherds.
''John can wear a full beard, a beard and no mustache, a mustache and no beard, or he can go cleanshaven - any number of combinations, just as women might vary their hair,'' Mrs. Avitabile said.
Short beard ideas
''It could be titillating in a way,'' Dr. Jacobson said, ''like having more than one partner while staying within the bounds of the marriage contract.''
A man's beard can also connote a scholarly nature or, in the case of Wendy Pesky and her husband, Alan, rusticity.
''We take lots of outdoor adventure-type trips, rafting expeditions, climbing and such,'' said Mrs. Pesky, the vice president of creative services at Parfums Stern, a fragrance company in Manhattan. ''He grows a beard on the trip, then keeps it for a few weeks afterward. It's as if once the beard is gone, the adventure is really over.''
The beard gives her husband an outdoorsy feeling, she added, ''and it seems to help his transition back to the coat-and-tie world.'' Why shave it off, then? ''Because after four weeks, it's time for the adventure to be over,'' Mrs. Pesky said, adding, ''Besides, I like to see his face.''