Psychologists in America have interviewed ten male members of the Latter-day Saints Church (i.e. Mormons) who've grown beards despite their church preferring members not to have facial hair. Michael Nielsen and Daryl White argue the stories these men tell provide rich material for exploring issues of social control and individual identity.
In the early years of the LDS church, it was actually common for leaders to wear beards. However, since 1951 when the clean-shaven David McKay became president, the church has urged its members not to wear facial hair, and in some situations (e.g. formal voluntary work in its temples) facial fair is forbidden. Today, the church leadership consider being clean shaven to be associated with purity and devotedness. Moreover, since 1969, Brigham Young University - owned by the LDS church - has formally forbidden its students and staff from having beards (see image on right, taken from the University's webpages, via Wikipedia).
One of the men, Alan, doesn't rule out ever shaving his beard, but says he would have to check with God first: "I'd have to spend some 'knee time' to find out if that's what I was supposed to do. Cause my own heart tells me that ain't so, that I don't need to do that."
Another man, Frank, explains that his beard is central to his identity. "It's me! It's me! I would not be me if I shaved my beard off."
Although he'd worn a mustache for ten years, another interviewee, David, agreed to shave when offered a senior position in the church. "I'd probably still have a mustache," he said. "I might still have it, but I decided not to create any friction with the leaders here."
The researchers say these cases show men attempting to manage "contradictory senses of self".
"Faced with unnecessarily invasive requests to shave, requests that sometimes took the shape of ultimatums, some men expressed resentment at having to choose between a mere show of compliance and deeply felt, even intimate identities: discomfort, embarrassment, and shame are exchanged for a token show of obedience, with resentment likely to follow."
Michael Nielsen, Daryl White (2008). Men's grooming in the Latter-day Saints Church: A qualitative study of norm violation Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11 (8), 807-825 DOI: 10.1080/13674670802087286
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.